Travel

Belmont

  • By Leigh Ann Henion
  • Photography by Peter Taylor
  • Illustration by Steven Noble

In its textiles and deeply religious college, it is a town connected to the past. In its trendy downtown and new commuter resident base, it is clearly ready for the future.

Belmont NC

Davis Warlick is a third-generation yarn man. What, exactly, is a yarn man? Warlick actually has a hard time explaining. When he meets new people, it’s often difficult for them to grasp what he does for a living as manager of Parkdale Mills Plant 15 in Belmont, the last surviving cotton mill in a town that once had more than a dozen operations. Sometimes, people ask, “Oh, you make the yarn my grandma knits with?” To that, he shakes his head and replies, “No, the yarn in your T-shirt. The yarn on the back of a Band-Aid. The yarn you’re wearing all over!”

Warlick began his textile career sweeping floors as a teenager, just as his grandfather and father before him. He went on to earn a business degree from the University of Georgia before taking an internship in finance. When he finished school, he received a job offer in business but realized that he didn’t want to follow his business school classmates to Wall Street. He wanted to go home.

“My heart and passion is in yarn. I love working in these mills,” he says. “I really do think it’s something in my blood.”

Belmont is known as “The City of Diversified Textiles.” It is a city where textiles are still surviving. It is a city that, while eager and ready for the future, won’t concede this piece of its past, even after local giant R.L. Stowe shut down its two remaining plants in 2009.

“A lot of people around town say textiles are something of the past, but there’s still a plant here, a very profitable plant,” Warlick says. “Textiles are not dead here in Belmont. … There’s a brand new sign marking the City of Belmont and it’s got two yarn cones on it. Everybody respects that heritage.”

Life of a lint head

Warlick makes his daily rounds by starting in the mill’s receiving warehouse, where he is greeted by a slightly sweet, unmistakably earthy scent. He tugs on the corner of a bale and talks about the properties of cotton with an enthusiasm some reserve for fine wine. As he continues through the plant, he greets employees with high fives and handshakes that turn into hugs. These people are his fellow lint heads, an old-timey term used to describe textile workers and one that Warlick brings up often when referring to himself. In addition to being historically accurate, it’s also literal. “Sometimes, I’ll be sitting at home on the couch, and I’ll feel the back of my head and find a piece of cotton,” Warlick says.

In the opening room, where employees clean, open, and blend cotton fibers, Warlick greets Bobby Kelly with a pat on the back, and they begin to converse in the shout-and-pause way only experienced earplug wearers can. Kelly has worked at the mill for nearly 42 years, and he’s lived in the surrounding neighborhood his entire life. “I was born and raised right in front of the mill here,” Kelly says. “I never did go out into the larger community. I can get to work in 10 minutes. I’ve got a grocery store, a pharmacy; what else do I need?”

Warlick nods in understanding and says, “It used to be that people lived in mill villages and didn’t leave because everything was provided.”

Kelly brings a hand to his wild, wiry beard. “I’ve still got everything I need right here in Belmont,” he says, before disappearing into the room’s towering green equipment. Warlick walks to the carding room where employees comb raw materials into parallel fibers fit for yarn making.

The cotton blooms Kelly cleaned and blended now fill buckets in the form of fluffy, white ropes that look like hair prepared for braiding. From here, the ropes will move over to the large spinning frames that will twist the fibers into yarn for the plant’s largest international and domestic knitting customers. The mill’s hardwood floors vibrate underfoot. Overhead, finished packages are lifted into hangers that move like a miniature ski lift, carrying large spools across the plant.

Warlick approaches a pallet of his finished product, already shrink-wrapped for shipping. “This is headed for Honduras,” he says. “Labels don’t always indicate where the yarn in something was made, but I know what companies use United States yarn. I try to buy from them to support United States jobs.” As he speaks, tufts of cream-colored lint fall from the sky and gather on the crown of his head.

‘Penthouses! They have penthouses!’

The Stowe family once owned several Belmont mills, and they invested some of their earnings back into the community in the form of land grants, such as Stowe Park in downtown Belmont and the world-class Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden south of town. Around here, the Stowe surname is nearly as prevalent as the town’s name.

Elizabeth Atterberry, president of the Belmont Historical Society, remembers when The Belmont General Store was still referred to as Stowe Mercantile. Recalling what it was like roughly 40 years ago, she points to a section of hardware. “This is where the groceries used to be,” she says. She oscillates her gaze. “Men’s shoes were over there. …Mill workers had a tally. They’d get what they needed, and then it would be taken out of their checks.”

The store, which now sells a mix of necessities and novelties, is located less than a block away from the Historical Society’s office, which is housed in a former Stowe residence. The organization recently restored a 1920s mill house that Parkdale Mills donated. Atterberry grew up on a dairy farm rather than in a mill village, but still, the model house holds special nostalgia for her. “My favorite sound is the slam of that front screen door,” she says.

It’s a creak-and-bang serenade to lifelong Belmont resident Charles Arrowood as well. He now takes to daily walks on downtown streets since retiring from a hosiery mill. He’s enjoying a break in front of the store’s dormant woodstove. Arrowood and Atterberry reminisce about when the store sold furniture upstairs. Then Arrowood pushes his ladder-back chair onto two legs and says, “We’re a bedroom community now. You know who’s in the bedroom? All the people sleeping here work in Charlotte.”

This commuter population allows Belmont to escape the air of abandonment that lurks around many historic textile towns. The mill Arrowood once worked in is now an import company that brings in international pottery, and the nearby Catawba Mills has been converted into custom condominiums. Arrowood exclaims, as if he can’t believe the transformation from warehouse to industrial chic, “Penthouses! They’ve got penthouses on the roof!

“The young people that have moved into town tend to walk late in the afternoon, and they always seem to have dogs,” he says. “I think there are more dogs than people in this town now.” Belmont has a population of nearly 10,000 humans, which would make quite a pack of pups. Even so, Atterberry smiles at his playful estimate and says, “We’re a very dog-friendly town.”

This canine appreciation is apparent in the two-year-old Happy Dogs Cafe and Boutique, an establishment often manned by proprietor Teresa McCarter and her dog, Charlie. The walls of Happy Dogs feature photos of tail-wagging customers, and its window display features a stroller intended not for toddlers, but terriers. When Atterberry stops by to say hello to McCarter, she reports that the day’s sales have included two pairs of dog sunglasses and several gourmet puppy pastries. She’s hopeful that she’ll be able to move more dog bikinis in the coming weeks.

McCarter, a Belmont native, says the canine-centric space — which offers dog birthday parties complete with custom cakes and treat bags — illustrates a larger revitalization. “Seven or eight years ago, people wouldn’t even come downtown because there wasn’t anything to look at,” she says. Now, a stroll through Belmont reveals a variety of venues, such as Jolie Boutique, located in a renovated train depot circa 1906, and Caravan, a coffee and dessert bar where residents often loiter in sidewalk seating.

“We’re the same town we’ve always been in a lot of ways,” McCarter says, “but we’ve kind of reinvented ourselves.”

The silent side of Belmont

Sitting in the basilica at Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine monastery, it’s hard to believe that, at this very moment, Parkdale Mills’ spinners are carrying on, and that someone might be in the process of purchasing a doggie raincoat just a mile or so away. Here, in the basilica, resident Benedictine monks silently make the sign of the cross with holy water as they enter one by one, gathering for group prayer, as they do four times a day.

They are 18 men ranging in age from 38 to 88, and they don the same black robes, or habits. They do not greet each other as they enter and seem solemn in their intent. At exactly 11:45 a.m., the basilica’s bell tolls in a tradition that began as a signal for monks to stop their work in the fields to pray, and the monks seated in the structure’s smooth, wooden pews begin their work.

The men sit on two sides of a thick, cool-to-the-touch, marble altar and take turns reading Psalms verse by verse, altos joining sopranos, their voices like slender streams flowing together to form a vast river of sound. Every so often, the monks grow silent. There is no rattling of paper, no nervous glancing. There is only stillness. Serenity. They take the pleading sign just outside the basilica doors very seriously: “Please Preserve the Silence of This Room.” In the monastery, silence is treated as a natural resource, each peaceful moment valued like a drop of water during a drought. When the monks finally rise and leave the sanctuary, two by two, in a choreographed dance, the basilica is left empty once again.

As the monks make their way to the dining hall, one of the black-cloaked men approaches a slower walker and says, “Beep! Beep!” before breaking into laughter. This is monastic humor in motion, and it’s indicative of the playful, yet deeply pious, personality that encouraged Brother Edward Mancuso to join the monastery six years ago when he left his career as a graphic designer.

Mancuso toured several monasteries on the East Coast before deciding that Belmont Abbey was the right fit. “There’s a peace when you come onto the grounds,” he says. “In our world, we’re speeding along, trying to be number one. The monastic life is the reverse of the world. It’s about more for the other guy. In everything we do, we’re thinking in terms of community. That’s how the world should be. Good things happen when people work together.”

Abbot-Bishop Leo Michael Haid established Belmont Abbey in 1885. The town of Belmont was incorporated 10 years later. At the time, North Carolina had the smallest percentage of Catholics of any American state, but Haid quickly altered the spiritual direction of the region by inviting the Sisters of Mercy to establish a convent in Belmont in the late 1800s. Today, The Sisters of Mercy operate a variety of nonprofit enterprises in town — including the popular Cherubs Café, a restaurant that employs residents of the convent’s home for people with intellectual and physical disabilities — and Belmont Abbey is the site of a well-respected four-year college that employs many of the monks as instructors and administrators, making Catholicism a viable part of Belmont at large.

The monks are free to go into town as they like, and they wear civilian clothes when they run to the grocery store or dine out in Gaston County’s famed fish camps courtesy of borrowed transportation. Mancuso gave up his car — along with his other possessions and right of inheritance — when he entered the monastery, a sacrifice made especially acute because he just finished paying it off. But Mancuso claims he doesn’t have the urge to spend much time away from the patch of land he vowed to inhabit for the rest of his life.

As appointed guestmaster, it’s his job to show visitors around the grounds where he prays all day. On a recent tour, he pointed out a tiny peephole behind the altar that allows tardy monks to time their entrance. Slipping the hole’s coin-size, silver cover off to demonstrate how it is used, he says, “It’s right out of Harry Potter or something, isn’t it?” A few minutes later, in the public entrance, he notices a small, wooden hatch he’s never seen before. He humorously holds up his slender, piano-key-worthy hands as if he’s entering an invisible door. “It’s like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” he says. His facial expressions comically turn to awe, like he’s entered author C.S. Lewis’s world of wonders.

Mancuso, a self-proclaimed movie buff, indulges in a bit of pop culture, but his home is as unworldly as the fantasy films he names, complete with a crypt and bell tower full of giant, dusty gears. As he walks through the basilica — pointing out the tobacco-hued ceiling that appears like the hull of a ship and the stained glass that turns sunlight into rainbows — he reflects on his black habit, which was earned piece by piece over the years as he furthered his commitment to the monastery. “At first it was strange to wear the same thing every day, but then you stop noticing,” he says. “You know, Albert Einstein had something like 18 of the same suits, so he wouldn’t have to give any thought to what to wear. There are more important things to think about.”

Strolling through a grassy campus lawn, he says, “The stability of this place and my commitment to it is like being able to sit down in a chair and listen as opposed to seeking distraction all the time. I’m sitting in one place, but my life is like a wheel. What’s the clock doing? Nothing. Its hands are just going around in a circle. But it’s doing more than that. It’s telling time. I’ve found my seat. I’ve found my home.”

How might one describe life in Belmont? Mancuso pauses for a moment, midstride. An airplane whizzes overhead on its way to the nearby Charlotte airport. Cars stream by the monastery grounds on their way to Interstate 85. If this were a movie, the plane and cars would be dated. But Mancuso — in his hand-tailored habit, surrounded by the jutting spires of Belmont Abbey’s ecclesiastical architecture — is part of a timeless scene and a member of a tradition that reaches back to the beginning of the Benedictine Order more than 1,500 years ago. Finally, he smiles and says, “Never changing, always new.”

Belmont General Store
6 North Main Street
Belmont, N.C. 28012
(704) 825-0114

Belmont Abbey Benedictine Monastery
100 Belmont-Mt. Holly Road
Belmont, N.C. 28012

Happy Dogs Cafe and Boutique
26 North Main Street, Suite 1
Belmont, N.C. 28012
(704) 825-5987

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden
6500 South New Hope Road
Belmont, N.C. 28012
(704) 825-4490

Leigh Ann Henion is a freelance writer in Boone. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and Oxford American. Henion can be found online at www.leighannhenion.com.

This entry was posted in Central N.C., December 2010, History, Piedmont, Small Towns, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Belmont

  1. Mike Ferguson says:

    My mother, Margaret Wentz and her family (brothers; Paul, Roger and sister; Ann) were raised on the Eagle (“Igal) Mill Village. As a young East Belmont boy in the 60′s, I remember riding the commuter bus through the streets of the Eagle Mill village. I don’t think they graded the building lots for housing back then, as some of the village houses leaned way over a hill-side on brick pillars. As a child, it seemed that some of the home’s front porches were two and three stories tall. I was privileged to be raised on the Sterling Mill village in East Belmont. My family bought our first home when I was 12 years old, and I thought we were rich! Little did I know then, we were rich (in life and love) on the mill village; good old days!

  2. Ann Ewing says:

    I was so glad to see the article about Belmont. My mother and father started working
    at the Eagle Yarn Mill even before child labor laws were in effect. Both stayed along with
    another individual more than anyone employed with this mill. It saddens me that
    we no longer have all the mills, but yet we can read about it and remember in our
    memories all that took place at all the mills that were located here. Thanks for writing
    this about our mills.

    • Billy Bradley says:

      Hello Amy, what is your mom and dads name? My mom and dad both worked at the Eagle Yarn Mill too, as did I for over 19 years. Do you know of any place where pictures can been seen of the mill? I’ve looked every where,but haven’t found any. It really is a lost “era” of time for Belmont, that I hope is never lost because it was/is a vital point in the history that made Belmont what it is today.

      • James Pressley says:

        Hi Billy,
        Its James Pressley. I have been looking for pictures also. Look me up on Facebook. I live in Michigan now.
        Jim

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