Remembering Cliffside….In The Old Days
How many of us who lived and worked in the little town of Cliffside in the old days, or were born and raised there, can summons those memories without a good measure of nostalgia? Very few, I would wager.
Cliffside was not only the home of one of the largest textile mills in the South, but also boasted a magnetic charm all its very own. A special charm no other town its size could claim. Many who left Cliffside to seek employment elsewhere, would sooner or later return again for reasons unknown. One but has to talk to Cliffside’s old timers to document this statement.
My first introduction to Cliffside in retrospect, goes all the way back to the mid 1930’s. My uncle would load all us kids into his 1936 chevy for a Sunday afternoon drive. One nice and sunny Sunday he announced: “Today we visit a little town where houses and other buildings are built under the bridges.” Needless to say what our reaction was. Upon our arrival in Cliffside, my uncle drove slowly across the bridge that linked Shelby Highway with 221A, Cliffside’s main street. Lo and behold, here was a house with red roofing tucked under the edge of the bridge. I could have stood at the bridge railing and tossed a marble down the chimney without half trying. There was a blacksmith shop, and numerous other structures, all built under the bridges! This was amazing!
Living in Shelby, N.C. at the time, I never once dreamed that this little town would one day be my home.
My uncle parked his car just off the end of the bridge under a giant oak tree. This massive masterpiece of nature was one of Cliffside’s main features in the old days. Here in the shade of this great oak, men would gather like cats at a fish fry just to sit along the rock wall and swap stories. No doubt in this popular spot, no less than a million fish tales were badly bent out of contour. There never seemed to be a moment when this spot was not occupied. Sad to say, this grand oak does not exist today.
There were a number of days that finding a parking space in Cliffside was indeed a chore. To cite a few: The day of the “Drawing of the old mill dam.” This day was festive to say the very least. On this day, folk would come for miles to harvest the abundant crop of fish that would cascade from the open mill dam. Onlookers would crowd and jam the bridge railings on both sides yelling and pointing at the big carp and catfish spilling from the gateway. The action below was tense and exciting. I recall one mill employee getting himself trapped against the bridge column, the swift muddy water up to his arm pits. Luckily eager volunteers came to his rescue. I wonder how many, other than myself, can remember this man by name.
Then, there was the canning season of mid-summer. Cliffside was the home of the largest cannery in the county. On those days, walking through town was like squeezing down the midway at the fair grounds. Once my Grandfather had to park his model “A” all the way back to Hawkins Feed Store. But the peaches, beans, tomatoes and blackberries always got put up in shiny tin cans.
Almost any commodity that was sold in the county could be bought in Cliffside. There was the Hawkins Hardware, where my dad bought a .22 rifle for $11.00 in 1947. Jackson’s Dept. Store sold everything from shoe laces to three-piece suits. Adjacent to Jackson’s, was Hamrick’s Super Market. Here, you could get your chicken fresh plucked on the spot. Then, there was Mills’ Drugstore where three scoops of ice cream sold for 15 cents. And a cherry smash cost a nickel. That was Cliffside in the old days.
In the late 1940’s and 1950’s the scenario changed but little. Cliffside was a diamond in the rough, a town that would endure into everlasting. Most of its old timers held to their faith that this quaint setting would never fall victim to the wrecking ball. But today’s observations only prove that no place can endure from sheer likelihood.
Would we dare speak of Cliffside with out mentioning its two barber shops? These were called twin barber shops, side by side. One proprietor, Rob Sparks, was the town’s clown. His sense of humor never ceased to keep his customers in dire stitches. In addition to the laughs, one could wait his turn in the shoe-shine corner for the barber chair. And you could bet on the best shine two bits could buy. Cliffside had its share of barbers: There was, other than Rob Sparks, Pick Biggerstaff, Harry Blackwell, Hubert Randall. All of these fine barbers were an education in themselves. You could get the latest on sports, politics, weather, obituaries, you name it. These barbers were Cliffside’s Almanac. A trip to the barber shop was a must on Saturday.
Don’t we, with a little sadness, recall the old R.R. Haynes Memorial Building? This historic edifice housed a movie theater, a library, and a spacious room where checker board tables were abundant. Both young and old would spend their leisure hours reading and crowning kings. I recall the old WWI machine gun that faced the doorway, keeping a tight vigil on all who would dare enter. How I wonder of its whereabouts today. In the back corner of the library, a stuffed mounted eagle watched your every move with immortal eyes. That same work of art still exists in the conference room at the Cliffside weave plant.
At the front entrance to the Memorial Building was a 2-inch galvanized pipe guard rail. It guarded against a 12-foot drop to the concrete below. Cliffside’s ”bull shooters” would sit along this rail waiting for shift-change at the mill, or just doing nothing at all. They would whine about how the Government was sucking the country down the tubes, and how the plants curtailment was making it hard to keep grub on the table. A two- or three-day week operation was common in those days. This “rail sitting” by the towns “fat chewers” came to be known as “shining the rail.” I trust that many of these old “rail shiners” are still around today. God bless them.
To further boast, Cliffside was all the surrounding towns rolled into one small package. There was, other than the afore named, a beauty shop, sign painting shop, dry cleaner, bank, post office, washerette, dentist, clinic, furniture store, funeral home, et al. and, last but not least, a cafe/bowling alley, my favorite spot. Here you could get the best deviled egg sandwich on earth. And it was here that the soft drink Sun Drop was introduced in the 1960s. All you could drink in one setting free. I downed six glass bottles in two hours. As I recall, I sloshed on my way home.
Remember the old bowling balls not much larger than a soft ball? And the pin setters, mostly teen age boys, would chow down on a hamburger with one hand, and set up pins with the other? Those were the days, this was Cliffside.
Another favored spot was the grassy embankment that bordered the Methodist Church parking lot, overlooking the mill dam, and a good view of River Street. We kids would lie on this slope waiting for the theater to open, or just watching the traffic go by. Those days have slipped away along with the others.
Cliffside had a convoy of taxi cabs. I still remember a few of the drivers by name: There was Spur Campbell, James Callahan, Jackson Scruggs, et al. These faithful drivers would gladly take you home after a hard day at the mill for a mere 50 cents. A back seat full of groceries included.
To visit Cliffside in the old days with a single dollar in your pocket meant you could do the town in style. Take in a movie, buy popcorn, candy, drink and a double scoop at Mills Drug Store, and still have a jingle in your jeans. Where have all the good days gone? Gone to progress, every one.
Who gave Cliffside its name remains a mystery to me. Why it was named thus certainly does not. A drop-off, a drop-off, everywhere a drop-off. Hence, the reason for Cliffside’s many guard rails. Even today, employees at the yarn prep, after 12-hour rest, enter the plant down-hill. Then after a 12-hour grind exit the plant up hill. In the old days, I saw many employees at the finishing dept. pause at the old town fountain to catch a second wind just to make it to the parking lot. Something tells me this should be the other way around. But that’s Cliffside as it’s always been.
In the days of yore, Cliffside rolled up its streets after 9:00pm. Only the cafe/bowling alley and taxi service continues to function. Halloween night was the exception to the town’s otherwise peaceful adjustment. “Trick or treat” was virtually unheard of. Instead, Main Street as well as other streets became the center of chaos. Trash cans in the form of 50-gallon drums would rumble down the steep grades, belching all manner of trash out the top as they came. A street called “Mud Cut” seemed to be the towns steepest grade. It was here that most trash can activities were concentrated. Also, I might add that several “out houses” that could not be pushed over, were left in a most precarious position. The day after left Cliffside’s residents collecting trash and retrieving steel drums three blocks away. To add to the problem, porch chairs would be found hanging from tree limbs and utility poles. But compared to today’s vandal practices, this was trivial. They were days we would gladly live over.
To my knowledge, Cliffside in the old days had no connection with drug abuse of any tenure. About the only problem was some old timer who had had one too may “Buds” on a weekend and took a swan dive backward off a rock wall or guard rail. None of which disturbed the local funeral home’s coffee break. Cliffside of old, don’t we remember you?
Cliffside of yesterday also claimed ownership to one of nature’s rare contributions to medicinal health: A Lithia Springs. Or, as most called it, “the old sulfur well.” Folk who believed in its healing properties would come from everywhere and fill their jars and jugs. Some even claimed this rotten-egg-tasting water would cure diabetes and arthritis. This old well was buried under tons of dirt when the new section to highway 221A was paved in the late 1950s. Here, I must take a bow, for I rediscovered this sulfur well after an extensive search and a lot-o-sniffin’. I placed a length of clay pipe over the spot where the water was bubbling up. I waited until it over-flowed at the top of the pipe. As far as I know, this old well is still active today. I can point out its location in a minute.
In the 1950s many textile plants all but closed their doors to recession, while Cliffside continued to grind its gears to produce the best terry cloth money would buy. I recall a take home pay of $21.00 per week. That was 40 years ago. To this day I can testify that in those times of hardship, I never missed a payday however small. Cliffside has never folded under hard times, and never will. Cliffside today is a highly advanced carbon copy of the “old” Cliffside. For, by prudent planning and having the resources to push aside any object that stands in the way of progress, Cliffside has managed to maintain a firm foothold on consumer demand, even when the going was rough. As proof of this, can we deny that denim is forever?
Do we as Cliffside’s old timers find it hard to accept the changes that have come about? Indeed we do, but scenes change, pages turn, nothing stays the same. Cliffside as we knew it is gone forever. Our little town has succumbed to the merciless crunch of the bulldozer blade. Our tracks have been covered by asphalt and concrete. The old town clock in desecration still chimes the hour, faithfully but sad. This is Cliffside today.
Someone once said, “you can’t go home again.” In the aftermath of diesel-powered machinery, the groan of this little town’s desire to survive can still be heard by its old timers. Carried by the winds of memory, we can still hear the clatter of bowling balls and pins, see the kids with their happy smiles and apple cheeks, crowding in front of the old theater, waiting to watch Sunset Carson, Red Ryder, Bob Steele, The Little Rascals, and the Three Stooges.
At the time of this writing, I took the liberty to drive down to the yarn prep for a good long look. Having been employed as a slasher tender in this section of operation for 20 years, and due to the fact that I had been down to the yarn prep a good many times since, nothing should have been new to me. But there is a vast difference in “looking” at something and actually “seeing” it. After stating my purpose to the gate guard , I drove down the old main street as far as the fencing would allow. I was not shocked at what I saw, only fascinated. Here and there were the remnants of gutted walls, sidewalks overgrown with weeds and grass from disuse, steps without footfalls and the ever present guard rails. All of this did little to re-form a picture of the past. Too much was missing. But these were bits and pieces of what once was, and testimony to the greatest little town ever to emerge from the urban mold of time. We cannot, nor shall we ever forget.
But like it or not, we must accept Cliffside as it is today. Yet a wound that time will never heal. Cliffside had its heyday, but now has been pushed aside to allow space for bigger and better things. For this we must be thankful, for herein lies the industrial future. But let us who claim Cliffside as home look the annals of history squarely in the face and declare that there never was, nor ever shall be, a place on God’s green earth like Cliffside in the “Old Days.”
This essay was reprinted into booklet form in 1997 by Gene Dedmond and presented as Christmas gifts to his family and friends. It was provided to Remember Cliffside by Judy Dedmond Mason.