Editor’s Note: Reader Diary is an occasional feature column penned by area readers. If you’d like to participate by sharing a particular memory you have of Pilot Mountain, or a bit of local history, please contact John Peters at [email protected] Here, Stephen Harris shares his memories of the Chatham mill, where thousands Surry County residents worked, even though the facility was in Elkin.
Once upon a time the best way to get to Winston-Salem from here was by N.C. 67, the Winston Road, through Boonville and finally along elegant Reynolda Road on this side of downtown Winston.
In those times before the four-lane highways, the trips back from the doctor always seemed longer and demanding. The ups and downs of 67’s hills tended to make a little boy impatient and carsick.
But finally we’d get back to Jonesville and make the curve towards the south entrance to the old Chatham bridge. (Newcomers can see a mural of the bridge on Standard Street in Elkin.) The truss on the bridge’s Jonesville side welcomed us back home.
Then once on the bridge, off to the right and across the river stood the welcoming, majestic Chatham mill, with the large Chatham Blankets sign on the roof, beckoning like the Sirens. During Christmastime, lights on the roof strung as if on a tree served as an added treat.
What a magnificent sight. The Chatham mill was the hometown’s Parthenon, our U.S. Capitol sitting high and mighty on a hill. It was the heart of Elkin.
Most everybody worked there or knew someone who did. More than 3,000 at a time made their living at the mill, enough to fill the rest of Elkin.
My father made about 10,500 long walks (over 42 years) up that steep Chatham hill from the parking lots to the four-story mill and to the third-floor spinning department. He put in time in all three shifts.
When he worked the daytime shift, and Mom needed our only car — a white 1959 Impala followed by a black ‘63 model, both from the old Bill Davidson Chevrolet — she’d drop him off at the mill and come back for him in the afternoon.
As a kid I’d sit in the back seat in one of the parking-lot rows, wait for 4 o’clock, listen to the clack-clack-clacking of the machinery inside and gaze up at the towering, imposing brick facade and wonder just what was going on inside.
What was inside was the premiere maker of automotive upholstery in the country. The more-famous blanket operation had moved uphill and out of sight by that time but earlier, during the world wars, Chatham blankets traveled the world with the troops.
Elkin picked up the nickname Blanket City, repeated in CB and other conversations throughout the region.
Thus it is with some emotion that many of us see the old Chatham main mill building coming down, brick by brick, girder by girder. The fourth and third floors are hollowed out, the torn-out windows like eyeholes in a skull.
There should be a town-wide memorial service or something. The mill was Elkin and Elkin was the mill.
People didn’t just work there. They grew there, made friends, broke bread, met future spouses, swapped stories, played pranks. Their children and grandchildren followed in their forebears’ footsteps. They played ball there and danced the night away there and enjoyed a novel Elkin style of life, a good life.
But the disastrous decline of the Southern textile industry caught up Chatham and Elkin in its sweep, and the company passed from the Chatham family in 1988. A succession of new owners changed the business but left intact the hallowed structures, reminiscent of a memorial. Until now.
New business demanded change that is bringing down the prominent main mill building that was Elkin’s beacon on a hill.
It feels as if we’re witnessing a funeral. Let us bow our heads and say a prayer and remember our departing loved one. Gone but not forgotten.
Speaking of history: Last July I wrote on this page of great 1916 Flood that was so prominent in the history of our region. This month a traveling state history exhibit, “So Great The Devastation,” is at the Elkin Public Library. Previously in Statesville, the exhibit includes an Elkin photo that I’ve never seen before. Apparently taken from the roof of the downtown bank building now occupied by Wells Fargo, the photo’s birds-eye view shows people gathered on South Bridge Street and watching Yadkin River floodwater that had reached the back of the Southern on Main building known for many decades for Casstevens Hardware. The exhibit next goes to New River State Park in Ashe County for the final stop on its year-long tour in observance of the flood’s centennial. Check it out before it leaves.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
Back In The Hometown