Cliffside: The Town That WAS
Cliffside was a small mill village started in 1901 in Rutherford County by Raleigh Rutherford Haynes. The town and the mill were both owned and operated by the Haynes family and later by the Cones of New York.
All the houses were white frame houses except one brick house that was downtown across from the mill offices. If you go through Cliffside now, you wonder what happened and where did the town go? The people are gone, the houses are gone and most of the businesses are gone; but the town lives on in the hearts of the people who lived there during the town’s hey-day. I was born and reared in Cliffside during this time. I had no idea how many houses there were back then so I went to the computer and found a list from 1935. At that time there were 32 streets listed and almost 450 houses and that did not include the streets of Bunker Hill and White Line. These were the streets where most of the blacks lived. You might think it strange that the blacks lived on a street with the name of White Line. I was always told the street was named back when the black ladies did most of the town’s washing.
The town’s smallest house had two rooms; the largest, listed as a hotel, had 24 rooms. Several had from 7 to 11 rooms. These were occupied by the mill officials and the two preachers. There was one 13-room house that we kids called “the big house at the roller mill.” This was divided into apartments and usually housed from three to four families. The biggest majority of the houses had 4 to 6 rooms.
We lived in a 4-room house with a bath and my grandparents lived across town in a 6-room house with an outhouse. Probably three fourths or more of the houses in town had an outhouse, I was just lucky we always had a bath. I kept the road hot going back and forth to my Grandma’s house. In the summer when school was out, I probably made the trip five or six times a day. I started my fitness program out early in life. Occasionally I got to ride my brother’s bike but most of the time I walked.
The rent was charged by the week-fifty cents per room, twenty-five cents extra for a bath and twenty-five cents extra for a car shed. My Dad’s rent was $2.50 and my Grandpa’s was $3.25. Most all the houses had a car shed and sometimes a double. The doubles were occasionally shared by two families. The house Buddy [Houser] and I started housekeeping in had a car shed with a utility room on the side-we were “way up town.” I don’t know if this word car shed is a Southern word or a Cliffside word. A Yankee friend of ours when Buddy was in service told us it was not a car shed, it was a garage. I remember Buddy’s answer. He said, “When I put my car in the garage there is something wrong with it.”
Some of the 4-room houses were called “shotgun houses” because of the floor plan. Buddy and I lived in one of these. It had a long hall that led straight back to the bathroom. Two doors led off the hall, one to the living room and one to a bedroom. Then there was another little hall that led to another bedroom and to the kitchen. Since the bathroom was way from the heat, it was C-O-L-D in the winter. One winter it got so cold one of the spigots to the lavatory froze and almost pulled away from the wall. We had a gas heater in there but only lit it when we were taking a bath. Our first winter there, Buddy talked me into “warming the seat” for him. The young, naive bride that I was, I did it for him. When he bragged to his parents what I had done, I was totally embarrassed. That put an end to the “seat warming.”
The mill owned all the houses and also furnished power and water. There was no charge for the water and only a minimal fee for the power. My Dad had taught my little dog to grab and shake his pants legs in fun. Mr. [Leonard] Rhymer, the man who read the meter, undoubtedly had kicked at Poochie and she would grab his pants legs as soon as he got on the front porch and start shaking—but she wasn’t shaking in fun, she meant business. Mr. Rhymer was always complaining to my Dad about this.
You had to have a good reputation to live in town. If someone got into a lot of trouble with the law, they could be asked to move. Crime was a no-no. People very seldom locked their doors. Sometime they might latch their screen doors at night. Back when I was growing up, I would say that Cliffside was the most self-contained small town in the South or maybe anywhere. Besides the mill, there were two grocery stores, a drug store with a snack bar, a garage and service station, two doctors, two dentists, two barber shops, two beauty shops, a bowling alley with a snack bar, a cafe, a Purina feed store, a shoe shop, a bank, a skating rink, and a band house and park. The dry goods store (which I think was originally the company store) could have put Belks to shame. They carried the best of clothes, the best of shoes, and also household goods. At Christmas they had a toyshop in the basement. All us kids could hardly wait for the toyshop to open each year. The toys were all tried out long before anyone ever bought them. There was also a towel shop, a hardware store, a furniture store, an ice plant, a roller mill (in case you are not familiar with this, it is a corn mill}, a funeral home, a teachers home that was provided for the single teachers, a laundry and drycleaners and later an automatic washer room.
We had a cannery that was open during the summer months when the peaches and gardens were coming in. The mill paid Mr. [D. H.] Huss, one of the high school teachers, to run it with the help of a few teenage boys. It was used by the people in Cliffside and also by people from other towns. My Mom always prepared her stuff at home, but lot of the country people prepared their tomatoes right there at the cannery. There were huge vats of boiling water they could put their tomatoes in to get them ready to peel. The only charge was a few cents for each can.
The summer my Dad was in the Navy, Mama sent my brother Harold out to the cannery with a pot of tomatoes. When he had not returned by lunch. Mama sent me out to check on him. We lived only a few houses from the cannery. No one had seen Harold, but the pot of tomatoes was there. The mill used to open the gates at the dam and “draw the pond” as they called it; well that was going on that day, Sometime after lunch, here came Harold out the road, muddy as he could be, carrying a little string of fish. He was as proud as a peacock. It upset my Mom so thinking what could have happened to Harold since he was such a little boy. Ordinarily only grown men got in the pond since the water was so deep and swift when the gates were open. Mama whipped Harold so hard that I even cried. To put the icing on the cake, Mama made him take a bath and go back and can the tomatoes.
There were three churches in town, a Baptist, a Methodist, and a black church. Before my time there was even a Presbyterian church. There was a very modern three-story school for the whites, which is still there. It is only a grammar school today. The school had a fine gymnasium with the home economics department on one side of the gym and a wood shop for the boys on the other side. The school had an up to date lunchroom that served balanced meals, not the pizza and hot dogs they serve today. I still remember Wednesday’s menu. It was homemade vegetable soup, pimento cheese sandwiches, honey balls and always milk to drink.
You started the first grade out on the main floor, right down the hall from the principal’s office. You could hear Mr. [H. C.] Beatty bellow out all the way down the hall if someone was misbehaving. You stayed on that floor through most of the grammar grades, and then you graduated to the basement for the sixth and seventh grades. The lunchroom and the restrooms were in the basement also. When you reached the eighth grade you got to go to the top floor where you stayed until you graduated. The top floor also housed the library where we had study hall. I went all twelve grades to that school and graduated there. You can see why the kids from Cliffside have stayed so close through the years after spending twelve long years together in school.
I never hear “Under The Double Eagle” played that I don’t think of Miss Christy playing it on the piano for us to march into the auditorium for chapel, or see a yellow-back songbook that I don’t think of her. A few years ago I found one of those old songbooks at a flea market and I was as proud of it as if I had found the Hope diamond.
Downtown there was the Memorial Building. This had an apartment for the couple that took care of it. The building also served as a hotel for visitors to Cliffside. It also housed the library and the movie theater where Earl Owensby got his start in the movie industry. By the way, this theater was one, if not the only one, where as you walked in you were not facing the screen. If the movie had already started, you had to walk backwards to your seat so you would not miss any of the movie. There was a big room connected to the library that had checker tables. A lot of the men who worked the second shift would come to town right after lunch and play checkers until work time. The building had a public shower house. Some of the boys in town, especially if they had a hot date and did not have a bathroom, would come in for a shower. Upstairs there were meeting rooms, some with kitchens. When my Mom was in high school (before the gym was built) the girls came down town for home economics. Back then the gymnasium in the basement was also used by the school. It even had machines equal to the YMCA’s today. On top of the Memorial Building was a four-sided town clock that struck on the hour and chimed every fifteen minutes. On many a night I would lie awake just to see if the clock was going to strike or chime. Today the very top of the town clock is situated on another lot in town, even though the Memorial Building has long been gone.
I mentioned earlier that the mill furnished the water for the town, but I did not say where the water came from. It was filtered water from the Broad River that ran through Cliffside. The mill had its own filtering plant. It was always a standard joke that Cliffside kids were raised on waste from all the little towns on up the river. There was also an artesian sulfur well down in the section of town called Goforth Flat where Buddy grew up. After we were married he was always going down there in the summer time to get a drink of that cold water. I always wondered how anyone could drink that water, it smelled so bad. Buddy always said, “You’re supposed to drink it, not smell it,” but I could never seem to get it beyond my nose. Lots of people with stomach problems were advised by their doctors to drink the sulfur water.
There was a big town cemetery for the whites and there was also a black cemetery. The black cemetery was right next to the black school. The town had its own post office and since everyone knew everyone else, there was no problem with getting your mail even if the address was wrong. I can remember my Mom and Dad getting a Christmas card from an old lady from Ellenboro one year and all she had on the envelope was “Phate and Elaine, Cliffside.” She had my Dad’s name wrong as it was Fate, she had no last name, no box number and no state, but they got it anyway. When I was small I had no problem remembering our box number as it was 221 and the highway that ran through Cliffside was 221-A.
When I was growing up in Cliffside, if your name was Dover it was 99.9 percent sure you were black and if was Macopson it was 100 percent sure. I moved away from Cliffside over thirty years ago, but I have kept a post office box just to get the mail I did not want to come out on the route at home. A few years ago when they did not have a regular postmaster, I got a letter in my box to a Macopson. I took the letter around to the young girl at the window. I said, “This is not mine.” She wanted to know if that was my name. I looked at her and grinned and then I said, “I don’t know where you are from, but I know it’s not Cliffside. You can look at me and tell I’m not a Macopson.”
The town also had its own telephone company with a central office. You did not have to know the number of the person you were calling. Callie, Pearl or whoever was running the switchboard could put you through even if you said you wanted your Grandmas or Aunt Mae’s house.
You could have chickens or any small animals you wanted, but you were not supposed to have a dog. My Dad broke the rules and always let us have a dog, but he took a lot of flack from the mill officials because of this. My brother had a morning paper route and one morning he found a dead ‘possum that had been run over up on Main Street. The baby ‘possums were still alive in her pouch. He brought them home and put them in the car shed, because he knew that Daddy never did deprive us of any pets we wanted. When my Mom found out where we were taking the food we were carrying from the house, the baby ‘possums had to go. There was no need to go begging to Daddy to let us keep them; we knew she meant business.
Besides providing places for entertainment for the kids, the mill also provided places where we learned respect and the values of life. They provided a Boy Scout Hut and also a place downtown served as a Girl Scout Hut.
Cliffside had its own railroad company. It was originally a passenger train, but I only remember it carrying supplies in and out of the mill. We lived right beside the railroad track. Whatever my brother did, I thought I could do also. I could climb that ladder to the top of a boxcar like a monkey, but when I got on top I was afraid to turn around and come back down. Sometimes my Dad had to coax me to get me to come back down the ladder.
There were two buses that came through town, the bus that ran from Spartanburg to Asheville and the little dinky bus that ran from Forest City to Shelby. There were also four or five taxi drivers and they all stayed pretty busy. If you lived on the mill hill you had to walk to school, only the country kids got to ride the school buses. If you lived on the far side of River Street or Shelby Highway, you were in for a long walk. Some parents paid the taxi drivers to take their kids to school especially in bad weather. There were a lot of families that never owned a car. We always had a car, but most of our neighbors did not. Everything was in walking distance. If these families did need to go out of town, they would bum a ride or take a taxi or the bus. There were several grocery stores and a dairy outside of town that sent someone to your house to take orders and then delivered. My Grandpa always had a car, but my Grandma got most of her groceries from one of these grocery stores. Occasionally she might send one of us kids to town for something, but most of her groceries were delivered right to the door.
Before my time Cliffside also had a cotton gin, a dairy farm and a bottling company and maybe some other businesses I am not aware of.
Now that is the story of my hometown: Cliffside, the town that WAS—and I’m proud to say that is where I grew up.
Frances, daughter of the late Fate and Elaine McMurray and widow of Buddy Ray Houser, lives near Shelby, N. C. She wrote this essay for the county-wide Silver Arts competition at her senior center and took third prize. (Family photos courtesy the author.)