The Schiele Museum of Natural History
(left), founded in 1960, is home to the largest
of land mammal specimens in the Southeast.
County proud of innovative job
Efforts salvage unique county's
A New Day
Dawns in Gaston
of the state's most industrialized counties
diversifies its economy while keeping old-time values
By Edward Martin
The trail is deserted in late
afternoon and the only sounds are those of footsteps and
the forest - a woodpecker drumming on a dead snag as
squirrels chatter overhead. The first mile is along a
stream lined with ferns, then it twists upward, over
roots and loose rocks, to emerge on a natural balcony,
ringed by boulders and gnarled pines. This is Crowders
Mountain. Nearly a thousand feet almost straight down is
Gaston County, in a sea of green treetops, broken by
homes, highways and factories, and to the east, faintly,
the skyline of Charlotte.
For 200 million years, weather has been wearing away the
softer surrounding stone, creating what geologists call a
monadnock, this unusual mountain with its sheer quartzite
The pace of change - in a community of contrasts,
contradictions and surprises - is considerably faster.
Chosen for the second time in June as an All-American
City, Gastonia and its surrounding county are remaking
themselves in a new mold. Consider, suggests banker Alex
Hall, who came to Gastonia three decades ago, its bedrock
of industry, textiles.
"We're still a manufacturing town, but we're a lot
more diverse," says Hall, whose First Gaston Bank
has grown to $100 million in assets since it was founded
in the mid 1990s, largely serving small businesses.
"We've got companies like R.L. Stowe Mills, Parkdale
Mills and American & Efird Mills that do tremendous
volume, but they do it with a lot fewer people. We're a
town in transition."
True. Add up the numbers. Gaston is the 10th largest of
North Carolina's 100 counties and sixth most
industrialized, but its 14 municipalities are the most of
any of county in the state. That equals a large county of
Little League baseball is still king in communities such
as Cherryville, settled in 1792 and whose town seal
features three small cherries. Over in Gastonia, Tony's
Ice Cream, begun in 1920, still serves double-dips on
East Franklin Boulevard in a parlor occupied since 1947.
One-fourth as large as neighboring Mecklenburg County,
Gaston, population 185,300, has eight museums, headed by
the nationally recognized Schiele Museum of Natural
History and Planetarium, and 800 churches and synagogues,
in both cases, a fourth more than Mecklenburg.
Here, the catfish finds high status in the county's 30
fish camps, named from the sawdust floors of their 1930s
predecessors along the Catawba River - one was recently
featured in an international gourmet magazine - and the
largest American flag in the nation makes gentle,
thumping sounds as summer breezes catch its folds.
Erected by veterans, it's a third as large as a football
ot far from Hall's bank in
Gastonia, construction workers a few weeks ago were
pushing Parkdale's new $4 million headquarters toward a
completion date this winter (photo, left). To
many like Hall, the building and company symbolize
changing industry and commerce in a county rife with
Parkdale is the nation's largest independent cotton and
synthetic yarn spinner, with nearly $1 billion in annual
sales, and woven into the design of its new headquarters
is an oculus - a kind of skylight - shaped like a cone
and rising thorough the center of the building.
The shape was chosen to symbolize the millions of cones
on which Parkdale mills and workers have spun their yarn
since 1916. But Parkdale also represents what's new in
Gaston's economy. Recently, Duke Kimbrell, 74, chairman
and chief executive, was chosen by an industry journal as
one of the two most influential textile leaders of the
20th Century. Computers, robots and microprocessors help
it do more with less.
A few decades ago, its 2,700 workers in six plants
produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton yarn a week,
explains Andy Warlick, president. Today, the 29 plants of
Parkdale and its Magnolia Manufacturing Co. have 3,500
workers, a quarter more, but each week they produce 14
million pounds of yarn for customers such as L.L. Bean
Inc., Vanity Fair and Jockey International. That's 10
times as much.
"The market is unforgiving, and there's a heck of a
lot more risk," adds D. Harding Stowe, whose family
has operated Stowe Mills since 1901. "It's a lot
more competitive, but the companies that have survived
are the ones that have reinvested."
Stowe's company, of course, is one of those, and after a
century, it is still helping to shape life in Gaston.
It's restoring one of its classic 1920s mills in Belmont
to become the centerpiece of a home and office complex,
and Stowe notes that the town itself was recently chosen
as a North Carolina Main Street Community.
As the textile industry goes through its global
downsizing, though, Gaston is turning adversity to
advantage. Along the Interstate 85 corridor are thriving
companies such as German-owned Freightliner Corp., the
nation's largest truck maker and Gaston's biggest
employer, with 3,000 workers.
"They're continuing to grow, and they have nothing
to do with textiles at all," says John Corbett,
chairman of the Greater Gastonia Development Corp.,
noting also the increasing arrival of more corporate
headquarters. Thirteen Fortune 500 companies have 20
locations in the county.
On land once reserved for textile plants, business parks
are growing, and stoked by Freightliner, along with
establishment of a BMW Manufacturing Corp. plant in
nearby Grier, S.C., automotive and transportation
equipment segments of Gaston manufacturing have soared by
400 percent in recent years.
"That gives us insulation against downturns in the
economy that we didn't have 20 years ago," adds
Warlick, noting the 1960s and 1970s when cyclical textile
declines sometimes left one Gaston worker in five
Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County
Economic Development Commission, says many economists
view the most recent unemployment rate of 3.8 percent
favorably. It was not high enough to be troublesome for
job-seekers among the county's 95,000 workers, or
retailers who sell them goods and services. Or, low
enough that the county's 3,700 employers have to raid
each others' workforces.
Hicks has led the charge in attracting most of the new
breed of automotive and transportation suppliers. On a
recent afternoon, driving through the rolling hills of
southwestern Gaston, he recited many by heart.
One after another have come companies such as Stabilus, a
German maker of pneumatic struts. The company not only
located its plant on Tulip Drive but then moved its
100-person U.S. headquarters there, a $6 million
Then Thermoform Plastics Inc. pumped $6.5 million into a
new plant, making plastic products that wind up in autos.
Gaston County industrial veteran Quality Metal Products
Inc., which stamps metal parts for trucks and other
equipment, built a $10 million plant. Most recently,
Germany's CWW-Gerko Acoustics Inc., which makes
soundproofing for cars, built a $7 million factory.
Not all of the transition, though, is in industry.
White-collar and professional jobs are coming to Gaston,
with decisions like those of Parkdale; the Wix Corp.,
long a major employer; Stabilus; and Curtiss Wright
Flight Systems to locate corporate or divisional
headquarters in the county.
"Growth throughout the region has helped us,"
explains Warlick, noting that half of the county's
residents and businesses are closer to Charlotte's
professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey
teams, cultural events and airport, with its 517 domestic
and international flights, than the majority of
"We've got the advantages of a large city, but we've
still got a hometown feel," says Warlick, who, along
with Stephen Stout, executive director of Greater
Gastonia Development, notes that not all white-collar
jobs relate to business.
Education, at Gaston College, Belmont Abbey and other
institutions, and health care, are expanding. At Gaston
Memorial Hospital, the flagship of CaroMont Health,
advances such as a new, $50 million surgical wing,
including open-heart surgery suites, along with an
advanced cancer center, are attracting doctors.
Specifically, adds Jean Waters, the hospital
spokesperson, 241 physicians have joined the system since
1991, nearly doubling its complement.
A sign of Gaston's growth and the hospital's rising
status? A baby boom. In home-like settings, where fathers
accompany new mothers and brothers and sisters welcome
new siblings, called the Birthplace at Gaston Memorial,
2,091 new Gastonians arrived in 1995. Last year, the
number rose to 2,601.
But to chart the future of Gaston
County, economic recruiters, business men and women and
historians say it helps to first understand its past.
In the 1800s, cotton became king and Gastonia emerged as
a national textile capital. The movement was propelled by
abundant labor as Carolinians turned from farms to
factories, and cheap energy from the Catawba River and
companies that would go on to become today's Duke Energy
Corp., and Public Service Co. of North Carolina, now PSNC
Energy Inc., the natural gas supplier.
As villages such as Dallas, Bessemer City and Mount Holly
grew around mills, Gastonia, with its rail links,
gradually emerged as the central location for a county
seat. In 1898, notes Barbara Lawrence, downtown
administrator, a burst of growth witnessed the
construction of an opera house and the town's first
skyscraper - the three-story Craig Building. In 1909, the
county seat was moved from Dallas.
Today, efforts are under way to preserve and restore much
of the downtown area, but it also symbolizes how much of
the county's past is intertwined with the present. Morris
Jewelers, a downtown business for 60 years, occupies the
"Some of these businesses have been here 50 years or
more, and that tells me they're good and solid and in
good locations," says Lawrence. Nearby is rising a
commitment to the area's future: BB&T, the county's
largest bank, with 250 employees and 14 branches, is
building a $5 million local headquarters.
"We've done well here from a profitability and
growth standpoint," says Corbett, city executive.
"But the new building is our way of showing our
commitment to keeping the inner city viable."
Through the heyday of textiles, Gaston thrived. Billy Ray
Rhyne Jr., a youngster in the 1950s, remembers the glow
from windows of mills working around the clock. His
father ran the local bus system and would get calls late
at night when a bus broke down. "You'd have 40
people about to miss their shift or get fired if that bus
Billy Ray Rhyne's America Charters Ltd., still based in
Gastonia, today logs millions of miles a year, carrying
tourists on a fleet of more than 30 charter buses.
Gastonia set other standards. Now led politically by
Mayor Jennie Stultz, a civic booster who wears red, white
and blue ribbons on her blouse, it was named an All
American City in 1963, partly on the strength of its
progressive approach to racial integration.
In June, it received the honor a second time.
"Gaston is experiencing a renaissance," says
Stultz, a native, who notes that the community maintains
an unusual stability. She still sees high school friends
Three projects were cited in the
2000 All-American City award.
One was a collaborative effort by St. Stephens AME Zion
church and the local arts council to save a historic
church. A second was conversion of a 1904 downtown
building to a home for the local literacy council, and
the third was a program by the Gaston Boys and Girls Club
to help at-risk youths excel in school. "Seventy
percent now make honor rolls," says Stultz.
That legacy continues, note Corbett and John Bridgeman, a
real estate executive and first-term state
representative, with a current effort called Gaston
Two years ago, they explain, ministers from more than 30
churches of different races and denominations began
swapping pulpits. "We're working to get the entire
community pulling together to make us stronger,"
adds Al Munn, former county planner and now assistant
Gaston's success stems from other basic elements. One is
location. Munn notes, for example, that the county is
known for watersports and upscale residential and golf
course communities, such as Cramer Mountain Country Club,
which sits on its eastern boundaries. Other areas thrive
along the Catawba and in the foothills to the west.
"Plus, on a pretty Sunday afternoon, you can drive
down into South Carolina for fresh peaches."
After weathering union strife in the 1920s, Gaston
industry flourished through the 1960s until automation
and overseas competition changed textiles forever. Its
new era began.
That's obvious, say local leaders, in recent new and
expanded industries and businesses:
The most dramatic is Buckeye Technologies Inc.,
which last October announced it would build a $100
million plant between Stanley and Mount Holly where 220
workers (at an average salary in excess of $45,000) will
make the kind of airlaid, nonwoven fibers used in
products that range from disposable diapers to air
Buckeye had just acquired Walkisoft Inc., a similar plant
in Gaston, and was persuaded by its executives' high
recommendations. "Gaston competed with the world on
this one," says Rick Carlisle, North Carolina
secretary of commerce. "And Gaston won."
Curtiss Wright, which overhauls
aerospace components, consolidated its operations from
several locations, including its corporate headquarters,
to a building on Gastonia Northwest Boulevard recently,
adding 55 employees.
Pass & Seymour/Legrand,
high-technology maker of electronic components, became
the first tenant in the new Gastonia Technology Park
adjoining Gaston College in Dallas, with a $30 million
plant that will employ 125.
CWW-Gerko's first plant in America, in
Delta Industrial Park, expects to hire as many as 60
workers. In the same park, a longstanding Gaston firm,
Jewell Building Systems, created 100 new jobs with a
plant that manufacturers galvanized framing systems for
buildings. Some of its products stay at home. "The
second Baptist Church in Mount Holly is one our
buildings," says Everett Jewell, president.
Advanced Drainage Systems Inc., which
makes polyethylene pipe, added 65 workers to Gaston's
economy with a $10 million plant in Bessemer City, in
part, says Bob Klein, who directs the Ohio company's real
estate, because of easy access to I-85 and
Norfolk-Southern rail lines.
A longtime local institution, The Gaston Gazette,
has signed a deal to print the regional edition of The
New York Times, which, says John Pea, editor, will
involve moving into a former Home Quarters Warehouse that
covers more than two acres. The $17 million development
will require hiring a dozen new employees, in addition to
190 already on staff.
Why the upturn for Gaston County? Hicks and Stout, plus
some who've recently arrived, point to a number of
One is aggressive recruiting and infrastructure.
"This wasn't the only place we looked," says
Sondra Dowdell, a Buckeye engineer and now public affairs
director. "We looked throughout the Southeast, but
the economics of locating in North Carolina were more
Gaston, adds Hicks, is also able to offer incentives.
Much of the county is considered a North Carolina
development zone, meaning companies such as Buckeye and
Pass & Seymour/Legrand are eligible for job credits
of up $5,000 per new job, plus a seven percent credit for
Infrastructure abounds, too. In addition to training like
Gaston College's and that of the unique N.C. Center for
Applied Textile Technology in Belmont, plus an innovative
new technology high school opening this fall, Hicks says
more than 100,000 square feet of speculative industrial
and office space is available. Business parks are
plentiful. Three major ones are:
Summit, near Gaston Memorial Hospital, 70 acres
between two Interstate 85 exchanges, focused on medical
and other users;
Gaston Technology Park, developed with the help of
adjoining Gaston College, a 350-acre park where Pass
& Seymour/Legrand is the first trophy tenant;
Delta Business Park, home to CWW-Gerko and others,
a 150-acre park focused more on pure manufacturing and
distribution, on Interstate 85 in Gastonia;
Southridge Business Park, on the edge of Bessemer
City, 400 acres being developed by Parkdale Mills and
already the home to companies such as Quality Metal.
The results can be found almost everywhere in the county.
On Gastonia's southwest side, in a setting of bright new
stores, the murmur of shoppers and background music,
Eastridge Mall, at 1.1 million square feet, ranks as one
of the region's largest. It recently completed a
"Incomes are going up and so are the perceptions of
Gaston," says Kurt Reddick, manager. The mall has 80
stores, including upscale newcomers such as Gap, America
Eagle and Pacific Sunwear, in addition to mainstays such
as Matthews Belk and Dillard's.
In another retail center, Franklin Square, a shopping
center with more than a million feet of space in stores
such as Wal-Mart and Old Navy, Mark Hannah, leasing agent
for ACC Real Estate Services Inc., notes a similar trend.
"Gaston is rapidly evolving from a somewhat rural
market into more metropolitan status," he says.
"A lot of these retailers and restaurants, you would
have never seen in Gaston a few years ago. It's becoming
a regional destination for shoppers from the west, north
Says who? Problem-Solving Research Inc., which maps
retail trends, estimates Gaston retail sales will rise by
a third, from $2.2 million this year to $3.2 million in
The new Gaston can't be measured entirely in money,
though.Attitudes are shifting. Corbett, Stout, Hall and
others cite, for example, growing impatience with the
slowness of change. The county recently pushed for and
got, with the help of Bridgeman, the legislator, state
permission to move ahead with a private toll road linking
Gaston and Mecklenburg across the Catawba River. It would
be the state's first.
Quality of life is getting high priority. Gastonia, notes
Munn, just paid $9.3 million for 400 acres on Mountain
Island Lake to protect its water supply for the future
and another $1.3 million for the first two miles of a
greenway system that will link parks, schools, and sites
such as the Shiele Museum and Daniel Stowe Botanical
But some of Gaston's old values remain as solid as the
cliffs of Crowders Mountain. Gaston Memorial, for
instance, recently honored a worker who used her own
money to buy clothes for a homeless man who was a patient
And Corbett, who spearheaded the formation of Greater
Gastonia Development last year, is looking forward both
to change and permanence.
"We created the corporation because we're looking
hard at the kind of community we want to see in the
future and recognize it is going to change whether we
like it or not," he says. But after a decade in
Gaston, he's come to another conclusion.
"My wife and I love it here," he says.
"Years ahead, when I decide not to be a banker any
more, we've already decided. This is where we're going to
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared
in the September 2000 issue of North Carolina magazine.
Return to magazine index