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Ashes of Chicken Hill factory yield paragon of New Urban design



7/19/2007 - Ashes of Chicken Hill factory yield paragon of New Urban design

Burlington, Sayles, Enka, Beacon; Chicken Hill, Cleghorn, Champion. These mill villages flourished three generations ago in this region. Now, they're extinct.

They emerged in the railroad era as a means by which to attract and control rural labor in the industrializing South. They came to an end after World War II, for the most part, as factories faced a more independent work force and sold off their homes.

Many former residents of the mill villages remember them fondly, for, despite the class structure and the sometimes deplorable working conditions in the mills, the villages provided community.

In 1907, Congress went after child labor abuses in mills. A commission hired Thomas Robinson Dawley, among others, to investigate, and Dawley made Asheville his first stop, interviewing cotton mill workers living on Chicken Hill. He engaged a charity worker to help him find sorry cases. She admitted knowing few on relief because "the mill management preferred taking care of their own poor."

However, there was a widow with five children who left her farm to work at the mill and applied for relief during the interim. Dawley recorded her testimony in his 1912 book, "The Child that Toileth Not,"

"I reckon we'll git on all right now," she said. "Three o' th' kids got jobs in th' mill. Sure they don't earn much, but they don't wourk mor' an half the time. ... Th' wourk tain't nothin' like wourkin' on th' farm. I got no rest when I war a kid."

The cotton mill closed in 1949. Three-quarters of the housing fell to highway-building and road-widening projects. Yet a community is arising in the Chicken Hill district that reflects a new era and represents one of the most dramatic changes in Asheville's urban landscape in decades.

A neighborhood that no one wanted'

Nine years ago, Whit Rylee, a historic preservation developer, got the ball rolling with a vision - not unlike those of E.W. Grove in the Grove Arcade area and John Lantzius in Lexington Park. Growing up in Sarasota, Fla., Rylee witnessed and participated in his mother's pioneer vision for Laurel Park. Her renovations had won downtown improvement awards.

It was on vacations that Rylee had found Western North Carolina. His elementary school principal, Owen Woodyard, took Whit and other boys camping in Brevard.

Rylee moved to West Asheville in 1998 with his eye on Montford, but gentrification had inflated prices there. One day, bicycling to town, he rode up West Haywood Street rather than the steeper Club Street, and saw a "for sale" sign on The Parsonage, a 1907 Arts and Crafts house in disrepair.

Rylee renovated it, sold it to Gail and Brian McCarthy, of Highwater Clay, and won a Griffin Award from the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County for the Bed & Breakfast.

"Five years ago, Chicken Hill was still a neighborhood that no one wanted," Rylee says. After Rylee renovated two more houses, opinion began to change. Efforts in the area by RiverLink, Mountain Housing Opportunities and the West End/Clingman Neighb-orhood helped.

Rylee then bought the old Earle-Chesterfield Mill site at 1 Roberts St. Since 1905, Chesterfield Mill had made flour and then feed from mountain-grown grain and had added a chicken hatchery before closing down in 1971. The factory building burned down in 1995.

It is here where the phoenix rises. Rylee's firm, Urvana L.L.C., hired Jaime Correa and Associates, the group that had executed the West End/Clingman neighborhood plan in 2000. Correa's New Urbanism addresses "many of the ills of current suburban sprawl patterns while returning to the cherished concept of a compact, close-knit community," the Chicken Hill Web site states.

Environmentally sensitive design, live-work spaces, plazas and walkways that lead to vistas and community gardens are only part of the innovative plan for the nine-building complex and 2.3 acre Chicken Hill site. Correa and collaborators, whose brainstorming charette wrapped up Monday, also figure on using industrial shapes and materials in artful ways, and incorporating fun.

According to plan, a public bowling alley will be built below three of the buildings, connecting to former Chesterfield Mill silos. The silos will function as cocktail lounges with windows looking out on bowlers.

Local residential developers such as Bill McCurdy are buying in. McCurdy's Sun Construction and Realty Company has bought six lots on West Haywood Street for medium-priced homes. The railroad will continue to rumble by (though train whistles might yield to a quiet zone) as the Chicken Hill project seeks to tu rn a respect for history into a celebration of old-style, European-type urban community. "The project is nostalgic for the future," Correa says.

Rob Neufeld's local history feature, "Visiting Our Past," runs Thursdays in the Your News section. He is the author of the book "A Popular History of Western North Carolina." Contact him at or 768-2665.


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