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Murdock's Reign Changes Life at Southern Mill Town : Some Miss the Paternalism of Mr. Charlie

August 25, 1985|PAUL RICHTER | Times Staff Writer

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — A family named Cannon carved this Piedmont town out of a forest of loblolly pine and hickory, built a textile mill and for 76 years ran the two like a private fiefdom. Folks here concede it wasn't the most democratic arrangement, but for some the memories of the old days seem sweeter all the time.

"The Cannons didn't just own Cannon Mills--they owned the town and gave the orders," said Helen Elwood, a mill worker of 40 years, as she rocked through a steamy afternoon on her front-porch swing. "But we got paid, the town seemed to run, and nobody lay awake worrying what would happen next."

The old days ended abruptly in 1982, when Los Angeles financier David H. Murdock bought the textile firm and 660 choice acres in the town, which lies 26 miles northeast of Charlotte.

He reorganized the mill, pared its work force, began selling the 1,785 white clapboard mill worker homes, and mounted a $20-million effort to redevelop the downtown that is still entirely company-owned.

Nothing Is Settled

Three years later, everything has changed and nothing is settled.

Cannon Mills is mired in an industrywide recession, and steady layoffs at the 11,000-employee mill have pushed Cabarrus County's unemployment rate to 18%, highest in the state. Murdock disclosed this month that he has approached other mill owners, so far without success, about a merger that would help bolster the money-losing company.

Staff cuts and workload increases at the mill have stirred resentment and sparked a bitter union-organizing drive that will climax in several weeks with a representation vote.

The town has incorporated, elected its first mayor and council, and is preparing to begin city services that were long offered by Cannon Mills. But while townspeople dream of sharing in central North Carolina's prosperity, the success of Murdock's redevelopment plans are still unclear.

And some residents fear major layoffs that would deal crippling injury to the local economy. "The fact is, things were unsettled when the mill was sold, and they haven't really been settled since," said Boyce Jenkins, who recently retired as president of the Cabarrus Bank. "I'm not sure exactly what it would take to bring stability."

Cannon family ownership lent stability that was as much the town's hallmark as the cotton cloth that streamed endlessly from Cannon looms. Kannapolis' peculiar anachronistic organization made it a curiosity to its neighbors and a delight to scholars. "The Southern textile industry has always been shot through with paternalism, but Kannapolis offered the biggest, most visible, and maybe the most extreme example," said Thomas E. Terrill, a labor historian at the University of South Carolina. "They're a symbol of a past that has been dead other places for a long, long time."

James William Cannon, the company founder, began buying property for the town in 1906, and named it Kannapolis, which he mistakenly believed to be Greek for "city of looms." (A better translation would have made the city "Histopolis," classics scholars say.)

He built and leased four square blocks of retail stores on a flank of the redbrick mill, and, to shelter the mill workers, ringed the surrounding area with one-story bungalows of three and four rooms. Since the mill's early days, the houses were scrupulously maintained and offered at rents that three years ago averaged $30 to $40 a month.

Tenants include not only mill workers but some local teachers, policemen, and, until nine months ago, the Kannapolis school superintendent.

Cannon Mills has provided water, firefighting and police services for the town, garbage pickup and electricity. Over the years, the Cannons and their charitable Cannon Foundation disbursed millions to build and maintain schools, hospitals, water and recreational facilities.

Family Was Generous

Townspeople recall the Cannons' generosity to those who needed cash for a medical emergency, schooling or other purposes. Charles A. Cannon, the son of the founder and for 50 years the mill-town patriarch, "would send people to me with a handwritten note suggesting we help out with an unsecured loan," former banker Jenkins said. "The note was enough."

Charles A. Cannon, known here as Mr. Charlie, was a round, ruddy-faced man with an arthritic limp who wandered the cavernous mill in a work shirt, backslapping and jawing with workers. In the 1940s, at Kannapolis' peak of prosperity, the mill employed more than 25,000, and Kannapolis was said to be the largest unincorporated town in the United States.

Mr. Charlie's generosity did not include a desire to share power. He opposed incorporation, because it would mean a loss of company control--and perhaps higher taxes. He was against efforts to attract new businesses and opposed an initiative to start a local technical school, fearing both would threaten the availability of labor.

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