The lights were warmly received by everyone in the town, he remembers, and especially appreciated by W.J. Pharr, the civic-minded president of Pharr Yarns LLC, the textile firm that owned most of the town and employed most of its residents.
“Mr. Pharr was so pleased with how those Christmas lights looked,” says Rankin, “he suggested that they do it again the next year and maybe even expand the lights a bit. He even offered to pay for the decorations. That was really the start of it. But who could have imagined what it would grow into?”
Rankin means the Brobdingnagian Christmas lighting display that in time put wee McAdenville on the map of America’s must-see, A-list, over-the-top decorated Christmas towns. In fact, after CBS News icon (and former Charlotte journalist) Charles Kuralt showed up to film a segment on the McAdenville Christmas lights for his popular Sunday morning TV show in 1980, the town officially adopted the moniker “Christmas Town USA.”
Several years ago, Time magazine placed the lights of McAdenville on its coveted list of America’s top 10 public Christmas displays, ranking the picturesque mill town the 9th most “Most Chrimassy” place in the nation, prompting a flood of national and international media attention to this quiet river town of just under 700 residents.
This month, an estimated 600,000 visitors — 75% of whom hail from outside Gaston County — will make the pilgrimage to the town. By car or by foot, they will see a 1.5-mile stretch of McAdenville’s charming brick Main Street and festively decked out residential district, taking in more than half a million red, white and green lights adorning porches, lampposts and several hundred Norway spruce trees around the town lake.
The annual light show commences at 5:30 p.m. sharp at the Pharr Family YMCA — formerly the village community center — on Dec. 1 when a lucky kid from McAdenville Elementary throws a switch that lights up the town. A local school choir will pipe out carols, and Christmas Town USA will be officially off and running. Lights that crews began putting up in September will stay on, rain or snow, seven nights a week (5:30 p.m. till 9 p.m. on weeknights; 5:30 p.m. till 11 p.m. on Fridays through Sundays) until Dec. 26.
One particular highlight of the month is the annual Yule Log ceremony that takes place on the Friday before Christmas. Main Street is closed off to traffic as local school kids haul a sleigh bearing the ceremonial log to a city park, where it’s set ablaze to more caroling as hot chocolate is served and Santa Claus holds court.
“It’s really a town Christmas party, a highlight for those of us who live here,” says Rankin, who with his wife, Shirley, have served as honorary fire starters at the Yule Log lighting, a tradition begun by town patriarch Pharr five years before the Men’s Club strung its first lights.
Beyond the lovely optics, more than half a million visitors dropping by for their annual Christmas-light fix translates into a lot of dollars for area merchants. According to a study by UNC Charlotte a decade ago — which the Rankins helped conduct, handing out special DVDs of the lights to anyone who participated — visitors to Christmas Town USA pump almost $13 million into the area’s economy.
Don’t bother asking the Rankins or anyone else associated with the display what the annual light bill amounts to. “It’s Santa’s secret. So just enjoy it,” urges Rankin, who started and maintains the website for Christmas Town USA, serving as its de facto information officer. “This is the company’s Christmas gift to the town and anyone else who comes to be part of the celebration. It’s really a symbol of our history and strong community spirit that keeps us springing back when almost every other mill town has disappeared. ”
He’s right about that — on more than one front. McAdenville resides on land by the South Fork River once owned by a colorful 18th century character named Adam Alexander Springs, a cotton farmer and passionate fisherman who was in the first graduating class of UNC Chapel Hill. According to local legend, Springs may have been Abraham Lincoln’s biological father. His housekeeper, Nancy Hanks, was Lincoln’s mother and reportedly left the unincorporated village then called Springs Shoals in a hurry, shortly before the future president’s birth. In his will, ‘Old Adam’ Springs demanded to be buried standing up with a musket in hand in order to protect his fishing traps — or great secret. His son, Gratton, was said to bear an uncanny resemblance to Lincoln.
In 1881, an Atlanta visionary named Rufus McAden purchased Springs’ holdings along the river, opened the Springs Shoals Manufacturing Co. and planned a mill town around it, complete with the county’s first library, mercantile store and company-built houses to attract workers. Two years later, the town was officially incorporated as McAdenville, and the mill was renamed McAden Mills.
The firm became a pioneering cotton factory, the largest mill in Gaston County for decades and a leader in the production of cotton fabric, boasting a hydroelectric generator personally designed and built by Thomas Edison that made McAdenville the first community in the state to have electric lights.
The Great Depression dealt the mill a devastating blow, however, forcing the owners to shut down all three of its outdated plants in 1935. Four years later, a 41-year-old Davidson College grad named William Pharr purchased the defunct operation in partnership with his father-in-law Robert Stowe and brother-in-law, Dan Stowe. Pharr moved to McAdenville with his wife, Catherine, and young children and began tearing out old cotton-weaving machines and investing in the new technology of synthetic yarns — just in time to make military apparel for American soldiers in World War II.
Bill Pharr died in 1981, a year after Kuralt brought Christmas Town USA to the nation’s attention. His son-in-law, J.M. “Bip” Carstarphen, carried on the family’s tight relationship with the town — and passion for lighting up Christmas — for the next three and a half decades. The company now specializes in yarns for the commercial carpet industry, having invested more than $80 million in cutting-edge technologies for synthetic-yarn development. Among its products are fire-retardant yarns used in protective apparel worn by firefighters, military and emergency workers. Last March, the company acquired residential-carpet maker Phenix Flooring of Dalton, Ga., bringing its workforce to more than 1,700 in three states.
More than 70% of the company’s employees, however, still work at several divisions either in or just outside the pretty little mill town that’s roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. In the spirit of its Christmas-loving patriarch, a decade ago the company began “re-purposing” the town by removing some of its aging mill houses and developing more than 180 handsome, mid-priced homes that have attracted Charlotte commuters and young families to McAdenville — many because they like its popular Christmas lights.
Homebuyers agree to sign a covenant promising they will annually decorate their homes with lights — no Scrooges allowed — as part of life in Christmas Town USA. “I grew up with the lights and have been coming here every Christmas Eve with my family since I was nine,” explains Linda Blackledge, 62. She and her husband, Rick, were among the first to purchase a new home by the lake. “It can be a little crazy at times, but we love it. The lights are now our family tradition. The crowds are very respectful. People stop and walk by wishing each other Merry Christmas. It’s like something from everyone’s childhood.”
New neighborhoods and a recent revitalization of the Main Street shopping district are part of a larger company effort to help the village grow. “I think it’s all in perfect keeping with my dad’s and grandfather’s love of this town,” says Bill Carstarphen, who took over as president and CEO of Pharr Yarns following his father’s death in 2014. “My grandfather built streets and ball fields, installed water lines and made Christmas something special when he started that Yule Log ceremony.”
In the light show’s 60th year, “The crowds are bigger than ever, and the lines too, but everyone works together — the state troopers and town’s residents — to make it a joyful experience. Generations have come here year after year to see the lights. They’re our town’s legacy, the reason Christmas Town is here.”