We are sons and daughters of Chatham

By Stephen Harris - For The Tribune
Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown -

I … am a son of Chatham. I am a native of Elkin, but I am a son of Chatham.

Not a son by blood, as far as I know. But I am a son of Chatham … in spirit, in heart, in heritage and in emotion. So are many others here in the hometown, still.

The Chatham industry made Elkin as we know it today. Its footprints are everywhere.

They are on our hospital, started by and named after Chatham. They are on our path to Winston for many years, Highway 67, starting with the once mighty 1933 Chatham Bridge, which spanned from Market Street in Elkin to Bridge Street (naturally) in Jonesville. The bridge came down in 2010-11. You may view its onetime glory in a Standard Street mural in Elkin.

Chatham provided jobs to so many of us, molded and boosted our economy, provided for our sports and library, built a YMCA that preceded our Recreation Center and promoted a town social life.

Chatham made my family. Starting in the late 1930s, my father at 19 got his first job off the family farm at the Chathams’ Klondike kennel in State Road, followed quickly by a mill job downtown that lasted more than 43 years. His experience was common at the time.

Chatham put roofs over my family’s heads, food on our tables and led in building a community in which we thrived. Ditto for many in my extended family and for friends and neighbors who also worked in Chatham’s mill on East Main Street in Elkin.

Chatham, through a company scholarship, helped put me through journalism school. For the last 8 1/2 years these “Hometown” columns must be credited in part to Chatham. I put in three summers at the mill as I worked my way through school.

So I felt touched and exhilarated as I viewed a couple of weeks ago the debut of a new, 24-minute history video, “Elkin: A Town Woven Together by Chatham,” shown at Reeves Theater during an Explore Elkin community meeting to plan the NC Trail Days town festival next spring. You may view the video on the internet at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbFv25L8LFI.

The video (please don’t call it a film in these modern times) combines old photos with contemporary interviews and some nice drone footage from above to tell the Chatham story. Former mill hands and Chatham executives and family members recounts company history and how the mill made my community. Even down to a reminder of the steady clatter of the mill’s machinery that could be heard all the way to East Main Street. (Now that brought back memories.)

Sure, I learned some things. You will, too.

For instance, I had never before seen photos of the mill founders, did not know about Elkin merchants’ script backed by Chatham money after Elkin National Bank closed during the Great Depression, and how Chatham introduced to the world fiberwoven blankets (which warm my couch and bed to this day).

I delighted in hearing the story behind the naming of the Chatham estate at the beautiful Klondike, a farm once owned by a great-great-grandfather of mine in antebellum times. After mill president Thurmond Chatham bought the farm in 1927, his father skeptically kicked the dirt and responded, “Well, son, I certainly hope there’s gold under there, because there is not much else here.” Klondike is Canada’s gold region. (at 5:50 in the video)

It’s no exaggeration to proclaim that Chatham made Elkin and Elkin made Chatham. “The spirit of Chatham is still here,” agreed longtime mayor Tom Gwyn, “and it will be here for a long time to come.” (at 22:32)

At the dawn of the Industrial Age here, two merchants bought out a small, 30-year cotton-mill operation on Big Elkin Creek north of present-day downtown. More than a decade later, in 1890, Alexander Chatham bought out his partner and transformed Elkin Valley Woolen Mill into Chatham Manufacturing Co., which would become a 20th Century powerhouse.

The mill became the largest blanket manufacturer in the world during the two world wars, and its addition of upholstery manufacturing (my father worked in upholstery) swelled its work force to a high of 3,600 in its 1970s heyday.

I liked the way that 20-year mill hand Mary Renegar described it in 2014 for Greensboro-based “Our State” magazine: “From the town itself to the churches to the golf course to the parks, they (the Chathams) were a big force in everything.”

Devastatingly, a flawed Danish outfit bought out the mill in 1988 through a hostile stock takeover not long after the passing of company president Hugh Chatham II and his brother and successor Dick Chatham. They were fourth-generation custodians of a noble Chatham legacy.

I froze in my seat when I saw in the video the daughter of Hugh Chatham II, Lucy, describe how she had actually informed the Danish company in New York six months prior that the mill was not for sale. But it was to no avail.

Things haven’t been the same here since.

She and other members of the Chatham family remain with us today and still support the hometown. Good for them.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” retired Elkin businessman and Chatham executive Fred Norman concludes in the video, produced by Pleasant Hill cinematographers John and Theresa Litschke.

Then an audience of more than 100 at the Reeves applauded and cheered.

A most curious thing followed. A sudden, brief cloudburst rapped loudly on the roof of the theater.

It sounded as if God was applauding as well.

May the new video instruct and inspire new generations of Elkin’s sons and daughters, all of us children (in spirit) of Chatham.


Elkin on TV: Mayor Sam Bishop talked up the hometown on an episode of “Carolina Business Review” on public TV. You can view it on the internet at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fu8MepjJy4&feature=share.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown
https://www.elkintribune.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/web1_Stephen-Harris-mug-12-07-1.jpgStephen Harris Back In The Hometown

By Stephen Harris

For The Tribune