Henry River Mill Village

Henry River Mill Village
Photo: Some of the remaining homes in Henry River Mill Village.

Nestled on the banks of a winding river just outside of Hildebran, North Carolina are the greyed remnants of a blue-collar community. The sound of rural silence is intermittently broken by passers-by who point out the windows of their vehicles, making note of the setting used in a blockbuster film. A sign on the side of the road indicates to gawkers that the entire surrounding area is on the real estate market. If the right buyer for the Henry River Mill Village comes along, they can own one of the few remaining intact examples of a company town.

After Confederate defeat in the Civil War, poor white southern farmers suddenly faced increased competition from newly emancipated African-Americans for low-wage work. Facing destitution these farmers banded together in close-knit communities in the recessed regions of Appalachia (Carroll, p. 11-12).

Community became a central component in the Cotton Mill Campaign that swept through the region beginning in the 1880s. Textile mills offered the south an opportunity to separate ties with northern industrial interests and produce cotton products locally. Industrialists eagerly tapped into the vein of local pride and positioned the mills as an opportunity for impoverished farmers to share in the modern prosperity of industrialism. These new mills became “symbols of regional regeneration, yardsticks of a town’s progress, and badges of civic pride.”

Though the rural citizens were eager to take up mill work, subsistence farming did not lend itself to the saving of capital necessary to purchase a home in close proximity to the mill. To ameliorate this hurdle thirty-five houses were constructed along the gradual slope leading to the main Henry River Mills Manufacturing Company building. Employees were allowed to live in these simple dwellings rent-free, or at a deeply subsidized rate in later decades. Each unit provided a family with about an acre of land for personal use, an outdoor privy, a warm fireplace to keep warm, and a place to call home.

The Company Store
Photo: The centerpiece of the mill community was the multi-purpose company store.

At the heart of the village is a two-story brick building that primarily functioned as the company store. Instead of paying workers in hard currency, employees were issued tokens that could only be tendered at the company store. This practice, common with industrialists of the era, allowed companies to reclaim workers’ salaries and keep them under company influence. Workers were not only beholden to the company store monopoly on goods, but also the social services it hosted. The company store building also served as a post-office, bank, school, and church. The doctrine taught in the classroom and preached from the pulpit often coincided with company interests. Social and economic pressure to remain loyal to the company kept workers in line.

Towards the southern edge of the village are the concrete foundation of the mill that powered the community. In 1902 David Aderholdt, Marcus Aderholdt, Miles Rudisill, and Michael Rudisill purchased an existing machine shop on the 1,500 acre property. By 1905 the Henry River Mills Manufacturing Company had completed construction of a dam to provide water power to the new three-story textile mill. In the subsequent decades the mill expanded to meet demand by building additions, wiring its buildings for electricity, reinvesting in new mechanical textile equipment, and adapting to new market trends. The American textile industry suffered a severe decline in the 1960s as global capitalism proliferated. Unable to compete with low foreign labor costs, the mill and its surrounding community was sold carte blanche to Wade Shepherd in 1975. The investment proved disastrous as the mill was completely consumed by fire in 1977.

Home
Photo: One of the remaining 1&1/2 story homes.

Despite the devastation some of the villagers remained throughout the 1980s. While the homes were adequate for the period the mill was operational, they had fallen woefully behind by modern standards. Even the occupied homes still lacked proper electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, insulation, or any significant additions. Vacant homes were long pilfered for anything of value and bore typical signs of sustained neglect. Environmental elements have greatly deteriorated the wood frame homes insuring that they will remain uninhabitable. Of the original lot of 35, only 20 structures remain.

After three decades of decay the homes provided a perfect setting for the poverty stricken District 12 in The Hunger Games. The village served as a backdrop in the dystopian fantasy where extreme poverty is leveraged as a means of regional government control. The blockbuster film has brought unwanted attention to the village resulting in theft and vandalism. Shepherd has posted trespassing notices, but the warnings often go unheeded by curious visitors.

Repeated negotiations to sell the property have subsequently stalled. Shepherd’s high asking price of $1.4 million, the uniqueness of the real-estate, lack of utility infrastructure, and other bureaucratic hurdles related to land development have contributed to the village’s ongoing decay (Carroll, p. 94-100). The SyFy Channel show Hollywood Treasure even featured the property, but was unable to find a willing buyer.

As an outsider it is tough to imagine one’s life being under the thumb of corporate masters. Although the villagers of Henry River Mill were kept in meager homes afforded by their work and nominal pay, stories from those who lived there emphasize the close-knit community they were a part of. The farm ethic of interdependence on one’s neighbors carried over and built strong community bonds. As modern working-class Americans continue to struggle with obtaining livable wages and corporate impositions on personal choice, few can claim that they have the support of their neighbors. Unfortunately the welfare of Henry River Mill Village citizens was heavily reliant on the fortunes of the controlling company. When the mill ceased operations, the village was relegated to become nothing more than a fading historical curiosity.

Resources:

Atlas Obscura – Article on the Henry River Mill Village.

Google Books – Excerpts from Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World by Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones.

Hickory Record – Article on vandalism and theft at the “District 12″ set.

LearnNC – K12 teaching resource on mill village life.

Kelly Autumn Carroll - Master’s thesis on the history and preservation of the mill.

SciFi Mafia – Hollywood Treasure video featuring The Hunger Games setting.

Wikipedia – Article on the Henry River Mill Village.

American Urbex E.28 – An Urbex Full of Fail

A spontaneous urbex trip to Spartanburg, SC leads to absolutely nothing.

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Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company

Schlitz Brewing Company
Photo (source): Postcard of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company as it appeared circa 1908.

With the colloquial Brew City nickname and a baseball team called the Brewers, Milwaukee is synonymous with beer. Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company was once the largest in the United States and its slogan boasted that it was “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” However the intoxicating prestige would not last as the brewer stumbled towards self-inflicted ruin.

For immigrants in the mid 1800s Wisconsin was a close analog to Germany. A temperate climate, ample farmland, untamed forests, and the abundant freshwater supply were a natural draw. These immigrants brought their affinity for beer in tow. The perfect brew of European social drinking norms, close proximity to farmland for grains, timber for barrel production, fresh water for brewing and ice, and proximity to major rail and water shipping lines made Milwaukee the perfect city for beer production.

In 1849 immigrant Georg Krug brewed his own supply of beer in the basement of his Kilbourntown home. The unrefrigerated 1.5 gallon per day yield was enough for Krug to sell in his restaurant. The following year Krug hired fellow German immigrant Joseph Schlitz to assist with the restaurant bookkeeping. The entrepreneurial Krug and bookkeeper Schlitz funneled profits back into the business in order to expand the production capacity by purchasing real estate, wagons, barrels, and brewing equipment. When Krug passed away in 1856, Schlitz partnered with his widow Anna to keep the business going. The pair would marry two years later and Schlitz rechristened the company.

Malt House
Photo: A sign that once adorned the exterior of the malt house.

Schlitz established its present day location by acquiring the Rheude & Co. Brewery on 3rd and Walnut Street. In the following years the company would acquire the surrounding real estate as it sprawled in all directions. The brewery, bottling plant, garages, grain elevators, offices, railroad lines, stables, and stockhouses would eventually consume 46-acres of land.

The Schlitz name enjoyed recognition within Wisconsin, but the company was able to leverage a national tragedy in their favor to expand. Between October 8-11, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city. The fire wiped out 11 of the 23 breweries concentrated in the downtown Chicago area. In response Schlitz floated free beer down the coast of Lake Michigan. This act of benevolence spread by word of mouth and Schlitz gained recognition in the most important distribution hub in the midwest. With the potential for a national market opened the company issued public stock in 1873.

Tragedy would again mark a turning point for Schlitz in 1875. While en route to Germany the S.S. Schiller collided with the Scilly Islands cliffs on the coast of England. Joseph Schlitz was among the drowned victims. His will stipulated that control of his eponymous brewery go to his wife Anna’s extended family. Alfred, August, Charles, Henry, Edward, and William Uihlein assumed the top management roles.

Under Uihlein leadership the Schlitz brand prospered tremendously. Within a few years Schlitz beer was shipped throughout the United States, Mexico, Central America and Brazil. To secure a foothold in major cities the company purchased corner real estate to push saloon competition to the fringe. The Uihlein family further insured their interests by working in key banking and railroad sectors. Internal investment in advertising, bottle manufacturing, steam engines, refrigeration, and quality controls pushed the company past chief rival Pabst in 1902.

Brewhouse
Photo: A view from the top floor of the brewhouse. Notice the ample skylight.

During Prohibition the company relied upon its impressive real estate portfolio to stay financially solvent. The rebranded “Joseph Schlitz Beverage Company” reorganized during this period to produce electrodes, timber products, baking supplies, candies, and sodas. The company weathered the 14 year dry spell and reclaimed the brewery title throughout the 1940′s and 1950′s.

Schlitz’ fortunes shifted dramatically in the following years. A strike in 1952 set production back so much that Anheuser-Busch usurped the brewing crown. The two brewing behemoths continued to swap top-tier status intermittently, with Schlitz gaining short-lived competitive edges through innovation and advertising. Despite its efforts Schlitz was ultimately outmatched by Anheuser-Busch in terms of production volume.

Stairway
Photo: An ornate stairwell near the entrance of the brewhouse.

During the 1970′s a series of strategic missteps irreparably tarnished the Schlitz name. To cut costs the company implemented an “accelerated-batch fermentation” process that cut total brewing time by 20%. There were also allegations that the company supplanted premium barley and hops with inferior substitutes and corn syrup. With this move Schlitz achieved one of the most efficient production capacities in the entire brewing industry, but did so at the expense of its brand reputation.

Competition in the burgeoning light beer market also diminished the Schlitz name. The company responded to Miller Lite in 1976 with Schlitz Light. Consumers wary of Schlitz’ quality doomed the product to immediate failure. The light beer market continued to expand throughout the 1970′s with Schlitz being unable to compete.

Further compounding Schlitz’ quality issues was a looming Food and Drug Administration regulation that would require brewers to list ingredients in their products. The truncated brewing processes employed at Schlitz required the addition of silica gel as an anti-hazing agent. This unpalatable addition was quietly substituted with an agent called Chill-garde. This compound was filtered out before packaging and under the guidelines would not have to be included on the ingredients label. Unfortunately the use of Chill-garde had adverse chemical interactions with the foam-stabilizing ingredient, Kelcoloid. If Schlitz containers sat on the shelf in the right conditions small protein flakes would form. Management refused to publicly acknowledge the quality issues for months as brewmasters struggled with the to find the root cause. Due to persistent consumer complaints the company initiated a quiet recall of 10 million bottles.

With profits already swirling the drain Schlitz was hit with another devastating blow. In 1976 president and board chairman Robert Uihlein was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away within a matter of weeks. Robert’s death thus ended a century of direct Uihlein stewardship of Schlitz. Under new leadership the company changed course and returned to its original brewing processes. Despite improvements in quality control Schlitz was unable to recapture all but a fraction of their former glory.

Schlitz Brewhouse
Photo: Film photo scan of one of the massive brass brew kettles. Date & photographer unknown.

The brewery that made Milwaukee famous ground to a halt on May 31, 1981 when 720 hourly workers staged a strike. By July management countered with an announcement that the 6.8 million barrel production capacity at the Milwaukee brewery was no longer needed and would officially close on September 30. The entire company would limp along producing beer at other domestic facilities until it ultimately went up for sale.

Heileman and Pabst placed competing bids in the area of $500 million for what remained of Schlitz, but were vetoed by the Justice Department on anti-trust grounds. The following year the Justice Department approved a $325 million sale of Schlitz to the Detroit based Stroh Brewery Company. Heileman had little interest in producing the iconic Schlitz beer and instead focused heavily on promoting their own Old Milwaukee brand as a substitute. Acquiring Schlitz, and their heavy debt burdens, contributed to the eventual sale of Stroh’s owned properties in 1999. In an ironic twist of fate Pabst ended up acquiring the Schlitz brand, but held off on brewing anything under the Schlitz label.

After nearly a decade hiatus the beer that made Milwaukee famous was resurrected under two of Schlitz’ former competitors names. Beginning in 2008 Miller Brewing Company contracted Pabst Brewing Company to produce the 1960′s Schlitz formula. Production proved to be a challenge as brewmaster Bob Newman had to interview retired Schlitz employees to rediscover missing elements of the original recipe brewing process. The revitalized Schlitz beer appears to have enjoyed a certain degree of success in the midwest.

Schlitz Brewhouse
Photo: The exterior of the brewhouse slated for demolition.

Stroh’s placed the former massive 2.3 million square foot Schlitz facility on the market to recoup acquisition costs. The real estate was sold in 1983 to Brewery Works, Inc. While some of the original structures were demolished, others were repurposed into lucrative commercial spaces managed by Schlitz Park. From 1983 to 2013, however, the brewhouse that put Milwaukee on the map remained undeveloped. After 30 years of decay the very heart of the former Schlitz empire will be demolished. Clearing away the brewhouse will create a one-acre park and spur renovations to the former stockhouse. Crews have already begun tearing the iconic brewhouse down.

Exploring this location was quite a memorable experience. A late afternoon tip from a fellow explorer granted access to the cavernous brewhouse. As the sun was setting on a bitterly cold Wisconsin day I scrambled to capture as much as I could before losing all natural light. The sheer magnitude and architectural beauty of the brewhouse was difficult to comprehend in such a short amount of time. After spending a rousing evening complete with Schlitz beer in downtown Milwaukee, I returned to the location the next morning. While nursing an intense hangover I managed to lose track of my location within the more modern brewhouse addition and spent an hour retracing my steps. The freezing winds coming off of Lake Michigan were certainly no respite. Bitterly cold and exhausted I managed to only concentrate enough to add a few paltry shots to my meager collection. Although it pains me to see this historic landmark face the wrecking ball, it personally pains me even more to have been not properly prepared to explore it in depth. As such one of my favorite explores chronicled here on American Urbex is a cautionary tale.

Resources:

Beer Connoisseur – Article on the decline of Schlitz.

Beer History – Beer volume statistics from 1950 – 1980.

BizTimes - A brief outline for renovations on the former Schlitz property.

FOHC – PDF describing Schlitz bottling and efforts during Prohibition.

Google Books – A Spirited History of Milwaukee Brews & Booze by Martin Hintz with a chapter on Schlitz.

Google Books – Breweries of Wisconsin by Jerold W. Apps with a chapter on Schlitz.

Google Books – Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer by Amy Mittelman mentions Schlitz.

Google Books – The US Brewing Indsutry: Data and Economic Analysis by Victor J. Tremblay & Carol Horton Tremblay examines Schlitz as a failed brewery.

Google News – 1981 Milwaukee Journal article on the Schlitz downfall.

Google News – 1981 Milwaukee Journal article on Schlitz cessation of Milwaukee operations.

Google News – 1981 Toledo Blade article on the attempted Schlitz acquisition by Heileman and Pabst.

Google News – 1985 Milwaukee Journal article on the brewhouse shortly after closing.

JSOnline – 2009 article on renewed Schlitz brewing at MillerCoors.

JSOnline – 2012 article on the demolition of the brewhouse.

New York Times – 1982 article on the Stroh acquisition.

On Milwaukee – Bob Newman resurrects the 1960′s Schlitz recipe.

Schlitz Park – Brief history of the Schlitz Brewery property.

SLAHS – Thorough history of Schlitz.

UW Milwaukee – Postcards showing the Schlitz Brewery.

Wikipedia –  Entry for Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

Wisconsin History – Collection of historic photos of Schlitz ephemera.

American Urbex E.27 – The Police Catch an Urban Explorer

A recorded interaction with the police at an urbex location.

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Alexian Brothers Novitiate

Alexian Novitiate
Photo: All that remains of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate.

The well-to-do widow of lawyer F. M. Peters, Mrs. Jennie Peters, dearly loved her daughter. In the latter portion of the 1930′s architects John King and Gordon Feldhausen were tasked with creating a unique building just for her. Unlike the farmhouses, barns, and silos typical for the Gresham, WI community this structure would be designed around a single individual. The expansive home surrounded by trees along the banks of the Red River would provide much needed respite to Jennie’s disabled daughter Jane.

Unfortunately Jane would never set foot in the house. She passed away just six weeks after construction began.

Undeterred by the unfortunate events, Mrs. Peters made the mansion in the quiet rural community her home. When completed the stone Georgian colonial building featured 20 rooms. On the first floor the were the drawing room, library, guest room, dining room, kitchen, pantry and laundry. The second floor had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and four rooms for the maids. A nearby four car garage also had quarters above it. The total cost of the property amounted to $250,000 (or approximately $3.9 million adjusting for inflation).

Alexian Novitiate
Photo: One of the few remaining beautiful architectural flairs in an otherwise empty mansion.

Although Jennie was able to assimilate into the community there were rumors that one day she would give the property away. The rumor bore truth in 1950 when Jennie gifted the 232-acre estate to the Alexian Brothers Novitiate. Shortly thereafter novices preparing for service to the Catholic church moved to the novitiate to begin their training. A $1.5 million (about $12 million today) facility named Peters Hall was built adjacent to the mansion to serve the growing number of faculty, staff, and novices.

The novitiate struggled to keep pace with the edicts of the Second Vatican Council, which required its religious orders provide a college level education to novices. This meant that novices had to travel 55 miles to St. Norbert’s College in De Pere, WI. The commute proved to be time-consuming, expensive, and as anyone who has driven through Wisconsin in the middle of winter knows, dangerous at times. The decision was made in 1968 to relocate the novitiate to Chicago.

In the following years the property received no substantial bids when placed on the market. In 1974 negotiations were in motion with the Green Bay Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council to convert the novitiate into a rehabilitation center. Those plans came to a screeching halt around midnight on New Year’s Eve. The caretaker Joe Plonka, his wife, two children, and two friends were awoken by armed members of the Menominee Warrior Society seizing control of the novitiate buildings. The Menominee Warrior Society began their occupation of the property claiming that the lands rightfully belonged to their tribe.

With experienced Vietnam veterans in their midst the Menominee Warrior Society quickly secured their foothold.  In response local, state, and federal agents quickly descended upon the area. Electricity and telephone service for the novitiate were cut. A perimeter with guarded checkpoints around the area were erected. Tensions ran high as shots were frequently exchanged between the occupiers and government officials. The Menominee Warrior Society’s goals were clear in their negotiations with their motto “deed or death.”

Alexian Novitiate
Photo: The top of the mansion where Menominee Warrior Society members kept watch.

Seeking to avoid bloodshed the Alexian Brothers Novitiate sold the property to the Menominee Tribe for $1. On February 3, 1975 the members of the Menominee Warrior Society willingly turned themselves over to the National Guard. The 34 day standoff ended with no major injuries between the Menominee Warrior Society and officials. The ordeal could have ended a lot sooner as Menominee Warrior Society general Mike Sturdevant later admitted that they ran out of ammunition on January 4.  

As per the negotiated agreement the Menominee Tribe would have to make a “good faith” effort to reimburse the novitiate $750,000 for the property. They were unable to afford upkeep on the facility and ceded control back to the Alexian Brothers Novitiate after just five months. The novitiate fielded several proposals from potential new occupants, but nothing substantial ever materialized.

On the morning of October 11, 1975 the neighbors adjacent to the novitiate noticed smoke billowing above the trees. Due to a dense fog a fire raged for hours within the mansion. Responders to the scene described the inside as a total loss.

After the suspected arson the property changed hands several times. The remaining structures fell into disrepair after decades of neglect. Frequent break-ins and vandalism hastened its decline.  In 2003 everything but the mansion was torn down. Some of the land has since been parceled out, though the main property with the gutted mansion remains.


Video (source): J. Patrick Rick’s documentary “The Abbey & Me.”

Resources:

Alexian Brothers – Comprehensive history of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate estate in Gresham, WI.

Google News – April 13, 1941 Milwaukee Journal article describing the origins of the mansion.

Google News – January 2, 1975 Milwaukee Journal article on the Menominee Warrior Society occupation.

Google News - February 4, 1975 News and Courier article on the history of the Alexian Brothers.

Google News – March 17, 1975 Milwaukee Journal article on the lack of ammunition.

Google News – October 13, 1975 Lewiston Daily Sun article on the fire in the mansion.

Wikipedia – Entry for Alexian Brothers Novitiate

YouTube – J. Patrick Rick’s documentary “The Abbey & Me.”

Bush Stadium

Bush Stadium

Photo (source): A postcard of the stadium in its prime.

Bush_Stadium_Indianapolis

Photo (source): Bush Stadium after years of decay.

Social conditions in early 1900′s America saw a massive shift in the way the working class lived. Electricity, automobiles, health and safety laws, worker’s rights legislation, improved public education, and government funded infrastructure afforded the working class the opportunity to thrive. Progress meant that the American public gained more time for leisure activity. Many Americans sought to occupy their free time devoted to baseball.

Baseball was a package ripe for entrepreneurs to capitalize upon. The drama of the game had its winners and losers, heroes and villains, its loyal followers, and content perfect for radio and print media transmission. The stadium became a cathedral where the faithful throngs could worship the game whilst owners reaped the economic rewards. A team worthy of reverence is, therefore, deserving of a stadium demonstrative of its glory.

Entrance
Photo: The main gate turnstiles at the abandoned stadium.

During the golden age of baseball stadiums were erected as a testament to the game. In 1931 the Art Deco stylized stadium Perry Field opened its gates to fans of the minor league Indianapolis Indians. The name held until World War II when the field was rechristened to the patriotic Victory Field. Once the field was sold to the city of Indianapolis in 1967 it was renamed to its current namesake Bush Stadium.

In its prime Bush Stadium was the template for what other baseball stadiums should aspire to. The red brick lined outfield was covered in ivy. During gameplay the scoreboard had to be manually changed to reflect current statistics. Unobstructed views meant that there was not a single bad seat in the house. The venue played host to American Association, Pacific Coast League, International League, and Negro League games.

Take Your Seat
Photo: Cold empty seats without the warm presence of adoring fans.

Baseball games continued at the park until 1996 when the Indianapolis Indians moved to the more modern Victory Field. For two years the stadium had an identity crisis as the infield was ripped out to make a dirt racing track known as the 16th Street Speedway. For nearly a decade the stadium fell into disrepair. For a time the once beloved venue became a graveyard for vehicles traded in for the government “cash for clunkers” incentive program.

Once the cars were cleared away Indianapolis began to stoke development interest in the neglected property. The stadium is currently being renovated into an apartment complex that will preserve much of the aesthetics of the original field. The project is part of a larger urban renewal plan to reinvigorate the area into one that fuels America’s new leisurely pastime: consumerism.


Video (source): Plans for the apartment complex built upon the ruins of Bush Stadium.

Resources:

Abandoned USA – Photos of the stadium

Ballpark Digest – Report that the stadium is being converted to apartments

Develop Indy (PDF) – Synthesis Incorporated rendering of the stadium renovation

Develop Indy (PDF) – Press release signaling the start of the renovation

Ecolaborative – Seats from the stadium are being reused as bus stop seats.

Historic Indianapolis – Photos of the stadium.

Indy Star – Gallery with photos of the stadium in its prime.

Jalopnik – Article on the stadium being used in the Cash for Clunkers program

Minor League Parks – Entry for Bush Stadium

Queen City Discovery – Extensive walkthrough and photos.

Steve Hardin – Photos from the 16th Street Speedway.

Wikipedia – Entry for Bush Stadium.

Wikipedia – Entry for the stadium’s current namesake Donie Bush.

WTHR13 – States that demolition has begun.

YouTube – WISH-TV report on the apartment complex development.

North Wilkesboro Speedway

North Wilkesboro Speedway
Photo: The starting line of the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Nestled in the undulating hills of rural North Wilkesboro lies a dormant behemoth. Its vehicular roar shattered the natural ambiance to the cheers of thousands of spectators. For five decades the North Wilkesboro Speedway offered racing fans a chance to see racing greats up close.

During Prohibition moonshiners in the Appalachians modified their vehicles to outrun the authorities. Even after the disastrous social experiment with Prohibition ended, some Americans developed a taste for illicit liquor.  Thus a thriving demand for tax-free moonshine continued to spur automobile innovation. Moonshine “runners” continued to push automobiles well past their factory specs well into the 1940′s.

The hilly forest countryside of Wilkes County and its geographic proximity to the large urban centers of Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem made it an ideal location for runners. The raw power of these heavily modified vehicles attracted the attention of the public whenever they gathered to race. These unregulated races were rife with safety hazards for drivers and spectators alike. The rules were often treated merely as suggestions by participants. Unscrupulous race organizers sometimes made off with the proceeds before the conclusion of the race.

The Road
Photo: Grass growing through the cracks in the track.

William France, Sr., having been burned one too many times by shady race organizers, decided to legitimize these races by the creation of a self-governing body. In the mid-1940s France met with race organizers all over the American south to build his vision. Wilkes County residents Enoch Stanley, Lawson Curry, and Jack and Charlie Combs purchased farmland in 1945 to develop a track. Funding for the project ran short, which resulted in an unintentionally abnormal track design. The .625-mile length of dirt track was not a perfect oval, ran downhill on the front stretch, and uphill on the back. Despite its peculiarities the public came out in droves. Races began in 1946, with official NASCAR races shortly thereafter. Driver Robert “Red” Byron won the final race of the 1949 season at North Wilkesboro Speedway to become the very first NASCAR champion. 

Over the next few decades NASCAR shifted gears. Engineering feats produced faster vehicles that required larger tracks. With larger venues came increased media exposure, marketing opportunities, and expanded audiences. To keep pace North Wilkesboro Speedway CEO Enoch Staley introduced a number of amenities to keep the track relevant. Expanded grandstands, air-conditioned viewing boxes, an electric scoreboard, and other attractions kept race fans coming to the short track. By the 1990s, however, the track’s position in the NASCAR lineup began to fall too far behind the competition. On September 29, 1996 driver Jeff Gordon won the final Winston Cup race to bring an end to NASCAR at the track. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway
Photo: Notice the proximity of the grandstand next to the track.

In the period following the final NASCAR race there have been other minor events that have paled in comparison. After protracted disagreements about how to reinvigorate the track and several public gestures that ultimately amounted to nothing, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. has yet to determine the fate of the track. Despite the apparent neglect ardent grassroots support is evident as devoted racing fans try to resurrect the decaying venue. In 2008 fans petitioned North Carolina to place a historical marker signifying its cultural significance. Ongoing efforts by Save the Speedway are resolved to bring awareness to die-hard racing fans connected by social media.

Urban exploration, or in this case rural, focuses largely on abandoned buildings. This track is not abandoned. It is in that painful state just before total abandonment or demolition. Reminders of a glorious past still adorn the speedway. A fading Winston Cup mural at the main gate. The rusting electric leaderboard bearing a Tyson sponsorship. The giant sun-scorched orange Union 76 ball. The luxurious viewing boxes are painted with mold. Wild grass has broken through concrete track. A racing fan who has fond memories of the track in its prime would be sorely disappointed. 


Video: ESPN footage of the final NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Resources:

NC Markers – M-56 historical marker for the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Racing Reference – NASCAR race results for the track.

Save the Speedway – An effort to revitalize the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Save the Speedway – Andrew J. Baker – When The Engines No Longer Roar: A Case Study of
North Wilkesboro, NC and The North Wilkesboro Speedway.

YouTube – ESPN coverage of Jeff Gordon winning the final NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Wikipedia – Entry for the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Wilkes Journal-Patriot – 2012 article on the effort to revive the sparsely used track. 

American Urbex E.26 – Kyle Tretow

A new urbexer from Wisconsin shares his insights into an exploration of the Stonewall Jackson School.

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Stonewall Jackson School

Cannon Hall
Photo: Cannon Memorial Hall is one of many individual structures that make up the school.

On the fringes where rural meets urban outside of Concord, NC is a stone arched bridge that hangs over one of the roads. Ivy has all but covered the exterior of this bridge, but the rusting words “Stonewall Jackson School” are still clearly visible to northbound drivers passing underneath. From the furrow of the road beneath the hedgerow and natural hills can be seen the  tops of red brick structures that are common in this part of the state. For those with trained eyes, however, the telltale signs of abandonment are there. Unkept grounds, boarded windows, and a notable lack of human presence permeate throughout this urbex location. This is the site of the Stonewall Jackson Manual Training and Industrial School.

The initial inspiration for the school drew from an astonishingly cruel court case witnessed by James P. Cook. In a 1921 article Cook chronicled the unfortunate turn of events for a 13 year-old boy. The boy had been born to an uneducated couple who lived in the Piedmont hills. Disease took his parents and had left him an orphan. With no one else to care for him the boy was taken in by more affluent distant relatives. No effort was made by the boy’s caretakers to improve his lot in life outside of feed and clothe him. One Sunday the boy’s caretakers left him to watch over the property. In their absence the boy went exploring about the house and came upon $1.30 in bureau, which he thusly pocketed. Later that day the man of the house returned to find the money missing. The next morning the boy was arrested and placed in the county jail.

Cook noted the exceptional callousness of the court proceedings for the impoverished orphan boy.

There was none to speak for the boy. The court devoured him. The solicitor’s prayer for sentence upon this white boy, who made no defense – no appeal for mercy, or even humane justice – was the meanest, coldest utterance ever spoken in the state…

[The judge] coldly, easily, and quickly sentenced that small thirteen year-old boy to a county ‘chain gang for three years and six months, at hard labor’. And this was the treatment meted out to a child in North Carolina Superior Court in 1890.

The gross miscarriage of justice left an indelible mark upon Cook. He raised the issue in the court of public opinion by editorializing in newspapers about the dire need for a reformatory. Over the next 17 years Cook’s advocacy steadily changed the hearts and minds of North Carolina’s citizens.

In 1907 the matter came before the General Assembly, which at the time hosted a number of former Confederate soldiers. At the last minute It was suggested to the bill’s authors that the school be named in honor of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in order to curry their favor. On March 2, 1907 the bill authorizing the creation of the Stonewall Jackson Manual Training and Industrial School passed with all Confederate members voting in favor.

The Piano
Photo: A silent piano sits the living room area of Cannon Memorial Hall.

On the outset the foundation of the school teetered on the precipice of failure. The General Assembly only allocated a meager $10,000 to the project over a two year period. Unable to purchase a parcel of land adequate for the school, the Board of Trustees reached out to North Carolina communities. Citizens of Concord became interested in the project and raised another $10,000 to purchase a 288 acre tract of land in Cabarrus County. A generous $5,000 donation from the King’s Daughters and North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs enabled the construction of two cottages on the property. Construction costs for the first cottage exhausted funds to the point where it could not be properly outfitted. James Cook’s wife took it upon herself to rally local businesses and charitable individuals to donate furnishings and amenities. On January 12, 1909 the school housed its first students and staff in the newly completed King’s Daughters Cottage.

Stonewall Jackson Cottage
Photo (source): Exterior plan of one of the colonial revival style cottages.

Within a relatively short span of time the school was able to overcome its foundational hardships. Word spread throughout the state that the school had positive outcomes in turning the lives of boys around. As a result the campus rapidly expanded over the next three decades. State funds, support from surrounding counties, and private donations supported the construction of a total of 17 colonial revival style cottages. In 1922 the administration was thoroughly destroyed in a fire. In its stead rose the Cannon Memorial Memorial Hall on the north side of the property. By the 1940′s additional buildings included a gymnasium, pool, infirmary, bakery, laundry, print shop, and other smaller structures.

The school also maintained a 984 acre farm to provide both food and financial support. Crops raised on the farm included tomatoes, cabbage, beans, corn and potatoes. A herd of Hereford cows and Berkshire hogs produced an ample supply of meat.

Stonewall Jackson School
Photo (source): Students assembled in front of Cannon Hall.

Development for boys at the school included a healthy mixture of academics and labor. For half of the day students were expected to work in some capacity on the premises. After a period of general adjustment, each student was assigned to learn a trade befitting his aptitude. Those not inclined to farm work were participated in industrial programs that taught shoemaking, barbering, textiles, and a mechanics. Some students also learned the print industry by producing a magazine called The Uplift. The other half of the day was spent in school, which operated year-round. On Sundays all were expected to participate in Christian religious activities in the chapel.

In the evening the boys returned to their respective cottages to their “father” and “mother.” The father was expected to oversee the boys at play, provide discipline, and counsel them as needed. The mother prepared meals, kept the cottage clean, and insured that the boys minded their manners. Although up to 30 boys occupied an individual cottage at any given time, the intentional family-like structure was meant to foster positive emotional and social development.

Chapel
Photo: The chapel was renovated in 1997 after a 15-year period of neglect, only to once again fall into disuse a few years later.

At its apex in the 1920′s the school provided education services to over 500 students. Although students were committed there by the judicial system school administrators saw fit to not erect fences. Every year a certain percentage of the student population who were so inclined to leave were able to “make good their escape.

Over the years the population dwindled as welfare programs expanded and social attitudes towards minor delinquency shifted. As enrollment fell the school ceased its untenable farming operations. Unoccupied cottages were sealed up and left to the elements. The makeup of the student population also changed, as the facility took in minors with more serious criminal offenses. A barb-wired fence now cordons off a 60 acre partition to prevent escape.


Video (source): Historical Moments – Stonewall Jackson produced by Cabarrus County.

Although the site is in the National Register of Historic Places database, there is little public interest in preserving any of the buildings. As long as a portion of the site remains a correctional facility, the prospect that anyone would buy a refurbished cottage as a home is bleak. There are also not enough businesses in the local area to support commercial development. For the foreseeable future the school, once teeming with life, will continue to succumb to unrelenting natural forces of decay.

Resources:

Cabarrus County (PDF) – 2008 Central Area Plan detailing possible development.

Chasing Carolina – A blog entry of a photographer’s exploration experience.

Facebook – Group where people who attended the school share memories.

Google Books – Has a photo of the cottages along with brief description of the school.

Google Books – Discusses the influential roll women’s groups played in founding the school.

Google Books – Description of the school’s role in educating troubled youth.

HMdb.org – Historical marker information.

Independent Tribune – 2009 article on the centennial celebration of the school.

Internet Archive – Full Text of History of the Stonewall Jackson Manual Training and Industrial School (1946).

Internet Archive – Full Text copies of The Uplift produced by the school.

Journal Now – Article on the forced sterilization of six students.

National Park Service – National Register of Historic Places entry.

NCPedia – 2006 article on the beginning history of the school.

NCSU Digital Library – Photos and floor plans of school structures.

NC Dept. of Cultural Resources – Summarized history of the location.

NC Dept. of Public Safety – Describes early juvenile justice environment which created the school.

Sterling E. Stevens – A blog entry of a photographer’s exploration experience.

YouTube – Video highlighting the history of the school.

Wikipedia – Article on Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center.

Wikipedia – Article on Stonewall Jackson.

 

American Urbex E.25 – Central State Hospital

Central State Hospital in Indianapolis served the Indiana community for 146 years.

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