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The following is taken from Burlington's 2001 All-America City Application. Special thanks to Mr. Don Bolden, Burlington All-America City Committee Chairman, for writing this.
Burlington is a community born of the railroad, bred on the loom and built on an ability to turn adversity into opportunity. Efforts to improve life in the community we know today as Burlington began even before our city was formed. Citizens here, learning of a plan for a railroad line across the state, campaigned to have the tracks come this way. The positive economic impact was needed to give growth to our rural, agricultural community.
When that occurred, others here put together a package of land to offer the railroad company as the site of its repair and maintenance shops. Thus was born Company Shops in 1854. For three decades, the railroad was THE industry here, but in 1886, those shops closed, and the railroad left. The town could have died, but citizens faced the challenge and turned the community in a new direction with a new name—Burlington.
Seeds of a new industry had already been planted. Several small textile plants had begun operations, and these soon were joined by hosiery manufacturers, many of whom were local entrepreneurs. As the century turned, many new jobs were created, making Burlington "The Hosiery Center of the South."
In the 1920s, textiles slowed and local businessmen saw need for new life in that industry. With financial support from the Chamber of Commerce, Burlington Mills was begun—a firm which would become Burlington Industries, the largest textile maker in the world. That company faced adversity immediately. The market for its cotton goods fell into depression, and the mill switched to a new and untried manmade fiber—rayon. On that product, Burlington Mills would become an industrial giant.
The Depression years were difficult here. Labor organizers came and stirred unrest and violence. Mill villages were tough areas. The Burlington Mills community became known as "Little Chicago." Through the efforts of mill owners, ministers, and concerned citizens, however, these conditions were reversed. Mill owners sold mill houses to employees, generating pride on the part of the new owners, not only in their homes but in the community as well. They demanded a safe place for their children, and with city officials, they made it happen.
Some diversity came to the industrial community in World War II, as an aircraft factory was opened, bringing in many new citizens to Burlington’s work force. After the war, Western Electric came, adding electronics to the economic base.
Textiles still prevailed, however, and in the 1970s, severe recession struck here. Unemployment rose to almost 20 percent at one point. With local leadership, diversification in the local job market began to occur, and there is no longer such reliance on a single industry. Textile employment remains heavy, but the largest single employer is now a medical diagnostic company. Again, adversity proved to be a new opportunity. Diversity is now a reality and recession is less a threat.
In the 1950s, Burlington suffered a critical water shortage. This posed a threat not only to existing industry and business but also to future growth in those areas. The city set out to correct that and ensure it never happened again. A new reservoir was built in the late 1950s, and almost as soon as it was placed in use, plans began for another water supply, which has now become a reality. Burlington has one of the best water supplies in the state, including two separate water treatment plants, a situation envied by our larger neighbors. Burlington’s water supply is a tremendous attraction to new industry.
We felt the racial unrest of the 1960s in a sharp way. However, through the efforts of bi-racial organizations, school desegregation was accomplished far more orderly than in neighboring areas.
Today, Burlington enjoys a unique position in North Carolina. It is home to major industry, to growing retail and residential development, and now it is facing up to a new challenge—the growing presence of Hispanics in the population mix. Already, there are changes in education, in the retail community and in the employment market to meet these demographics and meld the newcomers into the population. It just adds to the reality that in Burlington, we spell adversity O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y.
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