In the thick of the Great Depression, Frank Massimino, an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project, produced a “life history” manuscript titled “The Deever Taylors.” The 80-year-old pages, now scanned into a North Carolina-history virtual database alongside nearly 2,900 other documents, speak of Balfour Textile Mills, a “well-kept village” situated in the heart of Henderson County.
Massimino, an artist hired through the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, described a “neighborly” and “somewhat interdependent” town in which “chickens and dogs mingle[d] fraternally,” pig pens lined 25-by-50-foot backyards, and “clothes-line gossiping” was routine.
Now, decades later, whispers over starched overalls and work shirts have faded into silence. The vibrant community that once was Balfour Mills has waned with time, all but bleached from city records.
“It’s gone,” says local history aficionada Jennie Jones Giles. “Gradually, that typical Southern-mill-village atmosphere went away.”
Established in 1923 by Captain Ellison Adger Smyth — a Charleston, S.C.-based industry honcho who’s been called “the pioneer of the textile industry” — the Balfour community accommodated 104 five- and seven-room cottages. As Massimino described, these white-planked homes were compactly arranged in rows that “thread[ed] arterially” into the mill site. And though intangible boundaries divided the village into the “front” and the “back,” it was close-knit all the same.
Young families lived like urbanites, yet with rambling roosters and a pasture for cattle. Giles says there was a drug store, barbershop, and beauty salon. Dances and, reportedly, movies were hosted in the community center, while children swam in the pool during heat waves. The village even had its own industrial-league baseball team.
Though Helen Hauser, a Balfour native and daughter of a machine operator, moved slightly outside of the village when she was just six years old, she still has memories of the “unique place.”
“You couldn’t do anything bad,” she says with a laugh. “Your parents would know about it by the time you got home.”
The adults, husbands and wives alike, worked in the mill for a meager salary of $12 a week. In Massimino’s portrayal, Deever and his wife “Mrs. Taylor” begin their first shift at six in the morning. The quarter-mile hike to the job site is “uneventful,” as the pair passes estranged hounds and women rushing from the market.
The Taylors’ son Jack attended Balfour School, the 1920s schoolhouse now known as Balfour Education Center. Designed by Erle Stillwell, the brick building served only grades one through eight; graduates attended either Hendersonville High or Mills River High.
Carolyn Norton, now an 85-year-old Hendersonville resident, ended up at the latter. Though peers often labeled village children as “lintheads” — a disparaging term for textile workers — she says she enjoyed mill life. Plus, she adds practically, because of the nature of the work, Balfour residents did have a good bit of lint in their hair.
“I was always treated well, had friends, and wasn’t too concerned with finances,” she reflects. Notably, Norton’s granddad was a “boss man,” and her father, Holly Peeler, owned a grocery store at the top of the hill. Sundays were spent at Balfour United Methodist Church, which had a significantly smaller congregation than Balfour Baptist.
For many years, she herself also worked in the spinning room, winding thread onto a bobbin. After her shift, Norton would return to her family’s six-room house on the “front” half of the village, which sat next to a large apartment building.
Many families, though, were far less well off. The Taylors, car-less and laden with medical bills, remained “intent on the struggle for existence,” as Massimino states. Balfour Mills, as Giles explains, was a “company-owned town.” Residents worked eight-hour shifts, only to have house rent and, depending on energy consumption, electric light bills deducted from their paycheck. All dry goods and foodstuffs were owned by the company, as was the water.
“The mill owned the surrounding land, the store, the houses, and the churches,” Giles says in a nearly somber tone. “That’s a traditional Southern mill village.”
The town began to change in 1946 when it was sold to the International Cellucotton Products Company, a derivative of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Though Balfour Mills was soon renamed Berkeley Mills, it took several decades for the “well-kept village” to morph into what it is today.
“It didn’t happen all of a sudden or overnight,” Giles notes. “Even in the 1950s, much of the village still stood.”
As the new owners expanded and modernized the plant, many of the white-planked cottages were moved or sold. It wasn’t until the ’60s that construction crews began scrapping the “box-like” structures.
Alma Lambert joined Kimberly-Clark in 1975, working as secretary to the general manager for more than 40 years. Though maintaining the 104 homes would have been economically impossible for the company, she agrees that Balfour Mills’ identity and history was lost somewhere along the way.
“It was such a major part of the industrial evolution of our county. People learned to be safe and how to take care of their neighbor in these plants,” she says, referring to the “organism of the community” — the mill. “ Now, would people even know what we’re talking about?”
Giles, who will teach a local-history class at Blue Ridge Community College in March, has long been grappling with this issue. As out-of-towners flood Hendersonville and non-natives take charge, Balfour has morphed into just a stretch of road on Asheville Highway. While Kimberly-Clark still stands, hidden behind car dealerships and a gas station, very few are cognizant of its historical significance.
In 2013, the Henderson County School Board even fought tooth and nail to rename Balfour Education Center — an alternative public school for at-risk students, and, structurally, one of the few remaining reminders of card-rooms and second shifts at the mill. (The Heritage Museum Board in downtown Hendersonville wrote a letter to the school-board superintendent, explaining the historical significance of the name, and it stayed unchanged.)
Now, Massimino’s tale of “The Deever Taylors,” rich with a rural dialect that once defined ancestors dating back to the late 18th century, seems largely irrelevant. For Giles, this means that many natives are struggling to find a “sense of place and identity.”
“If we don’t understand the heritage of our county, locals feel like they’re losing their identity,” she says, perhaps reflecting on her own pioneer ancestors who once settled in Henderson and Polk counties. “We begin to forget what made the county what it is today.”