NC Relic Towns
Countless cities and towns in America have lost the original purpose for their existence. Many of these towns are in North Carolina, where tobacco, textiles and furniture manufacturing once provided employment for many hundreds of thousands in the state. I’ve taken my camera to several nearby towns that fit this description — this gallery features images from Marshall, Mars Hill, Shelby and Forest City.
Marshall (population ~900) is the county seat of Madison County. Marshall exists mostly because it is was a stop on the Buncombe Turnpike, the main route for moving livestock, supplies and mail between Tennessee and South Carolina into the late 19th Century.
Mars Hill (population ~2000) is a college town in Madison County. The town grew up around the French Broad Baptist Institute that was founded there in 1856, later to become Mars Hill College. It was a strategic plot of land that the Confederacy held to the end of the Civil War, though local sentiment was Unionist — or more accurately, isolationist.
Shelby (population ~20,000) is the county seat of Cleveland County. In the 1940s, Cleveland County was the state’s largest cotton producer, and Shelby was the area’s cotton warehouse and distribution center. Fifty years later, the textile mills were closed and Shelby, like other towns, was left without a purpose.
Forest City (population ~7,400) is the largest town in Rutherford County. It was a 19th-century crossroads town which attracted textile mills in the 20th. Walking the main street of Forest City reminded me of my 2017 visit to Brownsville, Pennsylvania: lots of empty storefronts and the smell of mold (and whatever else) hanging in the air. Forest City’s current poverty rate is 35%. It has the highest rates of drug and alcohol addiction in the state.
As always, my photos are first and foremost designs rather than documents; they only offer glimpses of the towns I visited. That said, I had to select and process 12 images that I thought were “best” considering my style. A few photos from these shoots may wind up in other galleries on this site.
• Postcard from Marshall — Marshall, NC (2022). The main street of Marshall, viewed from the southeast.
• Boxed In — Marshall, NC (2022). A hyper-rectilinear structure in the heart of “downtown” Marshall.
• The Hall of Justice — Marshall, NC (2022). Not sure why one should have to climb a few stairs only to be redirected to the offices next door. Feels like a Mitch Hedberg scenario.
• Security Feeds — Marshall, NC (2022). ConAgra acquired Security Mills of Knoxville, TN, in 1972.
• Star Diner — Marshall, NC (2022). I give this place credit for fully owning the retro vibe, while offering lobster fettuccine for $38 a plate.
• Still Life at the Shelby Cafe — Shelby, NC (2022). Breakfast served all day, of course. The hash browns need some flavor attention.
• Shelby Depot — Shelby, NC (2022). As I understand it, the powers that be are actually going to try to rehabilitate this former Norfolk Southern structure.
• Hopper Does Shelby — Shelby, NC (2022). Not sure who runs this place now, but I believe it was once a cotton processing and warehousing facility. I ran into Edward Hopper while I was there, and he suggested that I make a few adjustments to the image when I got home.
• A/C — Forest City, NC (2022). Just another everyday still life.
• Three Windows, Three Lights — Forest City, NC (2022). The floor above the Forest City Vacuum & Sewing Center.
• Garden Gate — Forest City, NC (2022). Actually, I did not see a garden behind this gate, just more bricks and concrete. But More Bricks and Concrete would have been a dumb name for a gate.
• Roy Edwards Lane — Mars Hill, NC (2022). It was a dark day in Madison County.
I haven’t decided which is the weakest image here, but when I do, I’ll try to replace it with something else.
These are quite evocative, Craig. I think your perspective and commentary suit the spare texture of your photos beautifully. Thank you for doing this!
Ah yes, the smell of mold. I can relate this to a couple of the towns I grew up near. Old abandoned stores well past their usefulness.