Opinion Columns & Blogs

Rock Hill's monument to work ethic

A few years ago, a friend and I were walking back toward Greenville's downtown after having spent an hour or so enjoying the shops and galleries in that city's historic West End. We had been impressed by the park along the Reedy River, the highlight of which is a curvilinear bridge suspended over the rapids.

Why, she asked, can't we have something like this in our downtown? "We could," I responded, "if we could figure out how to put a river downtown."

Alas, even if we could figure out how to divert the Catawba River down Main Street, Rock Hill still would lack a critical resource enjoyed by Greenville -- deep pockets.

Not surprisingly, some of the state's most dynamic downtowns are in communities where lots of folks have lots of money. Spartanburg, where the downtown has undergone impressive transformation, is located in perhaps the wealthiest county in South Carolina.

Why is that relevant? If you're looking to locate a manufacturing plant, study prevailing wages. If you're hoping to accumulate capital to build, say, a performing arts theater, look for old money.

As a blue-collar town, Rock Hill never has been noted for families of great wealth. For the most part, our biggest factories weren't locally owned, and while the men who managed them were well paid by standards of the day, none passed a great fortune to his descendants.

How fortunate then is that that three businessmen have invested $11 million to remake Rock Hill's first textile mill into a modern office/retail complex. Two of the partners in The Old Cotton Factory, Gary Williams and Bob Perrin, are principals in Williams & Fudge, the student loan collection company that recently moved its headquarters into the three-story complex. The third, Bryan Barwick, is a Charlotte developer who redeveloped the Citizens National Bank building.

Several hundred people attended an open house at The Old Cotton Factory last week. Among them were children and grandchildren of textile workers employed there between 1881 and 1968, when production ceased forever.

Many stayed for the unveiling of a historic marker commemorating the factory and were able to enjoy historic photos of Rock Hill, which line the walls of the third floor. Downstairs, in the as-yet occupied main floor, they experienced a temporary exhibit of giant "quilts" by Winthrop University professor Phil Moody. Nearly 20 of these montages are suspended between tree-sized pillars that run the length of the vast space. If you read the text and study the photos, taken from letters, interview transcripts and family snapshot albums, then look at the scars in the boards beneath your feet, it's easy to visualize men, women and children tending spindles in that very space.

Michael Scoggins and Mary Lynn Norton of the Cultural and Heritage Museums, which also prepared the historic displays, assisted the Historical Marker Committee in publishing a pamphlet on the Cotton Factory. The third in a series of booklets produced in conjunction with the dedication of a historic marker (similar pamphlets were done on the Andrew Jackson Hotel and the Friendship Nine sit-in), it's a significant contribution to understanding this community's history.

One day, this city may be seen as just another medium-size dot on the map of Charlotte, but thanks to the folks I mentioned -- and many I didn't -- Rock Hill will be able to remember the people who made this community.

You don't see many monuments to the American work ethic. The Old Cotton Factory comes about as close as you will experience in these parts.