Rutherford Swapped Farming for Industry
Rutherford Swapped Farming for Industry
By Bill Sharpe
From The State Magazine, August 31, 1963.
Printed with the permission of the publisher.
Rutherford is a Piedmont-Mountain county, largely rural but heavily industrialized by textile enterprises which started around 75 years ago.
It is propped up on the west by the Blue Ridges and on the north by the South Mountains. From these elevations of 4,000 feet, the county slopes steeply toward the South Carolina border. From its rugged northwest boundary, Rutherford unrolls into an attractive land of natural wonders, of history, romance, industry and agriculture.
The flora is as varied as the topography, and includes the decorative wild flowers of the hills, as well as herbs once eagerly sought by “yarbers.”
Heavily lumbered, it still contains valuable forest resources. It has minerals, too. It was in the gold rush belt, and mica and monazite have been mined, as well as iron ore.
It is well-watered by rivers and creeks, and its climate is surprisingly mild, for it lies in the same isothermal belt which made Tryon a year-around resort. In spite of this favorable weather, agriculture has steadily declined.
Formed in 1779
The county was formed in 1779 after being settled by Scots and ScotchIrish, with a few French, German, Irish and Swiss. Until recent times, the was almost entirely populated by descendants of these pioneers and their near neighbors. Industrialization, however, brought residents from a wider area. The colored population is relatively small (12 per cent), living mostly in the larger towns.
Although there are no large cities, the once farming population has for some years tended to move toward the numerous towns and villages in the south, where factories have located. However, in the center of the county, where main pioneer roads crossed, the three towns of Forest City, Spindale and Rutherfordton together comprise a concentration of nearly 15,000 persons. The northern section is hilly; the old towns there have remained agricultural trade centers.
Visitors entering from the east over US 74 feel that Rutherford shares the physical and economic features of Piedmont Gaston and Cleveland. But those entering from the west classify it with the resort area of the mountain region. This edge of the county, with mountains, streams and a beautiful lake, provides a sheer bonus for industrial Rutherford and add both to the pleasure of living and looking, as well as to the economic resources.
Its human and natural histories fulfill the promise of the varied setting. It has seen Indian fighting and gold rushes; industrial pioneers and gold coiners. It is the land of quaking mountains and bottomless pools and buried treasure; of Tory executions and KKK raids; of Indian demons and white phantoms. For an account of its oddities, go here.
Rutherford’s history may have commenced with DeSoto. For a long time historians assumed he entered the west via Hickory Nut Gorge, but this now seems doubtful. A century later, the Virginia traders, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, may have used the gorge route in their journey to the Overhill Cherokees in 1673.
The first permanent settlers took up land along the larger streams, producing corn, wheat, flax, sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables. Cattle, sheep and hogs were produced, and until the coming of the cotton gin agriculture mostly was of the subsistence type. Forts and stockades were built.
Rutherford was on the Indian frontier when the Revolution came. On the whole, the settlers were Loyalist, but they soon had cause to reconsider their position. Royal Governor Martin inspired Indian raids, and in July, 1776, General Griffin Rutherford informed the safety council that the situation was critical. Rutherford (see page 40) was directed to take an army across the mountains and destroy the Indian towns. He did this with ruthless thoroughness.
One of the county’s first settlements was Gilbert Town, home of William Gilbert, and here British Colonel Ferguson quartered his troops prior to the battle of Kings Mountain.
Gilbert’s home also was the site of the first county court sessions, and other county business, later moved to temporary quarters near present-day Ruth, about two miles from Rutherfordton. Gilbert, incidentally, was one of the wealthiest men in the section.
County Historian Clarence Griffin says that after the war Rutherford had poor markets, bad highways, few schools, depreciated currency – they had “naught but freedom and farm products, manhood and energy.” Farms generally were small and there were few slaves. The court sessions were “educational” institutions – lawyers and judges bringing news of the outside. In 1790, only 164 families owned slaves.
Nevertheless, most people lived cheerfully and courageously, says Griffin. “Church was a relief from loneliness. Families did not scatter widely as they do now, but brothers and sisters settled near one another and helped one another in time of need and took care of their parents cheerfully. Under such conditions the comradeship and affection growing out of family relationship did much to sweeten and enrich life, and are missed by those who move away from such an environment.”
To look at them today, one would never suppose boats could have used Rutherford’s rivers. But they did. Just as early laws required all citizens to give six days of labor to the highways per year, in Rutherford citizens living near the rivers had to donate labor to clean out the river channels. Maintenance was uncertain and unsatisfactory, and only small boats could be used, and even those only in times of flood waters.
Nevertheless, it is said that as late as 1840 small boats loaded with produce were floated over the Broad, First and Second Broad and Green rivers. Their destination was Columbia, South Carolina.
There even was an ambitious attempt to create an inland river port to be known as Burrtown in honor of Aaron Burr. The coming of steam railways and improvement in roads mercifully spared the county of proceeding with what surely would have been an aggravating failure. A similar “town on paper” named Jefferson was created, and also came to naught. With water transportation unfeasible, Rutherford turned in desperation to highway improvement. It already was blessed with three of the major highways in the west – Rutherfordton to Spartanburg; Salisbury to Lincolnton to Rutherfordton; and the Charlotte-Asheville post road, the latter following roughly the route of presentday US 74. Several taverns, half-day’s journey apart, stood on these highways. One was the Harris home, later to become the Logan House, now surviving at Lake Lure.
Road Through Gap
One of the first efforts was to pierce the Blue Ridge through Hickory Nut Gap, a task undertaken around 1825, with help from state funds. Advocates of the route said it was the best possible route to reach the rich over-the-mountain area. Not only that, but they saw, though perhaps dimly, its imponderable potential for pleasure: since it presented to the traveler “bold mountain scenery, which is not surpassed in height, beauty or grandeur in any portion of the Union. It is confidentally hoped,” continued the recommendation, “that the march of improvement will soon declare, that construction of the Hickory Nut Gap Roads, is of great and growing importance to the State.” And so it was to prove, for generations to come.
Era of Progress
Conditions of isolation and stagnation continued after the war of 1812, but better times were ahead. Efforts were made to vary the subsistence farming pattern. Iron ore in the High Shoals section were worked around 1812. Conditions improved in the 1825-1835 decade, partly because of demand for produce by the prosperous east. In this period (1830) Rutherfordton got its first newspaper – The North Carolina Spectator and Western Advertiser, Roswell Elmer, Jr., publisher.
In the same year the Bechtlers came to Rutherfordton and soon began coining gold for miners. It was the time of the gold rush, and outsiders came in to try their luck.
King cotton arrived in splendor and prosperity. From about 1820 to 1860, Rutherfordton grew to become the leading city of the west, a center of activity. It attracted tradesmen, lawyers, doctors and others. It was a golden era of progress.
Rutherford County did not give Lincoln a single vote but was divided on secession. When it came, however, it sent 14 companies and over 1,700 men into the Confederate armies. The surrender found the county in economic ruin, but there was hope and progress until the “radical” national congress imposed reconstruction. Chaos of the worst kind followed. The secret Union League and Red Strings Association were countered by a large and active Ku Klux Klan.
The resulting warfare was bloody and bitter. Military rule followed, but corrupt courts and officials fanned rather than subdued the flames of violence. Hundreds were illegally arrested and imprisoned. Citizens, many of them innocent of any wrongdoing, fled their homes to the west to escape vengeful oppression. Business and commerce were prostrate; life and I property were insecure. The uproar continued until about 1873 when Conservatives regained control of government.
Economic recovery really started with the coming of the railways, followed by the textile industry. The Seaboard arrived in 1887, the Southern in 1890 and the Clinchfield in 1909.
Meantime, Rutherford had discovered its agricultural destiny in cotton, and was producing enormous crops. They suggested cotton mills, and, in 1887, R. R. Haynes built the factory at Henrietta, and six years later constructed Henrietta No. 1 at Caroleen. This pioneer later expanded by establishing the Florence Mills at Forest City in 1897, and in 1900 founded the mill town of Cliffside. Other industrial pioneers included S. B. and K. S. Tanner, and J. F. Alexander. By 1916, six mills were operating in the county with an output valued at $2.5 million. Lumbering had been developed, too. In 1910, 50 sawmills were cutting off the forests, harvesting about 19 million feet annually, mostly pine. Mining for gold, mica and monazite waxed and waned. But on the whole, Rutherford’s economy until quite recent years has been almost exclusively tied to that of the textile industry.
The people had striven in other fields – for churches, schools, and a better community life generally. Pioneer industrialists were social-minded and various programs were instituted to improve the life of the people who flocked into the mill towns from the farms.
Picture of 1918
A good picture of the county at the time of World War I is available. R. E. Price in 1918 while a student at UNC (later editor of the Rutherford County News) declared that Rutherford needed both more people and “more intelligent people.”
“More people,” he said in a monograph graph on the county, “would overcome the lonesomeness of our farm communities, give us better schools, better support for churches, better community co-operation, and a better balanced farm system.” Price listed among other needs more industries and larger towns to supply markets for farmers.
In 1910, only 60 per cent of the county’s white children were attending school; the average teacher was paid only $203 a year, a salary which Price said, “at today’s high cost of living,” would barely “keep body and soul together.”
In 1910, the population was 28,385, of which 4,288 were non-white. The county had only $3.4 per capita investment in white school property in 1915. In 1910, the “census value” of land averaged $21.20 per acre, but it was on the tax books at $5.63.
Price estimated that in 1918 there was room for 2,620 more farm families in the county and they were, he said, badly needed to put idle land in production. There was no town with as many as 2,500 population. Average farm cultivated 29.3 acres; 46 per cent of the farms were cultivated by tenants, and the tenants comprised a total of nearly 6,400 persons whom Price characterized as “landless, homeless, wanderers.” He criticized the cash-crop system – mostly cotton – as impoverishing the people. In 1914, Rutherford produced 13,090 bales of cotton and 4,680 pounds of tobacco. Total annual farm income was $1.8 million. It had 3,447 farms.”
Because of low salaries, Rutherford had a heavy turnover in teaching personnel – “grasshopper teachers” they were called. Salaries for colored teachers were so small that few Negroes could afford the luxury of entering the profession.
All was not bleak, and Price listed some of the assets in 1918. It had a good hospital – one of the few in that area. It had a valuable woodland area, and it was healthy, with a lower death rate than either the state or the nation. It had good water and good climate. The people on the whole were law-abiding, they paid their debts and were industrious. They voted “for progress” and had employed a home demonstration agent; industry was coming in; schools were being consolidated, and the mill towns were undergoing improvement.
In 1908, the county had voted for prohibition; today it remains one of North Carolina’s driest counties. In 1913, it voted for $250,000 in road improvement bonds. The county got a hospital in 1906, established by Drs. Henry Morris and A. H. Biggs of Philadelphia.
The Big Change
The opportunities and problems outlined in Price’s 1918 analysis have had almost constant attention from that day to this, and most of them have changed for the better.
The modern consolidated school system attracts 94 per cent of the school population. Teacher’s salaries have risen from the miserable $203 annually of 1910 to an average of $5,060.55. Some of his other wishes have come true – the county population has risen to 45,091. He has his towns of more than 2,500, and he has an industrial economy, with over 30 manufacturing enterprises employing around 8,000. Altogether 310 Rutherford firms are large enough to come under ESC, and these firms employ 9,361. Per family income has risen to $3,751 annually.
It has good libraries, good roads, three newspapers, two radio stations, banks, parks and playgrounds, modern medical facilities, recreation equipment and other modern advantages.
But some unexpected changes were brought by these improvements. The idle land is still there – some 35,000 acres of it, according to County Farm Agent John A. Crawford. And while the gross annual farm income has grown to $4 million, it is among the lowest in the state; in 1946 it had risen to $14.5 million. The number of farms, instead of increasing, has dropped to around 1,600, and of these only 600 are commercial farms. Cotton acreage which once ran to 40 to 50,000 acres, has dropped to as low as 3,200.
The tenants are gone – moved to towns or out of the county, and the rate of farm tenancy has dropped to 11.5 per cent. While farm leaders admit the county’s rolling and sometimes steep terrain makes it hard to compete with machine-cultivated row-crop farms, they think the county is ideal for pasture lands. Dairying has grown substantially, but beef and swine production would fit better in the pattern of part-time farming. Already, some progress has been made in diversity, with the growing of potatoes, soybeans, pepper, some peaches and hatchery eggs. There are at least 50 grade A dairies.
The neglect of agriculture is all the more puzzling in view of the favorable weather conditions. It enjoys a growing season of 202 days and a well-distributed rainfall of 52.03 inches annually. Farm Agent John Crawford is inclined to blame the human factor; outsiders who have come in to try farming have usually succeeded, he says.
Modern Rutherford presents a paradox. While the population of the towns are increasing – especially that of Forest City – total population of the county in the last decade declined by 2.7 per cent. This indicates an out-migration, and a continued turning away from the farm. In fact, some townships are being slowly depopulated, the land being allowed to revert to forests. The rural-farm population has declined to 9.8 per cent. However, farm leaders believe the low point has been reached and that the obvious advantages of the area will revive agriculture.
First County Club
Dispersion of the population in the past in so many small towns was both a boon and a handicap. In an effort to muster this scattered strength and focus it on county-wide problems, Rutherford pioneered with the first County Club in America. On December 15, 1922, K. S. Tanner and other citizens called a meeting of leaders and organized to discuss county-wide matters, formulate plans, and support progressive programs.
Today Rutherford County has numerous civic organizations, but at that time there were few vehicles for unified action, and the club was an immediate success. The idea was picked up by other counties in North Carolina and soon spread throughout the nation.
The coming of Ruritan, Grange and Farm Bureau organizations and especially gasoline rationing in World War II apparently dissipated most of the others, but Rutherford’s County Club is still going strong. It meets four times yearly, bringing together around 150 leaders representing every community in the county.
Over the years it has been an effective factor in obtaining highways, telephones, better schools, better health facilities, better community living.
One of the old goals of this county – as well as the goal of many another one – has been increase and diversification of enterprise. In 1959, the county voted to use tax funds ($20,000 yearly) for industrial development. Already several new industries have been located, and leaders are encouraged to believe another era of change and growth are at hand. “It is now or never,” remarked one Forest City man, cautiously observing the growth of his community.
For Living Purposes
There also is belief that this section will attract retired people and commuters. Citizens consider their location excellent for many phases of living. The nearest big town is Spartanburg, and this shares Rutherford trade and interest with Charlotte and Asheville. Not only that, but Rutherford youngsters find educational institutions nearby – Wofford, Converse, Asheville – Biltmore, and GardnerWebb, over in Cleveland. Some students commute to this college. And for convenient recreation, the predominantly vacation counties (with all their facilities) of Polk, Henderson and Buncombe are next-door neighbors. This in addition to the county’s own resort of Chimney Rock-Lake Lure.
Rutherford people use this area like their own private park. They can reach it from all parts of the county without crossing the mountains, and thousands of them do so. The more well-to-do have cottages on the lake shore where they spend week ends and entertain. Others have boats they haul to the lake; still others use the lake as a fishing and swimming hole; and families of all economic classes utilize the area for picnicking, motoring, sight-seeing and “just going somewhere.”
Fundamentally Rutherford has no serious handicaps; fundamentally it bursts with advantages, natural and man-made. An outsider who has observed many counties is even more optimistic about its future than residents are.