A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

They called the invention “the light in a bottle.” Folks from miles around would hitch their horses to their buggies, load up the family, and travel to McAdenville at dusk

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

They called the invention “the light in a bottle.” Folks from miles around would hitch their horses to their buggies, load up the family, and travel to McAdenville at dusk

Protecting the Land Takes a Mill Village

The castle-like spires at McAdenville Mill

They called the invention “the light in a bottle.” Folks from miles around would hitch their horses to their buggies, load up the family, and travel to McAdenville at dusk to sit up on a hillside and see the glow of electricity radiating from McAden Mills’ windows — the only light shining through the dark night, save the moon and the stars.

Thomas Edison had visited McAdenville in 1884, bringing with him his Dynamo No. 31 — the 31st model of his water-powered electric generator. The innovation made McAden Mills one of the first electrically lit mills in the country. Residents of Gaston County gazed in awe at this never-before-seen modern marvel. It was all possible — the lights, the mill machinery running through the night — thanks to the river.

Thomas Edison’s Dynamo No. 31 on display at the Gaston County Museum in McAdenville

Thomas Edison’s Dynamo No. 31, on display at the Gaston County Museum, harnessed the power of the South Fork for work. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Gaston County’s topography made it a prime location for building mills during the second half of the 19th century. Its rivers had many shoals; where the water dropped, waterpower could be easily harnessed.

As mills were built, people began flocking to the area for the new jobs. Mill owners built housing to accommodate their workers. Each mill village had a school, a company store, and a church — everything workers needed to feed their minds, bodies, and souls without having to leave town.

McAden Mills was built here because of the South Fork Catawba River. Today, the Catawba Riverkeeper — an organization that seeks to protect the river basin against damage caused by climate change, development, and pollution — has come to town for the same reason. By powering the mill, the river built this town, providing a livelihood for its citizens. Now, the people must return the favor.

• • •

Edison’s Dynamo 31 allowed McAden Mills to operate a second shift and produce cotton yarn and cloth 24 hours a day, six days a week. The shifts were 12 hours long, and the work was physical and monotonous, but the pay was steady. Though this life was hard, for many, it was preferable to farming, which was unpredictable and even more physically demanding. Plus, mill housing was usually cheap.

Portrait of Bill Pharr

Bill Pharr developed McAden Mills into an economic powerhouse following the Great Depression, starting with improved working and living conditions for the mill workers. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Eventually McAden Mills scaled back to a skeleton crew in the wake of the Great Depression. It was purchased by Stowe Mills, which later evolved into Pharr Yarns. Unlike a lot of textile mill owners, W.J. “Bill” Pharr wanted to establish himself as part of the community, and he wanted to better that community. He moved to the center of town. He added indoor plumbing and front porches to the mill houses. He paved the streets, built sidewalks, and installed water and sewer lines. He built churches, a school, and a recreation center with a swimming pool and ball fields. He even created a 15-acre aviary garden. “Building a community and taking care of people was as important to him as running the business,” says Bill Carstarphen, his grandson.

Daniel Rankin has fond memories of growing up in this tight-knit small town. “There was never any need to go anywhere because just about everything you needed was here in McAdenville,” he says.

McAdenville became the town it is today thanks in large part to the McAdenville Lake Dam, which powered the mill, and to mill owner Bill Pharr, who built a thriving community. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

There was the Pharr Yarns Reds, the company softball team that won the Major Industrial Slow Pitch Championship six times in the ’60s and ’70s. “The Reds were good,” Rankin says. “They hit home runs all night long.” Pharr would hire college baseball players to work at the dye plant in the summer and play on the company team, and nearly everybody in town went to the games a couple of times a week. Kids like Rankin would keep score, hanging the numbers on a scoreboard out in right field. They were paid for their labor with a hot dog and a drink from Tye Donaldson, who ran the concessions. Rankin pulls up his trouser leg to show a scar on his knee from running smack into another kid during a race to home plate. Donaldson patched it up for him, he says. Folks in town looked after one another.

There were also the Fourth of July company picnics, when Pharr would bring in professional entertainment, like country comedian Jerry Clower. There was barbecue and games, like “Climb the Greasy Pole,” “Catch the Pig,” and egg tosses. On the Friday before the picnic, there was a beauty contest at the swimming pool; Rankin remembers doing formations in the pool with the other kids.

Bill Carstarphen, the president and CEO of Pharr McAdenville Corporation.

Bill Carstarphen, Bill Pharr’s grandson, continues his grandfather’s legacy of taking care of the people and place that shaped McAdenville. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

When asked how people felt about living and working in McAdenville, Carstarphen pauses, looks down for a moment, then looks back up with a glisten in his eye. “If you talk to some of the old-timers, they’ll tell you: There isn’t a better place that they could have lived, and they look back on growing up here in McAdenville as one of the most special times of their lives,” he says. “Bill Pharr did everything that he possibly could to make sure that the quality of life here was the best it could be.”

Pharr passed on his commitment to taking care of people and places to his grandson, now president and CEO of Pharr McAdenville Corporation, which has evolved from Pharr Yarns. Although Carstarphen sold the textile business in 2020 and now focuses on the hospitality and development arms of the company, he continues to make the town an attractive place to live. He is currently renovating Mill No. 3, one of the original brick mill buildings on Main Street, into a multiuse building that will house an event space, a food hall, and a taproom.

People cross footbridge over South Fork Catawba River

Through hospitality and development projects, Bill Carstarphen hopes to make the communities along the South Fork a pleasant place to live, just like his father and grandfather did. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

From the back windows of Mill No. 3, you can see a portion of the Carolina Thread Trail, a network that, when completed, will include 1,600 miles of trails in 15 counties around Charlotte. This section will run from Spencer Mountain to Lake Wylie through McAdenville along the South Fork Catawba River. Carstarphen has been a staunch supporter of the Carolina Thread Trail since its inception, and he hopes that it will attract hikers and cyclists to the town. He also has partnered with the Catawba Lands Conservancy to preserve several hundred acres along the South Fork.

“I love the land, and I love taking care of the land,” he says. “Growing up here in McAdenville, I spent a lot of my free time in the creeks and in the woods along the river. I have a love of nature and try to do my best to protect it.”

• • •

At the Catawba Riverkeeper headquarters in one of the old Stowe Mills/Pharr Yarns buildings, Executive Director John Searby stands in the classroom used for public educational events. He’s looking at an artistic rendering of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin that’s been carved out of metal and mounted on reclaimed wood.

He points to the headwaters, just outside of Black Mountain. He traces the river to Linville Gorge and Pisgah National Forest. Lake Norman, the largest man-made freshwater lake in North Carolina. The South Fork, the largest tributary to the Catawba. And on down into South Carolina. Between 26 counties in the two states, the Catawba Riverkeeper oversees about 8,900 miles of creeks, rivers, and streams across a 5,000-square-mile river basin. Along its path, the Catawba River generates more electricity per mile than any other in the country, earning it a reputation as the hardest-working river in the United States.

Metal rendering of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin

As executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper, John Searby works to protect the Catawba-Wateree River Basin, rendered in metal at the organization’s McAdenville headquarters. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

And Searby and his team are working hard to protect it. They seek to improve stormwater management in an effort to reduce flooding, which erodes the riverbanks. They plant willows to stabilize the shoreline. They ensure that industries adhere to their permits and urge lawmakers to require new technology that will reduce pollution. Above all, they advocate for the river and educate the public on how they can do so, as well.

Next to the classroom is The River Room, the Catawba Riverkeeper’s taproom, which serves rotating drafts made by the 96 breweries that source their water from the basin. Every person who comes through the door of The River Room to drink a beer receives a brief lesson in the organization’s mission: to preserve, protect, and restore the waters of the basin for all. The River Room is part of the latest chapter in the organization’s development, in which Searby and his team are making efforts to be more connected with the community, hear people’s concerns, and support protection of the river through increased engagement.

John Searby serves as the executive director for the Catawba Riverkeeper’s board. It was at his encouragement that Carstarphen moved the organization closer to the river. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

When Searby came on board as executive director in 2019, the Catawba Riverkeeper’s offices were in Uptown Charlotte, far from the river. Searby knew that the organization needed to be based closer to the water. A mutual friend introduced him to Carstarphen, who was considering developing his Dynamo 31 building, a former mill building right on the banks of the South Fork.

Searby knew that Carstarphen partnered with developers on new building projects — projects that could potentially have a negative impact on the river basin. Searby told Carstarphen, “If we go down this path, I will never sacrifice the mission of the Catawba Riverkeeper because you’re our landlord.”

But after learning about Carstarphen’s commitment to the environment and to the river, Searby was convinced that the Pharr McAdenville Corporation would be a good fit. “[Bill] doesn’t go into very many projects in the region now without coming and saying, ‘Hey, let me pick your brain about something,’” Searby says. “That’s very gratifying.”

• • •

After launching near the McAdenville dam that once powered McAden Mills, Searby kayaks southeast on the South Fork toward Cramerton. As he paddles, a beaver pokes its head above the surface, then dives back under. Red-eared and yellow-bellied sliders sun themselves on logs, slipping into the water when they hear the soft splash of a paddle approaching. Great blue herons take flight, gliding low over the gently flowing water.

Pint of beer in the River Room taproom in McAdenville

At The River Room taproom, the Catawba Riverkeeper encourages people to enjoy every aspect of the South Fork Catawba River. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Upon moving to its new location, the Riverkeeper opened The River Room, which was shortly followed by two more retail businesses: Confluence — an arts, music, and recreation center in nearby Cramerton that rents recreational equipment, including bikes that people can ride on riverside trails — and a kayak rental location at Pharr Yarns’ old company greenhouse. The Riverkeeper also offers ecotours and organizes volunteer trash cleanups in the basin. Searby knows that the more that people get out on the water, the more engaged they will be with protecting it.

Activities like this are part of a perspective that has changed significantly since Rankin’s childhood during the early days of Pharr Yarns, when many parents wouldn’t let their kids play in the river because it was deemed too dangerous. At the time, although the South Fork provided so much opportunity to the town, the town didn’t think much about the river.

Paddlers on the South Fork Catawba River

On the South Fork Catawba River in McAdenville, kayakers launch near the J.M. Carstarphen Bridge, named for Bill’s father, a former Pharr Yarns CEO. photograph by JAMES CAPOZZI, COURTESY OF CATAWBA RIVERKEEPER

“The rivers truly have been the lungs that make our community here in Gaston County breathe,” Carstarphen says. “For years, a lot of textile companies used the river as a way to get rid of their [waste], and everybody sort of turned their backs on it. But today, we see the river as a tremendous asset.”

As the Riverkeeper and its volunteers continue to advocate for and work to protect the river, the river will continue to take care of the town. Its peaceful waters will lure people to live, work, and play in McAdenville and will bring tourists to dine and shop on Main Street after a day on the water. As it has done for this town for more than 140 years, the river will always provide.

For more information on the Catawba Riverkeeper, call (704) 679-9494 or visit catawbariverkeeper.org.

The River Room
102 Main Street, Suite 100
McAdenville, NC 28101
(980) 800-2524

This story was published on Jan 01, 2024

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.