Saturday, January 01, 2005

An Abandoned Homestead

(copy of 1988 Charlotte Observer article by Steve Snow)

The playing field is covered in high weeds now. Wire is tacked across the sagging, sole remaining dugout; vines and rot have taken over the old pump house behind home plate.

But on a warm day, if the wind`s just right, you can look out past center field and see maybe a hundred people - big and small - clustered back among the shady trees beyond the playing field.

Others sit on the steep bank along on the left-field line.If you close your eyes, you can hear them hollering to their favorite players:

``Get `em, Pickle.``

``Send it outa here, Boney.``

That scene was repeated countless times in the 1930s and `40s in the ball field behind the Leaksville Woolen Mill, located where Toddville Road dead-ends into Rozzelle`s Ferry Road in a corner of Paw Creek in west Charlotte.

Many of the people who worked in the mill lived in what was called Homestead Village. In fact, a water tower for the mill, which shut down for good on the last day of December in 1986, still announces the spot as ``Homestead, N.C.``

At one time, there were 56 houses, a boarding house, community building, scout hut, a superintendent`s house, the office and, of course, the ball field -all splayed out on about 50 densely wooded acres behind the mill. Beyond the houses was another 50 acres of woods.

And, despite a countywide survey of existing mill villages, this one somehow slipped by unnoticed.

It recently caught the eye of Carl Flick, a city-county planner, when he was preparing for a meeting on the northwest district area.

``I was looking over the land-use maps, and I saw this area that had all these different uses - industrial, institutional, residential - and I said, What in the world is that?` I just had to go out there and see.``

What Flick found is ``a treasure,`` said Dan Morrill of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission. ``It`s not just the mill by itself, it`s the whole thing. It`s all here, intact. It`s marvelous.``

To those who lived there, it was ``the village`` and, for many, it was about the next best thing to heaven itself.

``It was one of the most wonderful places to live,`` said 68-year-old Harry Goodson. ``It was like one big yard with houses on it.``

Today, the skeleton remains, but the meat is gone. At the mill entrance on Rozzelle`s Ferry Road is a small store - not a company store, former residents say - and barbershop, now closed, of course.

Cookie Todd once ran that store, Goodson said, and Glasby Nance had the barbershop. For several years in the 1940s, Oliver Lawing owned the store.

The mill, which merged with Chatham Manufacturing Co. in 1953, shut down at the end of 1986. About a month ago, the property, 117 acres, went up for sale with a $2,865,000 price tag.

It`s being marketed as a prime area for an industrial park. ``It`s the largest single contiguous piece of property zoned heavy industrial in the county,`` said Jim Plyler of Southern Real Estate.

``It`s a neat place,`` Plyler said. ``You go there, it`s like stepping back in time.`` The mill village roads sweep around the property in big arches and loops. There are only seven houses on the hill now. Trash is strewn about inside them; mantels are pulled away from walls, paint flakes off the clapboards outside.

The community building, a simple, high-ceilinged brick rectangle, is bisected inside by floor-to-ceiling wooden folding doors. The bases of trophies, stripped of the more valuable trophy metal, have been tossed aside on the tiny stage, along with other unwanted material.

``People could use (the community building) for whatever they wanted,`` Goodson said. Homestead Methodist Church originated there in 1932 and used the building until 1958.

``We`d have square dances on Saturday night and, come Sunday, go to church,`` Goodson said.

Goodson moved to the village in 1929, when he was 9 years old, the fourth of seven children. His father worked in the mill during the week and trimmed hair on weekends at a little store across Rozzelle`s Ferry Road. Goodson retired in 1984.

His wife, Elizabeth, also retired then. She lived in the Hoskins mill community when they met in the 1930s. But when they married, they moved to Homestead. ``First we lived in the boardinghouse,`` Harry Goodson said, ``then we got a three-room house. Later we got a four-room house, then a five-room house.``

They paid for the houses by the room: 20 cents a room, 50 weeks a year. Water and electricity were included.

``All the homes had a spigot in the kitchen and a commode in the bathroom,`` Harry Goodson said. ``You could put in whatever else you wanted. I fixed ours up real nice.

``The scout hut was built in 1937, and, after a while they put in six shower stalls in the basement and you could go take a shower twice a week for free. They had two days for the women and two days for the men.``

There was an open field west of the village that the company would divvy up into rows for employees to use for raising vegetables. ``They had two mules that did the plowing,`` Harry Goodson said. ``I remember my father once had seven rows - long rows.``

But it was the ball field that residents flocked to and where kids seemed to take up residence. ``That`s all we had to do,`` said Ray Goodson, Harry`s younger brother. Ray worked his way up in the mill and, by the time it closed, he was secretary-treasurer. He was the last one to leave the grounds.

``We closed in December, but I stayed around a couple of months to close out the books,`` Ray said. ``It was strange. I`d worked there 45 years, the only place I`d ever worked.``

Ray was the sportsman of the family. He was the one who camped out on the ball field, the one who won Homestead`s boys` tennis championship in 1936 and 1937.

``We were the only ones in the area that had tennis courts,`` Ray said.

But they breathed the air of baseball the way their parents breathed wool dust. They`d play ball until past dark, until they couldn`t see the ball anymore.

And from those pickup games came some powerful boys - some of whom became major leaguers. There was Boney Wood, who missed out on the majors, and Larry Helms, who played in the minors and could nearly knock the cover off the ball; Pete Whisenant broke into the majors with the Boston Braves; Ken Wood played for the St. Louis Browns; Tommy Helms still coaches with the Cincinnati Reds; and, the most famous of them all, Carroll Lockman. Depending on when you called him, it would have been Pickle Lockman or Cotton Lockman or, finally, Whitey.

Ray said Lockman was so good he was playing with the big teenagers when he was only 11.

``He could really cover center field. He could practically cover the whole outfield, he was that good,`` Ray said.

Lockman signed with the New York Giants at age 17 and belted his first major league homer (one of 114 in 15 pro years) at age 19 - his first time up to bat in the big leagues in 1945. He played on two Giants` World Series teams, had a .279 career batting average, managed the Chicago Cubs and coached at Montreal. He lives in Arizona now.

If it seemed, in some ways, an idyllic life, it also had its share of hardship and tragedy. Working in a mill could be dangerous. It took great care. The Goodsons` father lost his arm in the mid-1970s after getting it caught in a machine. And he wasn`t the only one.

Harry Goodson remembers the time with great sadness. ``I heard him holler and ran over to help him,`` Harry said. ``Then I ran to the office to get Ray because he had a car and we took him all the way to Memorial Hospital.``

The elder Goodson died a few years later.

Albert Reid didn`t live on the village, but he worked 45 years at the mill, many of them as the master mechanic. His first job there was helping rewire the whole plant. Reid, 78, is the only employee left at the mill. He supervises the vast emptiness from his 1964 Chevrolet, which he parks near the locked front gate. He also makes security checks and does routine maintenance.

Leaksville apparently didn`t have the labor problems that many other mills had. Reid related this story as an example of why:

``One day, it was in the 1930s, a union organizer came walking up the road to the mill gate and was gonna hand out leaflets. Out came John L. Morehead to ask about the man`s business.` You`re on private property,` Morehead said, but as long as you`re here, let me show you something.`

``Then Morehead told his overseers, I was an overseer then, to shut down the mill and get all the workers outside. All the work was stopped. It was as quiet then as it is right now.

`` OK,` he told the organizer, tell `em whatever you want.` Well, it wasn`t five minutes into the man`s speech that somebody heard a loom start up. Then another one, and pretty soon everybody had gone back to work.

`` OK,` Morehead said, you asked your question, and you got your answer. Now get off my property.` ``

``They always tried to pay a little bit more,`` said Ray Goodson, ``to stay one step ahead of the union. They were very reserved but real fair. ``It wasn`t the best place in the world to live but, back then, we didn`t know any better. We were real fortunate.``

For Morrill, the mill poses a challenge and a headache. The Historic Properties Commission is long on desire but short on cash. ``What can you do with something like this?`` Morrill asked. ``If the state or Charlotte ever wanted to interpret its textile history, this would be a fantastic place. Just look at this street. This could be a national register property in a minute. ``But we need cooperative owners to make anything happen,`` he said. ``Without that, forget it.``

To Harry Goodson, though, it doesn`t seem like such a historic treasure. It seems like home. ``I was always proud of where I was raised,`` he said. ``When you got a job at Leaksville, you stayed there as long as you could. You couldn`t beat it.

``It`s true, you didn`t own anything, but you were glad to have what you did. It was more or less like one big family.``

Author: STEVE SNOW, Views Page Editor


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