Andrew Dys

Great Falls left gasping for air

GREAT FALLS -- If Great Falls were a heavyweight prizefighter, it's the last round. A busted lip, one eye swollen shut and a cauliflower ear. On one knee, head bowed, trying to get up.

The fire that started Tuesday and still burns at the J.P. Stevens No. 3 Mill, shuttered 21 years but a reminder of what was and never will be again, is just another sucker punch. The town's mills, the lifeblood for generations, are long gone. Now, the town is a few convenience stores, a few businesses, but not much else.

The only action in town is the fire destroying its heritage.

At Bumper To Bumper auto parts on U.S. 21, where the Great Falls men pass the time among the Wix oil filters and batteries, the lament is about a dying home.

"It's a ghost town now," said Charles Brace, 48, who fled to Lancaster years ago but comes back to see friends and family. "When the mills closed, everything went with it. We had a Belk store and grocery stores and banks. You could get anything you wanted in town, from a shirt to wear out on a Saturday night to credit on groceries if it wasn't payday. No chance in my lifetime it will ever come back."

In its heyday of textile production, people from miles around came for the work, the dignity of a steady job. Some commuted, others lived there.

"Everybody came here for the work," said Glenn Trapp, 74, who ran the long-closed Cinderella Knitting mill. "Great Falls had almost 5,000 people at one time. Now, there is about 2,000, if that."

After the death of the mills, many of the young fled for Rock Hill or Charlotte or Columbia. The old remained on the mill hills.

Bad news, or at least controversy, continued.

A couple of years ago, a Wiccan woman successfully sued to keep the Town Council members from mentioning Jesus Christ in pre-meeting prayers, bringing a load of unwanted national publicity on the town.

Then three years ago, there was a racial crisis in the streets after the shooting death of a black man. The case hasn't been tried, but police arrested a white man.

"I was on the first state championship basketball team in 1977, and my best friend was white," said Brace, who is black. "His momma and my momma worked side by side in the same mill that is burnin' right now today behind us. We played together, did everything together. There wasn't any racial problems. But now it's all dope and alcohol and people who want to shoot each other."

Another guy at the auto parts store, Billy Ray Croxton, worked at a J.P. Stevens mill spinning room 19 years. He's lived in Great Falls all of his 67 years. He had to evacuate from his Holly Street home because of the fire.

He landed Wednesday at the auto parts store to lament his town that is gasping for breath.

"Great Falls used to be a place where I got my financing at the bank on my first car with a handshake," Croxton said. "I never signed a paper. Look at Great Falls now. We got nothin'."

Except streets of peeling paint and crumbling bricks. Matt Williams, who directed the period movie "Walker Payne" shot partly in Great Falls last year, said of the town: "Great Falls is an old mill town that has gone to seed."

Great Falls' identity is now a swap shop at the corner of U.S. 21 and S.C. 99, with a couch on the cracked sidewalk out the side door and knickknacks for sale. Even the air seems old, tired, broken.

Ray Horton, 24, was at the swap shop Wednesday afternoon because he works at the concrete plant in Chester on the late shift. He got back to Great Falls from work Wednesday morning to find cops telling him to get what he needed from his Hill Street house and get out until the smoke clears.

"There's nothing here at all," Horton said about Great Falls. "I need something, I go to Rock Hill or Columbia or Charlotte."

Yet people like Trapp and Croxton, and even Horton, haven't moved out.

"Home is home," Croxton said.

"Nowhere else I'd rather be," Trapp said. "Most I had was 210 women in the Cinderella mill," Trapp said. "I didn't care if they were black, white or green. They had a problem, I brung 'em in the office and prayed with 'em. Went back in an hour to check on 'em. People worked hard. Raised families. Now ..."

That Cinderella mill, empty and forlorn, is like the town it sits in. An ugly stepsister to the burning mill. And no Prince Charming courting.