Each Burke County community has a unique story to tell and Rhodhiss is especially interesting. It is Burke's eastern most incorporated town situated near Hildebran and Icard. Rhodhiss is small, about one square mile, with almost 1,000 residents - and they are divided between Caldwell and Burke counties by the majestic Catawba River. Plus, Rhodhiss has its own dam and lake nearby.
Rhodhiss history begins in the 20th century as John Melanethon Rhodes of Gaston County and George B. Hiss of Mecklenburg County joined together to build a cotton mill on the upper Catawba River in Caldwell County. With a $500,000 investment, they constructed a village with a horseshoe-shaped dam, electric generator, mill, general store and worker houses.
Rhodhiss Manufacturing Co. opened in 1902 with a spur line from the Carolina and Northwest Railroad, nicknamed the "Can't and Never Will." Rhodhiss incorporated the following year with Calab Rhodes, George's son, the first mayor. Almost a decade later, the Town of Rhodhiss expanded into Burke County, a two-room school was built, a new steel bridge spanned the Catawba River and, in 1914, the E.A. Smith Manufacturing Co. began operation.
These small textile mills were riding the boom of a rapidly growing textile industry across the state, soon to establish North Carolina as the textile capital of the world. While mill work was difficult in those days with a 60-hour workweek for $4.00, its workers were generally offered comfortable housing, some health care, schooling and credit at the company store. An additional benefit for most families allowed children to work for $2.00 a week.
Rhodhiss, however, faced several grave tragedies that challenged its very existence. In 1909 a smallpox epidemic swept across North Carolina and, at one point, the entire Town of Rhodhiss was placed under quarantine with armed guards posted on its roads. Typhoid fever and flu were also endemic and a constant worry. And then, The Great Flood arrived in the midst of World War I.
Rain waters sweeping out of the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Catawba River was not uncommon but a combination of two hurricanes during July of 1916 resulted in the heaviest rains ever recorded in the Catawba Valley. The first three-day storm arrived early in the month from the Gulf of Mexico with the second three-day storm coming from the Atlantic in mid-July. This storm dropped over 13 inches of rain in one 24 hour period and the Catawba River rose to 47 feet above flood stage.
Their life-line to the outside world, the Southern Railroad, was damaged throughout the region, with 225 passengers stranded in Marion. People stood on the river banks and watched as the Rhodhiss bridge washed away along with the mill, hundreds of cotton bales, rolls of cloth, haystacks, chicken coops and a few houses. After wards, a $10 reward was offered for each returned cotton bale. Down river the Henry River Manufacturing Co. dam disappeared and Southern (Duke) Power's dam cracked.
Recovery work started almost immediately in town and at the mills, removing pigs off the 2nd floor and several feet of sand from the first floor. A new motor boat was brought to the lake from Hickory to ferry workers across the river as people tried to resume a normal life. But tragedy arrived again in 1919 with the Spanish Flu (a pandemic that took 25 million lives worldwide in 25 months). The mills at Rhodhiss were closed for weeks during the flu outbreak. Upwards of 1/4 of the population took ill but, luckily, with only a few deaths.
Better times came when Southern Power Co. purchased both mills in Rhodhiss to expand electric production with construction of a new 65 feet tall dam (1924), thus making the town among the earliest in the United States to be fully electrified. Everyone in the region suffered during the Great Depression as the mills cut back to a three-day workweek - but not even another hurricane induced flood in 1941 and World War II could knock the citizens of Rhodhiss down.
After the was Rhodhiss prospered when Pacific Mills purchased the local companies and invested over $5 million in improvements that brought paved street, indoor plumbing and street lights to the mill villages and provided employees with paid vacations and insurance. Expansion and improvements continued in 1955 as Burlington Industries took-over operations and changed the Burke mill to industrial fabrics for snow fencing, nose cones for military missiles - and the U.S. flags taken to the moon! By 1972, Rhodhiss was celebrating their good fortune along with a new two-lance concrete bridge across the Catawba River. But bad news, once again, was on the horizon.
As the American Revolutionary War Bicentennial approached, Rhodhiss received work that the Caldwell mill would be closed, resulting in the loss of 400 jobs. After adjusting to this devastating change, in 1982 Caldwell County closed Rhodhiss Elementary School and the next year Burlington Mills closed the Burke County mill with a loss of over 250 jobs.
While such events would devastate many small towns, Rhodhiss and its people survived and continue to endure. Burke County opened the Ray Childers Elementary School in 2000 and on Saturday, August 31, 2002, the citizens of Rhodhiss gathered together for a community photograph to once again celebrate their good fortune and the 153rd birthday of its founder, John Rhodes.
Town of Rhodhiss, NC