Author:Mims, Bryan
Position::TOWN SQUARE: Belmont

Back in the day, textile mills dominated in Belmont, sewing and spinning and stitching together the livelihoods of people who went home with lint in their hair and ringing in their ears.

In the mid-20th century, Belmont hummed and clattered with more than a dozen cotton mills: Majestic Mill, Acme Mill, Chronicle Mill, Imperial Mill, Sterling Spinning Mill, Belmont Hosiery Mill and--the biggest of the bunch --the R.L. Stowe Mills. All this fabric inspired Belmont to fashion its motto as "The City of Diversified Textiles."

But that day ended with the dawn of a new century. It's a painfully familiar story across North Carolina and the South: The textile mills went dark, and their operations went overseas, leaving the town of about 12,000 people to diversify its economy. R.L. Stowe shut down its last two plants in 2009, leaving Parkdale Mills Plant 15 as the last remaining textile mill.

Many of the old brick shells found new life as condos, apartments and retail outlets. The Majestic Mill is now the Catawba River Antique Mall. "That's where my mom raised all of her kids," says Sue Lahr as she joins her friend, Nancy Powell, for dinner at a snazzy restaurant called Nellie's Southern Kitchen. Lahr's mother worked in the spinning department at Majestic, raising six children on the "mill hill" with its small, look-alike houses. Her father, who passed away when she was 5, worked as a mill watchman.

"All the houses where I grew up--they're gone," Lahr says. But to this day, when she steps into that 67,000-square-foot antique mall--one of the state's largest--"it still smells like a mill."

Lahr and Powell remember shopping for groceries and other goods at Belmont General Store on Main Street, which still has a big, old-fashioned wooden cash register atop the counter. Back then, everyone knew the place as Stowe Mercantile. "If you worked in the mill, you could go there and charge your stuff, and the mill would take it out of your check," Powell says.

The general store, which sells bagels and salads along with mailbox numbers and "For Sale By Owner" signs, is a classic fit in a downtown that's increasingly chic. For this youthful, old mill town, walking in high cotton looks like this: people strolling along Main Street and ducking into a wine bar, a bourbon or dessert bar, a jailhouse-turned-cigar bar, a coffee shop run by cops-turned-baristas, or a bike shop with beer taps.

At South Main Cycles, 30-year-old Mills Davis pedals through adjectives such as...

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