Of late, the old dam has a fallen tree hanging over the ledge that never seems to quite go over, despite the flooding of recent years. After traveling down the river it now hangs like an ancient warrior fighting to not go over. It hangs there as if it has something yet to say.
Around 1902 John Rhodes and George Hiss founded the little town of Rhodhiss, NC and opened their own mill, complete with a railroad spur. Taking advantage of the booming textile industry across the Old South, their vision was similar to those who operated textile mills throughout the region. Both of the mills were bought and sold through the years and finally ended up as Burlington industries in the mid-1950s.
Situated on the Catawba and Burke county line in North Carolina, the dam just above where both mills had stood, is operated by Duke power.
“Junior’s” family originally lived in one of the mill houses on the Caldwell County side of the river. Later, they were able to build their own cottage on the Burke County hillside. One of his daughters, Maxine, began her adult life in the late 1960s in the same mill her daddy worked. Their careers marked a generational relationship that paralleled the rise of the United States as the global leader of the free world.
Maxine recalled her memories of that time and her voice smiled.
While her father diligently worked as a supervisor in the maintenance shop, she worked in the weaving room with 80-degree temperatures and high humidity. The humidity kept the fiber from catching on fire and from hanging in the air. A cleaner environment that no doubt contributed to Mill #2 staying open longer.
On the Catawba County side, in Mill #1, the fibers were thick in the air making it difficult to breath at times. These airborne fibers would find a home on clothes, hair and machinery. The “Lint-Heads” became synonymous with the poor whites of the South and that moniker was a way that more affluent people referred to them with an air of superiority.
For Junior’s family, working there was a reality of their lives. With few other opportunities in the area, they stuck it out as long as they could stay employed. There was no thought of going from job to job seeking whatever other opportunity fit their fancy or personal interest. It was a job that put food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads. A day to day grind that paid dividends to the future generations, if not immediately.
And the mill, their mill, also has a significant place in history. Fabric woven by them is said to have been used to make the flag that Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed on the moon during Apollo 11. The planting of that flag on the celestial rock ended the “Space Race” that galvanized a generation during the Cold War. Additionally, sheets of fabric used in missile cones and in bullet proof vests were produced there in a time when those technologies were cutting-edge.
The mills have closed now and gone the way of horn-rimmed glasses, printed dresses and bouffant hair. The families have found work and eked out a living elsewhere. Their story in Rhodhiss is much like the stories of the “Lint-Heads” across the country.
The buildings have been vacated. Time and the economy marches on and textiles are no longer king. In bigger cities they may be repurposed into museums or apartments. For the most part though, they are hollowed out shells of a time gone by. They echo with the ghosts of industrial machinery whirling a tapestry of life.
It is a history of relationships forged in a common cause of simply living and growing together. A history of dogged determination of putting family before self.
A history where work is the means by which the family gets a leg up.
A history where possibly the work contributes to the moon landing and causes us all to dream and look up.
Like the log that won’t be dislodged from the top of the Rhodhiss dam, the memories are doggedly hanging on. The memories, like the work in the mill, remind us of what river we have traveled down and; conversely, giving us a picture of what is further downstream.
Rhodhiss Dam, Duke Energy Illumination