MCADENVILLE, N.C. — On the last Saturday of November, Kathy Ramsey was alone in her bakery, preparing for the onslaught.
Over the next month, 600,000 people would visit McAdenville, a town of just 665 residents, for its annual spectacle: Christmas Town, USA.
“Normally, I’ve got three or four other girls here helping out,” said Ramsey, arranging cookie-dough-topped brownies on a platter. “Thank God. There’s no way I could do this all myself. I’d be dead in my shoes by the end of December.”
Ramsey, 56, has lived in McAdenville for her entire life, so she knows how seriously the town takes Christmas. Every day in December, when the sun goes down, half a million red, green and white lights across McAdenville go on, attracting visitors from places as close as Charlotte and as far as London.
The coming month will be Ramsey’s busiest since opening Floyd and Blackie’s Bakery in February. But for her, and for most of her neighbors, the bumper-to-bumper traffic and noise of December isn’t an inconvenience. It’s the best part of life in McAdenville.
“Every year they just keep adding and adding, and it just keeps getting better and better,” said Ramsey. “It’s definitely a little crazy, but in the best way possible.”
Christmas Town began in 1956, when a group of maintenance workers at a Pharr Yarns mill took piping from their textile plant and twisted it to spell the words “Merry Christmas.” They wrapped the sign in lights and staked it on a hillside above town. When mill owner William Pharr saw the sign, he was inspired to decorate the entire town in lights, a tradition Pharr Yarns has continued to fund and organize since then.
At the end of November, a team of employees travel in corporate pick-up trucks to string up hundreds of yards of lights, covering storefronts, shrubbery, and more than 375 trees along a mile and a half stretch through town. The event has become such a spectacle that in 1991, Pharr obtained a copyright for “Christmas Town, USA” from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Christmas has transformed McAdenville from a faltering textile town into a destination for Yule-loving residents, which has allowed it to sidestep the fate of many former mill towns.
A Chance At Rebirth
McAdenville was born in 1880, when politician-turned-businessman Rufus Yancey McAden bought a plot of land 13 miles west of Charlotte along the South Fork Catawba River and turned it into a textile mill.
Textiles were king in North Carolina during the years following the Civil War. As manufacturing technologies expanded and agriculture floundered, the mills promised jobs, housing and stability for out-of-work farmers and drew thousands from the countryside.
More than 500 people came to work at McAden Mills, and in 1883, its surrounding area was incorporated into the town of McAdenville. Like other mill towns, it was an insulated community; residents lived in quarters McAden owned, shopped at the company store and socialized primarily among themselves.
“We’ve been a close-knit community from the very beginning,” said Kerri East, a marketing and communications specialist at Pharr Yarns, which is now McAdenville’s largest employer. “Everyone knows your name here.”
McAdenville continued to grow through the early 20th century to a peak of 1,162 residents in 1920. But in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, McAden Mills collapsed, leaving McAdenville “a virtual ghost town.” The mills reopened to renewed prosperity during World War II, but new challenges emerged when textile manufacturing moved abroad a few decades later. North Carolina lost more than 80,000 textile jobs between 1973 and 1986.
Pharr, which formed in 1950, has managed to survive — albeit on a considerably smaller scale. The company currently employs only 1,700 workers, down from a peak of 6,000.
Today, only one of McAdenville’s original mills is still standing. Erected in 1884, Mill No. 2 looks like a Victorian fortress, complete with turrets, battlements and a bell tower. Now vacant, it sits at the end of McAdenville’s Main Street, a simultaneously impressive and peculiar centerpiece of the town’s architecture.
“In a lot of ways, Pharr is McAdenville and McAdenville is Pharr,” said East. “As a company, we’ve always valued our relationship with the town, and we’ve always tried to give to it as much as we can. That’s why William Pharr got his guys to start putting red, green and white lights up all over.”
Pharr employees don’t decorate homes, but residents are encouraged to create their own displays. Some hang just a wreath or two, while others set out every Christmas knickknack imaginable: custom-made sleighs, wicker reindeer, light-up nativity scenes, and life-sized Santa Claus statues.
“When you move here, you know what you’re signing up for,” said East. “You can put up as much or as little as you want, but you have to match the town’s aesthetic.”
A visit to Christmas Town is free. “At the end of the day, this is a way to praise the birth of Christ,” said McAdenville Mayor Pro Tempore Jay McCosh. “It wouldn’t be right to commercialize it.”
But McCosh said it does draw a good deal of foot traffic that provides an annual boom for stores on Main Street. That includes Christmastown Signature Gallery, the art gallery he owns.
“My shop isn’t exactly the type of place where you’d make a spur-of-the-moment purchase,” said McCosh. “But it happens occasionally. And in December, it’s bound to happen a few times, because there are just so many people walking through the door.”
Almost every shop on Main Street has opened in recent years thanks to the business that owners know they can expect in December.
“We might be small, but now our name is on the map,” he said. “Over half a million visitors in one month is a pretty good incentive to start a business.”
With Christmas Came A Housing Boom
Today, McAdenville no longer describes itself as a mill town, but a bedroom community for nearby Charlotte.
“This is certainly the place to move if you love Christmas,” said Aileen Parris, who lives in Charlotte but works at Spruced Goose Station, a cafe and store, in McAdenville. “Personally, I couldn’t do it. But obviously there are a lot of people who can.”
In 2005, Belmont Land, Pharr’s real estate investment division, began building McAdenville Village. Located a quarter mile south of Main Street, the village includes 167 neo-traditional homes that come in pastels and various shades of beige.
McAdenville Village has been a magnet for prospective homeowners. According to figures from real estate database Melissa Lookups, 77 homes in the village (46.1%) have been sold since April 2017.
“A lot of people in the village get into Christmas even more than people who live in the older part of town,” said East. “I guess if you’re moving here, you’re moving here at least in part for Christmas Town.”
The average sale price for a home in McAdenville Village is $299,512, making McAdenville the most expensive real estate market in Gaston County. Since April 2017, no home in the village has been sold for less than $200,000.
Belmont Land is now in the midst of tearing down the former Mill No. 3 to make room for another development that will include commercial, residential and recreational space.
“The town is completely different than it was when I was a kid,” said Maddie Mosier, who manages Spruced Goose Station. “I couldn’t believe it when they started tearing down the old mill. Things are really picking up here.”
In November, Pharr announced plans to sell all three of its textile divisions at the beginning of 2020. New Jersey’s Mannington Mills will acquire Pharr Fibers & Yarns and Phenix Flooring, while the U.K.-based Coats Group will acquire Pharr High Performance. Pharr will retain ownership of its other two divisions, Belmont Land and Strand Hospitality.
Both buyers have promised to maintain Pharr’s existing plants and keep local employees on the job. But for the first time since the Great Depression, McAdenville will be without a locally owned textile business.
It won’t, however, be without Christmas Town.
“The Pharr family will still very much be in McAdenville,” said East. “Which means Christmas Town will still be in McAdenville.”
“When you take a step back, it’s all pretty amazing,” said McCosh. “People drive miles and miles to see this, and we can look at it from our bedroom windows.”