How Highland Mill Village came to be

What a difference a year made.

If you were to stand at the corner of modern-day North Davidson and 36th streets at the turn of the 20th century, you would be surrounded by rolling farmland, the remnants of antebellum plantations, and swampland.

Then in early 1903, a group of investors eyed this open land – known as the Wadsworth farm – and its proximity to the railroad, deciding this would be an ideal spot to build an entire textile district. They secured nearly 103 acres and within months, construction was underway on North Charlotte’s first mill: Highland Park Manufacturing #3.

With mills come workers. Workers need housing. Therefore, renowned architect Stuart Cramer was hired to not only design the new, state-of-the art mill, but a companion village as well.

The Highland Mill village – the oldest village of North Charlotte’s nationally registered Historic District – began with a network of 80 homes, mainly along a series of five parallel streets: North Davidson (then North Caldwell), Yadkin (then North Davidson), Alexander, Myers, and McDowell. Other homes appeared on Charles, Mallory (then Highland Avenue), and Faison streets.

They were built for former farm families who moved from outlying counties, hoping to eke out a living in textiles. It was a hardscrabble existence in the early days, with outdoor pumps for running water and children as young as eight working beside their parents.

The white, side-gable homes featured a centered entry and an “el” in back and were built on large lots, giving the village a rural feel.  The large backyards offered ample space for gardens, chickens, and cattle. This was intentional. As described in the book “Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World,” “If the work in the mill seemed alien to the men and women fresh off the farm, at least the village offered the comfort of familiar surroundings.”

The Charlotte Observer reported that the homes, built with no indoor plumbing or electricity, were going up “a dozen a day.” Interspersed were five-room overseers’ homes and duplexes. By November 1903, the area was unrecognizable. The Observer told the story of a bird hunter used to hunting the area each fall who was shocked to discover the mill, village, and electric plant taking over what were country fields the previous year.

Another strategy of mill developers was to include amenities close by in an effort of regulating behavior and discouraging residents from leaving the village. In fact, Cramer designed a town-square style business district in the heart of the village, between Alexander and Yadkin streets. The plan included stores, churches, a hotel, and a school. Alas, only the hotel (Highland Inn) came to be, though the village’s first makeshift school was in the millhouse at 2906 N. Davidson Street (now Yadkin). The business district took shape on North Davidson (then North Caldwell) instead, and linked the Highland and Mecklenburg mill villages.

Even though Cramer’s business district concept did not materialize, Alexander became a key street in the village. If you stand at the corner of Alexander and 32nd streets today, the area south of the curve is blocked by a fence. Beyond it is a wooded area leading to the creek that is not easily accessible. But if you stood there 100 years ago, you would be in an open, popular gathering spot overlooking the village. There was a stable nearby as well.

Residents blazed two footpaths from this spot. The right path led to Alexander, where the first building on the right was Granny Smith’s bathhouse. Continue north and you would encounter Shue’s Boarding House (now the Highland Inn) – one of the anchors of Cramer’s imagined village square. Shue’s and other boarding houses accommodated a different demographic: the single mill worker who didn’t need a house and yard.

The left path led to Highland Mill and the business district. Perhaps these paths replaced the streets that were planned but never opened. 1929 Sanborn maps show an unopened extension of 32nd Street to Myers Street. There is also an unopened section of Alexander extending to Charles Avenue. This explains why there are two houses (one at the corner of 32nd and another at Charles Avenue) that seem to face at an odd angle away from the street. These early maps show two more houses facing this phantom street that no longer exists. It is unclear why this street was never built; perhaps it was too difficult to cross the creek.

Today the mill homes have been remodeled with homeowners’ distinct flair and personalities, replacing rows of white, identical houses. Pavement and sidewalks replaced the dusty dirt roads and paths. Backyard barns have given way to decks and patios. But the framework laid out 118 years ago remains.

Tune in next month for a bird’s-eye view of Highland’s sister village, Mecklenburg Mill Village.