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Historic, handsome Tuxedo

August 10, 2020

 

Just down the road from Flat Rock, is Tuxedo, North Carolina, the heart of the Green River Township. Once a vibrant mill village, Tuxedo was founded in 1907 by Joseph Oscar Bell, Sr.; he along with his brother-in-law, J.A. Durham and S. B. Tanner, formed a textile mill alongside the Green River and named it Green River Manufacturing Company. Bell orchestrated the building of the mill village and the making of a dam above Green River Falls to power the mill. In addition to being the founding father of Tuxedo and managing the mill, Bell served in many civic roles including as a N.C. state senator.

 

Born in Due West, South Carolina, J.O. Bell came to Green River from Edenton, N.C. with his wife, Lillias Durham Bell. He named the new village Lakewood for “a lakeside village freshly hewn from the wilderness.” A year later it was changed to Tuxedo. According to history, sometime after the Lakewood post office was established, it was discovered there was a second Lakewood in the state — mail was going in all directions and it was necessary to change the name of one of them. Community members put names in a hat and Mrs. Bell, who retained an apartment in the historic village of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., suggested Tuxedo. She drew the name, Tuxedo, from the hat and the rest is history.

 

During the construction of the mill village, a lake was built with a dam that ran across the Green River at the present location of the old iron bridge. This small lake, known as Lake Edith, was the source of hydroelectricity for the new mill. Power was so meager it did not include power for the village houses. Private girls camps, Camp Greystone, founded in 1920, and Camp Green Cove, in 1945, are located on Lake Edith’s shores. Both camps have passed on through generations in the same families and remain in operation today. When the textile plant was being built, Mr. Bell established a brickyard and sawmill on the site of Camp Greystone where materials for construction were made.

 

The early inhabitants of the township were primarily farmers. Family names included Maybin, Capps, Staton, Davis, Stepp, Beddingfield, Freeman, Heatherly, Levi, Morgan, Osteen, Pace, Taylor, Ballard, Jones and Ward. Their legacies, now spanning five and six generations, are a rich part of the Green River heritage. Many of these mountain folk, a hard working lot, moved in from their farms to help with village construction. Once completed, most of the women and children remained to work in the textile plant for a regular cash income while the men maintained the family farms.

 

The mill village

 

 Bell built multiple community buildings including a church, a school, a boarding house and more than 50 small homes in the village for the employees and their families. Most of the village was self-contained in a sustainable manner with a company doctor, midwife, livery stable, community barn and garden, apple orchard and a company store with groceries, hay, dry goods, hardware, clothing — even caskets. Everything necessary for the mill employees was centrally located and within walking distance. A few miles down into the Green River Valley, Mr. Bell constructed a company pavilion for employee recreation and camping. It was located near a waterfall on land his son, J.O., Jr. and his wife, Mary, later developed into Camps Arrowhead and Glen Arden. This recreation building remains today and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

By 1910, the villagers had settled into a routine way of life with two 12-hour shifts to operate the plant. Multiple members of families, including children, worked in the mill that employed close to 300 people at its peak and became the largest industrial enterprise in Henderson County. Life was simple in the village and very little changed up until 1920.

 

Powering Spartanburg

 

In 1915, Green River Manufacturing Company sold certain land holdings to Blue Ridge Power Company to build a larger lake. Spartanburg mill owner, John Adger Law, felt there was ample power to be had by damming the Green River. Law and several of his colleagues, including J.O. Bell, formed the Manufacturer’s Power Company in Spartanburg and later reorganized into the Blue Ridge Power Company after absorbing Hendersonville Power. They proceeded to buy up lands all along the Green River in Henderson and Polk Counties and built two dams creating Lake Summit in Tuxedo in 1920 and Lake Adger in Polk County in 1925.

 

This transaction greatly affected the village of Tuxedo. To build Lake Summit, a small community, Happy Hollow, along with many family homes, a grist mill, saw mill and church had to be moved from the lake bed to higher ground. Until a bridge was built, transportation from one side of the lake to the other was by ferry. Railroad tracks on the north side of the lake were elevated eighteen feet and a large concrete train trestle was built over the lake.

 

Once complete, Lake Summit covered 324 acres and became the largest lake in Henderson County. The water from the lake fell over a 254 foot single arch dam into an eight foot cypress flume, leading to the power house at Pot Shoals and supplying power for the textile mills in Spartanburg. Part of the agreement with Blue Ridge Power was that the abutments of the original dam of Lake Edith be used to support a new bridge across Lake Summit. Portions of the original dam are still visible at the foot of the old iron bridge.

 

The Great Depression

 

 

From 1924 to 1933, the downturn of the economy made it difficult for Green River Manufacturing to stay afloat, eventually claiming bankruptcy in 1927. As the Great Depression emerged, many of the mill workers were forced to find work in textile plants in Greenville, leaving their families during the week and returning on the weekends. Joe Capps of the Green River Valley was one such man. Each week he would walk 35 miles to Greenville by way of Gap Creek to work at F.W. Poe Manufacturing Company. He made a dollar a day and after five years he had saved enough money to buy a 200-acre tract of land for $830. This land remains in the Capps family today.

 

It was during these lean years that corn became more profitable when turned into another cash crop, moonshine. This was during the days of Prohibition and “still hunters” were rampant. Local historian, musician and mill villager, Robert Ballard, tells the story of his grandfather’s “shine” days: “Grandpa was a small operator, but he managed to get caught making corn liquor. He probably would have gotten away with it had he not been sampling the finished product and broke his leg in an unfortunate get away attempt.”

 

In 1933, Robert W. Boys bought the textile plant and renamed it Green River Mills, Inc. Boys was a very caring, community-minded person, as well as an astute business man. He provided a day camp and swimming lessons for the children of mill workers and picnics, holiday events and festivities for the entire village. An avid baseball fan, Mr. Boys built Boys Baseball Field and promoted Green River teams within the textile leagues. He served as the mill president until 1949 when his son, George Waring Boys, assumed the leadership. Ballard remembers Tuxedo as a happy place for a child to grow up. “We knew every family who lived there. The lake was a great recreational area for us when we were young. One afternoon, a group of us went down for a swim and there was a bear in the lake. Terrible Ted, the Wrestling Bear and his owner were passing through, saw the lake and decided to cool off. The owner left the bear and went over to Zeb Swann’s store to get an eight-ounce bottle coke. When he returned, he shook the coke up and gave it to the bear that drank it down in one big gulp. It would have been a great commercial!”

 

In 1955, a union was organized and a strike called for higher wages and better working conditions in the mill. The strike was bitter and left the community divided. Hostilities arose and friendships were broken, some never to be reconciled. Rotten eggs, harsh words, dynamite and damaged properties contributed to these stormy times, but there was never a riot. After five months of turmoil, George Boys began negotiations with the union, but they failed to ever reach an agreement. The plant closed in 1958 and was sold in 1959 to textile giant, John Peters Stevens, Jr. and became part of his J.P. Stevens & Company chain of mills.

 

Stevens bought only the plant and adjacent watershed. The mill village houses were owned by the Green River Mill Corporation and the properties were made available for purchase to the current tenants. Each deed carried the restriction that the property could only be used for residential purposes. The houses, well built, were mostly two bedrooms, single-family dwellings, with beaded tongue-and-groove paneling and hardwood floors. Nearly all of them were heated by wood stoves. Once the homes were purchased, families remodeled them, adding insulation, kerosene heat, bathrooms and additions. Some of these earlier houses were Sears Roebuck & Company kits; many remain today and have been restored.

 

West Point Pepperell bought the mill in 1988 and when operations closed in 1990, over 250 people lost their jobs. Shortly afterwards, Farley Textiles reopened the facility as a cloth recycling plant and in 2000, Brittain & Sons Recycling took over the building. In 2010, the mill plant was demolished and a community park now occupies the site.

 

Change and constancy

 

Michael “Mickey” Lively worked at J.P. Stevens for 16 years, 1972-1988. After graduating from Western Carolina and joining the Army, Mickey returned home and began his career with J.P. Stevens in the personnel office and rose to the administrative manager of the mill. His wife, Judy Pace Lively, was born and raised in Tuxedo. Judy’s mother, Virginia Pace, is 93 years old and still lives in Tuxedo in an early 1900s Sears Roebuck house. Her husband, Walter Ray Pace, worked in the mill his entire life as did his father, Rupie Frank Pace.

 

Generations of their family experienced the joys and growing pains of the mill and its’ various owners. “Tuxedo and the surrounding communities of the Green River Township are all related,” said Mickey. “Every family within this area has ties to the mill, Green River and to each other. The unwritten law in Tuxedo and the Green River Valley is to never say anything about anybody because they’re all related. The employees of the mill were kind and generous people. When someone needed help, they were the first ones to come to the rescue. It was not uncommon for the community to put on a barbecue to raise funds for a family in need. Even now, years after the mill closing, this Green River tradition lives on.”

 

Of all the changes that came to Tuxedo over time, the building of Highway 25 and the connector had the greatest impact on the community. Over 100 families, Boy’s Baseball field, grocery stores and many businesses were displaced by this painful process that literally divided the land and ran right through the middle of town. Completed around 1981, the length of the highway for this project was 2.3 miles with three concrete bridges rising over the landscape and access to secondary roads.

The important economic developments of the Green River Township, a mill village, a lake and summer camps exist today as a result of J.O. Bell’s vision. While the mill is but a memory in Green River history, family farms and summer camps remain productive. More than 250 homes and boathouses line the shores of Lake Summit where families gather for hours of recreational fun. A dozen summer camps were founded throughout the years and eight of them continue to operate today.

 

A sense of community has always been associated with the village of Tuxedo and the Green River Township. The families who live in and around this small rural community are closely knit. Together they weather the storms and triumphs with courage and a spirit of comradery. It is a place full of good will and generosity. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and bordered by the headwaters of the Green River and Lake Summit, farmlands exist with landowners dating back to Revolutionary land grants. Rich in ancestral heritage and traditions, these deep-rooted Green River families keep Tuxedo alive today with the hope that it will, over time, gain autonomy and thrive again.

 

Missy Craver Izard Schenck was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina.  She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.

 

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