Looking Forward to Caldwell County’s Future

together, We can Provide needed Entrepreneurial Activities for Our Youth

LENOIR, N.C. – From the time that narrow-gauge railroad lines were built into the rugged mountainous regions of Caldwell County in the late 1800s, the furniture industry dominated the economy of Lenoir for a century. The hardwood forests of the slopes of the Blue Ridge Escarpment provided the most important raw product.

Of course, the most important ingredient in the furniture industry’s success was its people. Without workers to build the railroads, harvest and haul the timber, and make the final product, the industry would never have existed in Lenoir.

While the most common explanation for the near death of the industry is the passage of international trade agreements in the 1990s, those arguments overlook the fact that Lenoir and the region had failed to diversify its economy. In short, its reliance upon a mono-economy caused great hardship as the world’s trading arrangements changed.

Still, we had business leaders that were community-spirited. We can learn from those industrial pioneers, as many were also quite philanthropic. They gave back to the community. An example can be found in “Anvil of Adversity: Biography of a Furniture Pioneer.” It is the story of James Edward Broyhill, “A North Carolina farmboy with only a rudimentary education and little financial backing, he left his rural life at twenty-one to become of of America’s leading furniture manufacturers.” Thus he is described in the jacket cover.

Indeed, the Broyhill name has been synonymous with Lenoir for a century. In fact, just last year, Paul Hunt Broyhill, the son of the “North Carolina farmboy” passed away at 97. I had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Broyhill for about 30 years. He was kind and supportive of my work and family.

Musicians Ron Shuffler (r) and Kay & Patrick Crouch have spent their lifetimes teaching following generations

Additionally, despite the fact that wages are generally artificially low when one industry dominates a community, when I moved to the region in 1974, Lenoir and communities throughout the Foothill and Piedmont – furniture factories and textile mills in particular – generally provided full employment. In West Virginia, a strike by the United Mine Workers (UMW) against relentlessly oppressive employers was virtually assured every three years. Isolated strikes were common. The UMW was necessary, but the fact remained that employment in West Virginia during the 1960s and early 70s was far less predictable than here.

That is how I-77 South became known as The Hillbilly Highway. I was among a wave of young Mountaineers that felt compelled to at least consider greener pastures. Now, as any member of the Mountain State diaspora will tell you, we miss home. Yet, we’ve started and lived out careers and started families; our children developed deep and abiding friendships. Before we realized it, we had roots here.

Our family has grown to eight. We’re all blessed to be in the same county. There is also much that is concerning.

Andrew Massey of Lenoir is one of countless musicians carrying on the traditions passed along by generations of musicians

It is clear to anyone driving through Lenoir or nearby towns that the region is at a tipping point. In some ways, uptown Lenoir is thriving, due largely to a strong arts and music community. Still, even uptown is struggling, as evidenced by the numerous empty buildings. Even more startling are the site of shuttered factories along U.S. 321-A and other roads leading out of town. One might point to the many fast-food restaurants and similar businesses along U.S. 321 North heading to Blowing Rock as signs of economic progress, but frankly, those businesses pay low wages, provide little benefits and create a littered landscape of neon signs that discourages visitors to look for, let alone find, uptown.

Still, I am hopeful. I am impressed with the many shop owners, artists, musicians and others working tirelessly to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit essential to any community’s success. However, we must keep our young people here if we are to grow and progress. The decisions that our young adults make over the next few years will determine the future of Caldwell County.

That is our county’s core challenge. While difficult, solutions exist. One, which would benefit virtually any Appalachian community, is the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) program. Its success in Union County in Southern Illinois is an outstanding example of the students excelling because of business and community cooperation with the county schools. A full list of benefits can be found in the CEO link.

Perhaps our community can develop and try the CEO program here. It’s success is proven; our need is obvious. We know we have the work ethic. Just like those first workers built the furniture industry, our young people can build a sustainable economy with support from our communities’ servant-minded leaders.

JAM students learning the traditional Appalachian music, which provides work for numerous area musicians while maintaining one of the region’s most important cultural contributions

It’s up to us. And, we’re already doing it. The Junior Appalachian Mountain (JAM) program allows old-time musicians to pass along their heritage to subsequent generations here in Caldwell County and elsewhere. We have proven that there is nothing to stop us – except us. That is why I am looking forward to Caldwell County’s future.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2022.

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