You take a seat in front of the television and turn it on but unfortunately, instead of catching the news, you find yourself watching a commercial. It is a commercial about a coat factory. What is the first association you make about when you think about coat factories? You might think of “Burlington.” Most people in the piedmont of North Carolina will make the connection between Burlington and Burlington Coat Factory. However, Burlington Coat Factory is not the only business in Burlington, North Carolina. In the past, most of Burlington´s industries were located in the downtown area of the city, which is where the city originated. Downtown Burlington used to be the main business sector of the city of Burlington, however in later years, the downtown sector of the city lost a lot of its popularity due to expansion and the industry changes over time. Although not as popular as the newer sections of the city, the remnants of the original town remain an important part of the city of Burlington and its past.
The city of Burlington is located approximately in the middle of North Carolina, in the Piedmont. The Piedmont is one of three regions that make up North Carolina. To the right of the Piedmont is the coastal region and to the left of the Piedmont is the mountain region, comprised of the Appalachian Mountains. The city of Burlington originated from various groups of settlers that migrated to North Carolina in the 1700s, “most were either English or Irish Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, or German Lutherans,” that traveled along the “Great Wagon Road” to North Carolina around the time of the Great Awakening in Alamance County (Convention & Visitors Bureau). The future appeared bright for the new residents of what would be later named Alamance County; however, they were ruled by a government that did not see eye to eye with them. As a result of multiple issues, such as “land tenure, inequitable taxation and corrupt local government,” the Regulation Movement took place in 1766(Convention & Visitors Bureau 4). During the movement, the people of Alamance County formed a militia to battle the state government and they waged war for all of two hours. Ultimately, the state militia, commanded by Royal Governor Tyron, defeated the Regulators and they reached an agreement (Convention & Visitors Bureau 6). The agreement restored peace to the county.
The original town was chartered in 1858 and founded around the year 1859. It started out as the North Carolina railroad “headquarters,” a town named “Company Shops” that consisted of four buildings, “a church, bank, hotel and restaurant” (Downtown Burlington Corporation). In 1859, many people sold parts of their land to the railroad (Art and Architecture). Company Shops was chartered in the year 1866 (Public Information Department). The town’s name was changed to Burlington in 1887 due to the railroad industry moving to Spencer, North Carolina. Burlington became a city on February 14, 1893. Although the railroad moved to another part of the state, the railroad industry did not end. Eight years ago, in 2003, an Amtrak station was incorporated into the city. However, Burlington did not survive as a city off of the remnants of the railroad industry; it had other industries to fill the void left by the railroad industry. Burlington survived the fall of the railroad industry and observed its centennial in 1993 (Visitor’s Guide 7).
Records from the Burlington Chamber of Commerce indicate that Burlington was known as “The Hosiery Center of the South” and most of its original industries were mainly agriculture and textiles (Burlington Chamber of Commerce 4). The textile industry in Burlington, North Carolina dates back to 1837. Edwin Michal Holt established Holt’s Alamance Cotton Mill and “[created] the first commercially dyed cotton plaids in the South, known as ‘Alamance Plaid’” (Convention & Visitors Bureau 7). May Hosiery Mill is located on South Main Street; it was built in the 1920s to manufacture “cotton goods” (Walking Tour). Besides the textile industry, Burlington had other industries.
During War World II, around 1942, the company Western Electric came to Burlington. In 1918 a large portion of downtown Burlington “was destroyed by a massive fire[...]there was a period when businesses migrated to the outlying areas” (Historic Downtown Burlington). Due to this fire, a lot of buildings located on Main Street were renovated in the 1920s and “re-faced” during the 1930s and 1940s (Walking tour). One of downtown Burlington’s historic sites is the Historic Depot, which is also known as Southern Railway Passenger Station. Southern Railway Passenger Station operated from 1892 to 1962 (Walking tour). Now, the Historic Depot is maintained by the City Recreation and Parks Department because of its historic significance. The Depot is a “park-like area, with [an] amphitheater and fountain” (Historic Downtown Burlington). The actual Depot is a museum that tells the history of Burlington through art. Events such as Turrentine Middle School’s eight grade picnic are held at the Depot. The Farmers Market is held at the Depot as well as concerts and other special events. Many years after the fire, the Depot was repaired in 1993 and moved to its current location.
One of downtown Burlington’s historic sites is the Historic Depot, which is also known as Southern Railway Passenger Station (Walking tour). Southern Railway Passenger Station operated from 1892 to 1962 (Walking tour). Now, the Historic Depot is maintained by the City Recreation and Parks Department because of its historic significance. The Depot is a “park-like area, with [an] amphitheater and fountain” (Historic Downtown Burlington). The actual Depot is a museum that tells the history of Burlington through art. Events such as Turrentine Middle School’s eight grade picnic are held at the Depot. The Farmers Market is held at the Depot as well as concerts and other special events. The Depot was repaired in 1993 and moved to its current location after the fire.
Another part of downtown Burlington that was repaired was the Paramount Theater. In 1928 the Grand Theater, now known as the Paramount Theater, was built a block to the right of the Depot, almost ten years after the fire decimated downtown Burlington (Walking Tours). It was later renovated in 1998. The Paramount Theater is a local theater in downtown Burlington, where various events and programs such as ceremonies, local events, performances and beauty pageants are held in in downtown Burlington. It is also “home to Burlington’s community theatre group, The Gallery Players” (Visitor’s Guide).
One building that has not changed a lot since it was built in 1916 is May Memorial Library located along Spring Street in downtown Burlington. If you compare an old picture of downtown Burlington with the current downtown Burlington, you can immediately recognize May Memorial Library. May Memorial Library was the U.S. Post Office until 1942, when it became the library (Art and Architecture).Thirty-nine years later, a new building was built (Art and Architecture). In the year 2000, the library received some “renovations and [expanded]”. The Historic Depot, Paramount Theater, May Memorial Library and the Municipal building are four historic sites featured in the walking tour of downtown Burlington as four places of interests (Visitor’s Guide). The Municipal Building is the “home of…[Burlington’s] government offices” (Visitor’s Guide 9).
The remnants of Company Shops are the foundation of the current city. Although most of Burlington’s new industries are not located in the downtown district, many of the industries are connected to it. Important places such as government buildings and organizations that have survived over fifty years operate in downtown Burlington. These organizations have survived through both good and bad economies, while Burlington slowly grew and expanded around them. This is evident because throughout the city’s history, its population and expansion rate have been increasing; between the years 1979 and 1959, Burlington’s population increased by fifty percent (Burlington Chamber of Commerce). Even though the original Burlington is no longer in its prime, we can look at its history in order to determine what has and has not worked in the past in terms of the duration of industries and organizations in the city and apply those principals to how we approach our current economic problems. One of these lessons that Burlington can teach us is not to depend on one or a few industries to for economic stability, but to to depend on multiple industries that specialize in different areas of expertise.
“Alamance Walks: Downtown Burlington Walking Maps.”
Burlington Chamber of Commerce. “1950…A Year of Progress.” Annual Report. 1950.
Burlington Chamber of Commerce. “Burlington, North Carolina: A good place to live.” 1950.
Burlington Chamber of Commerce. “Burlington, North Carolina: Heart of the Piedmont.”
Burlington Downtown Coporation. “Burlington: The downtown that works.” Web.
Public Information Department. “Pearl of the Piedmont.” Burlington, NC.
“Historic downtown Burlington.” Published by: Burlington Downtown Corporation. 1996
“Historic downtown Burlington.” Published by: Burlington Downtown Corporation. 1997
Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Burlington Alamance County Visitors Guide.” 2006.
Burlington, Alamance County Convention &Visitors Bureau. Alamance County Area Visitors Guide. 1994.
The Great American Stations. “Revitalizing America’s Train Stations.” Web.
About the author
Sarah Rawls is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is double-majoring in Spanish and Asian Studies with a concentration in the Japanese language.