Taking the Carolina Hometown Tour
Story and photos by Lydia Carey

A writer's journey into a family's and a country's past in the mill towns of North Carolina.

North Carolina wooden house

Two southern boys (they'd hate the term southern gentlemen), my dad and his brother, are tall, white-haired, round-bellied men, each with their own level of southern twang. My father's accent has been diluted by years of melting Illinois snow that he has had to survive being married to my mother. But give him a little liquor, or bring him home to the North Carolina woods, and the vowels start stretching out like banjo strings. At the moment, that voice is raised to almost a yell, as the two brothers, both almost deaf, are trying to decide the route to take through a handful of tiny towns along the Carolina border.

I'm the reason for this impromptu tour – impromptu only to my uncle since I have been talking to my father about it for years. Just this morning, after breakfast, my father casually mentioned to my uncle that “the girls would like us to take them on a little tour of where we grew up.” My uncle, his expression imperceptible under his bushy beard, simply raised an eyebrow and coughed his smokers cough.


My partner and I have come all the way from Mexico for a cousin's wedding. I'm determined to record my father and his brother for posterity. I also want to see the places that have figured into so many stories of my childhood. My own family's story is woven into the larger history of this area of the United States: rural poverty, the manufacturing evolution, and life in small-town America.

We load into my uncle's Chevy pick-up and head to the town's one-pump gas station. It's apparent from the moment we hit the road what the main issue is going to be today—everyone's deaf.

My first recording:

“How did you find the piece of property where you live Uncle Mike?” (me)

“Do wha?” (Uncle Mike)

How did you find that property Uncle Mike?” (me)

“What hon, I can't hear ya” (Uncle Mike)


My Uncle Mike lives in a log cabin he and my Aunt Jen built 20 years ago, in the middle of the woods near Clover, South Carolina. This is only miles from most of the homes the brothers shared as children.

black walnut shakes

Mill Strikes and Black Walnut Milkshakes

Cotton mills and mill village life were major influences during the brothers' childhood. Their mother and grandmother both worked in mills for meager salaries that stretched just enough to keep the family fed and a roof over their heads. They ate the same pot of beans all week long (which I was told many times as a child when I complained about dinner) and raised chickens in their backyard.

The Loray Mill Apartments, the first stop on our tour, is a particularly poignant reminder of the difference between then and now.

Loray Mill was one of the area's monster cotton mills, opened right around the turn of the century. Promotional materials for the new loft-style apartments play up the building's industrial heritage, its fine architectural features, and its amenities (like the crescent-shaped swimming pool). But the mill's real value lies in its history as the scene of one of the first and most incendiary textile worker strikes in the south, an event that in 1929 set off a movement that would lead to the formation of the United Textile Workers. The workers fought for higher wages (by the 1920s some workers made less than $5 a week working at the mill) and against the “strech-out” system that doubled their work by forcing them to tend almost double the amount of machines they had had to in the past.

Loray Mill Loft

That famous mill has now been impressively remodeled, but despite developers’ best efforts it doesn't look to be a center of shopping, dining, and upscale living just yet. Working-class Gastonia, in comparison to neighboring towns like Monroe and Concord, hasn't quite caught on as a hotspot for Charlotte execs looking for a satellite city to settle down.

The same Gastonia that touts the Loray Mill lofts remains mired in much of the poverty that my father saw there as a young boy, except now it has a slightly different look to it. When we visit the old neighborhood to get a glance at my great-grandmother's house in East Gastonia we find the poor whites of East Gastonia have been replaced by poor, working-class African-American and Latino families. We talk to a few neighbors as we stroll down to the end of the lane where my father discovers his grandmother's house is now just a patch of grass and a tree-covered property line. He describes to me what it used to look like:

“It was a small two-bedroom house, four rooms maybe at the most. The front was a low, single-story clapboard with a little porch on the front. There was a big magnolia tree right next to the driveway.” The magnolia tree still proudly stands guard.

Just down the road is the Baptist Church parking lot where my dad learned to ride a bike and a few blocks away is the original location of Tony's Ice Cream, now on the other side of town, which feeds my father's nostalgic craving for black walnut shakes.

Meeting the Neighbors

I've been warned by my Uncle Mike that folks in these parts aren't too friendly to the idea of people walking around their neighborhoods taking pictures. In Ranlo, NC we have a run-in with a old lady who backs two blocks down the street in her Buick to ask what we're up to. My dad explains that he use to live on this street and that he's taking me on a tour of his childhood.

“Well,” she admits, “It is hard for me to remember the old neighbors since I had my stroke a few years back.” She lets us go on without calling the police.

This is in contrast to old Mr. Garver, who barrels down the street on his cane and practically chases us away from the old one-room shack on Hickory Grove Road. I always assume a position of asking forgiveness instead of permission when it comes to photos so I'm already shooting away when he shows up. A woman saunters down her driveway with a naked baby on her hip. She wants to know what all the hub-bub is about.

Hickory grove shack

Despite old man Garver's claims that people have tried to break in several times in the last few years, the “house” on Hickory Grove road is hardly much of a house to speak of. Through the window we can see the place is filled with broken appliances, chair stuffing, and empty beer cans. The roof and front porch look as if they could collapse at any moment. The house's tiny, tiny two rooms were once filled by my father, his two brothers, mother, and stepfather. There was no running water in the house, just a pump in back and an outdoor bathtub that got cold almost as soon as you sat in the water.

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Read this article online at: Taking the Carolina Hometown Tour

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