New life is coming to the 42-acre site in the heart of Swannanoa that was once home to the Beacon Blanket mill. After years of sitting vacant, the property has been sold to Symmetry Financial Group, an insurance marketing company based in Swannanoa. One of the owners of Symmetry (and also a co-owner of Native Kitchen and Social Pub) is Swannanoa native and Owen High graduate, Casey Watkins. Plans for the property include a new 30,000 square-foot headquarters for Symmetry, as well as future retail, commercial and recreational uses that will help spur community redevelopment and growth.
Symmetry’s purchase of the property helps clear the way for a proposed 118,000 square foot indoor sports complex that would occupy 15 acres on the site, and include multiple courts for basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, pickleball, and other sports. The sports venue is expected to attract large tournaments on the weekends, but would be open to the public at other times. If all the necessary financing and approvals can be secured, construction could begin as early as 2020.
In an article in the Black Mountain News following the announcement of the land purchase, Watkins talked about the importance of the Beacon mill site to the future of Swannanoa. “It was where the town was; that was Swannanoa,” Watkins said. “When you turned up Whitson Avenue . . . that’s where it was all happening. That’s going to be an important piece of the puzzle when we think about the future of Swannanoa and its growth.” Watson went on to say that the goal in purchasing the land “was to be in a position to make sure it stays on the right track.”
At its peak, the Beacon Blanket mill employed thousands of people, and was the center of life in the Swannanoa community. The mill opened its doors in 1925 and closed for good in 2002, after a series of ownership changes and reductions in workforce. In 2003, an arsonist started a fire that burned the mill to the ground. The property has been vacant ever since, but at long last there’s new hope that something positive will rise from the ashes. In the Black Mountain News article, Watson said that “if we can be even in a small way part of rejuvenating this area, we’re really excited about that.”
This summer, the Swannanoa Valley Museum is exploring the story of the textile industry in Western North Carolina through its new exhibit “Beacon Blankets: The Mill.” This multimedia exhibit delves into the history and cultural impact of Beacon Blankets, a New England textile company that migrated to Swannanoa during the Great Depression. The Beacon Manufacturing Company was once the largest blanket manufacturer in the world, employing more than 2,200 people at its one million square-foot plant in Swannanoa. Today, many Beacon blankets are collector’s items.
The Beacon Mill exhibit highlights several aspects of Beacon’s history, including its controversial use of the term “Indian Design” when advertising its blankets; workers’ striking and unionizing efforts; and the lives and culture of Beacon’s Swannanoa community. These topics are explored through banners, historic footage, textile and blanket displays, activities for children, and more.
Beacon transformed Swannanoa into a mill town, with company-owned houses and company-sponsored entertainment and sports teams. While amenities such as mill village housing were provided as a strategy to discourage workers from union organizing, the bustling, close-knit community that formed around the mill is fondly remembered by former residents.
Multiple generations of Swannanoa Valley residents worked at the mill until its closure in 2002. In 2003, an arsonist set fire to the building, burning it to the ground. Today, the former mill site is an open field situated next to historic mill village housing, now private residences. Several entities are working to preserve the memory of Beacon’s history in Swannanoa. The Swannanoa Valley Museum maintains collections related to Beacon, and its 2019 exhibit is part of ongoing efforts to educate the public about the history of the mill and its workers.
The Swannanoa Valley Museum is located at 223 West State Street in Black Mountain. Museum hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. For info, call 828-669-9566.
Story Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum.
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