By Bryan Mims
Back in the day, textile mills dominated in Belmont, sewing and spinning and stitching together the livelihoods of people who went home with lint in their hair and ringing in their ears.
In the mid-20th century, Belmont hummed and clattered with more than a dozen cotton mills: Majestic Mill, Acme Mill, Chronicle Mill, Imperial Mill, Sterling Spinning Mill, Belmont Hosiery Mill and — the biggest of the bunch — the R.L. Stowe Mills. All this fabric inspired Belmont to fashion its motto as “The City of Diversified Textiles.”
But that day ended with the dawn of a new century. It’s a painfully familiar story across North Carolina and the South: The textile mills went dark, and their operations went overseas, leaving the town of about 12,000 people to diversify its economy. R.L. Stowe shut down its last two plants in 2009, leaving Parkdale Mills Plant 15 as the last remaining textile mill.
Many of the old brick shells found new life as condos, apartments and retail outlets. The Majestic Mill is now the Catawba River Antique Mall. “That’s where my mom raised all of her kids,” says Sue Lahr as she joins her friend, Nancy Powell, for dinner at a snazzy restaurant called Nellie’s Southern Kitchen. Lahr’s mother worked in the spinning department at Majestic, raising six children on the “mill hill” with its small, look-alike houses. Her father, who passed away when she was 5, worked as a mill watchman.
“All the houses where I grew up — they’re gone,” Lahr says. But to this day, when she steps into that 67,000-square-foot antique mall — one of the state’s largest — “it still smells like a mill.”
Lahr and Powell remember shopping for groceries and other goods at Belmont General Store on Main Street, which still has a big, old-fashioned wooden cash register atop the counter. Back then, everyone knew the place as Stowe Mercantile. “If you worked in the mill, you could go there and charge your stuff, and the mill would take it out of your check,” Powell says.
The general store, which sells bagels and salads along with mailbox numbers and “For Sale By Owner” signs, is a classic fit in a downtown that’s increasingly chic. For this youthful, old mill town, walking in high cotton looks like this: people strolling along Main Street and ducking into a wine bar, a bourbon or dessert bar, a jailhouse-turned-cigar bar, a coffee shop run by cops-turned-baristas, or a bike shop with beer taps.
At South Main Cycles, 30-year-old Mills Davis pedals through adjectives such as “radical,” “super cool” and “happening” when describing this town a dozen miles west of downtown Charlotte.
The bicycle showroom, with a bar up front and outdoor patio on the side, occupies the historic Piedmont and Northern Railway Depot built in 1915. Owner Steve Pepitone opened the bicycle shop in rented space down the street before buying the depot in early 2014.
Bellying up to a bar might seem out of balance with the health benefits of biking, but Davis says that’s how many cyclists roll. “There’s a lot of synergy between bikes and beer,” he says. “It’s the recovery beverage of choice.”
Belmont has been on a roll in parking hip hangouts along Main Street. In 2017, two former police officers from Lancaster County, S.C., opened Mugshots Coffee and Tea, a tiny coffeehouse across from the town park. Its walls are decorated with varnished planks of wood, and its coffee comes from a roaster in California who buys beans directly from farmers.
On a December afternoon, 21-year-old Anthony Hancock is at the latte machine, extolling the “huge humanitarian effort” of his bosses to keep small coffee farmers in business and earning good wages. “It’s awesome,” he says. Hancock, who sports a nose ring and earlobe gauges and grew up near Chicago, contributes to the edgy vibe percolating through downtown Belmont.
The heart of this city even has ties to the heartthrob boy band known as the Jonas Brothers. In 2016, the musicians’ father, Kevin Jonas Sr., who grew up in Belmont, opened Nellie’s Southern Kitchen to much fanfare. Named for his late grandmother, Nellie Jonas, it serves up classic, locally sourced vittles: Nana’s corn, Dixie slaw, fried okra. But this isn’t your classic meat-and-three joint. In an “industrial chic” setting, its menu includes beer and cocktails, and its dog-friendly rooftop bar keeps the flat-screens glowing with scores and replays.
This recent infusion of cool in Belmont has millennials sounding like old-timers. “I graduated high school in ’07, and back then, Belmont was a nice, quiet, little town,” says Jessica Dellinger, one of the managers of Luna Hombre, a wine bodega. “It’s kind of a destination that you want to live in. You see that with the small businesses that are more focused on better quality food and drink, so you get something different everywhere you go here.”
Belmont’s proximity to Charlotte — it straddles Interstate 85 on the eastern edge of Gaston County — has no doubt made it a sought-after address for those who work in the Queen City but prefer small-town ambience and smaller home prices. Belmont has added more than 3,100 people since 2000, a 35% growth rate; during the same period Gaston County grew by 15% to about 220,000. But you don’t have to drive to Charlotte to cultivate a career: A 280-acre industrial park called The Oaks Commerce Center is buzzing with business. Tenants include Wilbert Plastic Services Inc., Dixie Industrial Supply Inc. and Carus Corp.
Even in boom times, Belmont has carved out space for solitude. On the north side of I-85, towering over the treetops, stand the Gothic brick buildings and spires of Belmont Abbey College.
With the highway by its side and an international airport 7 miles away, it’s quite the anachronism.
Belmont Abbey is a private liberal-arts school that enrolls about 1,500 and is the only college in North Carolina affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Soon after the Civil War, a missionary priest bought farmland and donated it to the Benedictine monks, who he hoped would build a Catholic school and religious community on the grounds.
In 1885, Bishop Leo Haid became the first abbot of the monastery. The next year he established a seminary named St. Mary’s College. At the time, Belmont was just a railroad stop known as Garibaldi Station. The community changed its name to Belmont in 1886, and the school was renamed Belmont Abbey College in 1913. The name’s origin is disputed, but one story says the Pope wouldn’t tolerate an abbey in a place called Garibaldi. Since Crowders Mountain could be seen from the monastery, the abbot named it Belmont, which means “beautiful mountain.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Belmont had fewer than 200 residents. Then along came the name that is still woven through this town like a monogram. In 1901, Robert Lee Stowe founded Chronicle Mill, thus beginning Belmont’s century-long run as a textile heavyweight. It was the first of many cotton mills that would set up shop here along the Catawba River, and by 1930, Belmont’s population mushroomed to nearly 4,000 people. From 1930 to 1980, the population barely changed. Since then it has tripled, benefiting from Charlotte’s growth.
In 1991, retired textile executive Daniel Jonathan Stowe, son of Robert Lee Stowe, set aside acreage to create a botanical garden. He gave nearly $28 million in money and land for the project, which was the largest single donation for public use in Gaston County history. Today, the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, a nonprofit organization, is a 380-acre Eden, brimming with flowers and meadows and fountains and forests along the banks of Lake Wylie.
Lahr, who recalls growing up on the mill hill, appreciates the modern sheen on her hometown. Back in the day, “they rolled up the streets at 6 o’clock, just about.”
But that day has come and gone, and the night is still young. For an old textile town rocking a new outfit, tomorrow looms large.