Badin, a mill village with French flair

Someone who'd like to see historic, French-inspired row houses for workers could take a jaunt overseas or to the ill-fated Chicago community planned by railroad magnate George Pullman.

But this small town in the North Carolina Piedmont is a lot closer.

French owners of an aluminum company founded Badin in 1913, drawn by electric power to be harnessed from a steep gorge in the neighboring Yadkin River. They built a town based on an overriding vision of attractive design, usefulness and progressive features such as sewer and electric power for workers and bosses alike.

"It's a very special place," said architectural historian Catherine Bishir. "There was a big amount of reform of workers' houses during that period. It was sort of a proud paternalism."

World War I put an end to the company's plans, but not to the Gallic influence they had brought to Badin, named for the French owner of the company.

"This is all French architecture," Badin Mayor Jim Harrison says. "This was all in progress before the French went back to fight for their country."

For decades, Badin was a classic company town. Before winding down its smelting operations beginning in 2002, Alcoa built almost everything: the row houses, many of which survive; larger houses for executives; bungalows in a sector for black employees; an opera house where W.C. Fields and Mae West performed; as well as schools, churches and a 134-acre factory complex on the edge of town.

Alcoa wants to renew its rights to generate power on the dammed Yadkin River, which created Badin Lake in 1917. The state has objected, and until that matter is resolved, Harrison said, "Tourism is all we've got."

The town and its visitors enjoy Badin Lake, ripe for swimming and boating, lapping at its downtown district. For hikers and bikers, Morrow Mountain State Park is within a stone's throw. But Badin has been through tough times given Alcoa's departure and the general downturn in housing and jobs.

"We are trying to revive the town," said Jennifer Hicks, assistant food and beverage manager at the Badin Inn and Country Club. "We have had a number of members that we lost in the past come back."

Anyone can join

The club was formerly private, but today anyone is welcome to have a meal and a drink at the Johnny Palmer Grill or to take one of the inn's sweetly decorated rooms and suites, named after visitors such as West and Sam Snead.

"You do not have to wear a collared shirt," Hicks said. "We accept everyone."

From the Triangle it's an easy two-hour drive to Badin. In addition to having lunch at the inn or other town restaurants, visitors can explore downtown's broad, winding streets - another feature described as European - where the distinctive row houses, or quadruplexes, are found on almost every block.

Wendy Little writes a frugal-living blog from the quadruplex apartment she shares with husband Vonnell and three children. Their apartment, about 2,200 square feet, occupies the prized end space of the row of four - the spot where the owner typically lived.

With built-ins such as bookcases and kitchen cabinets, its spacious design has made a good home for the Littles, Wendy said. But like many in Badin, they worry about the economy.

"All of our mills left," Wendy said. "There's nothing here that's like a big company any more."

Looking back at history

Whether the manufacturing jobs return or not, Badin has carefully preserved a wealth of reminders of its unusual founding and early years in three museums. For resident Nancy Sullivan, greeting tourists at the Badin Museum, moving to the town completed a childhood dream.

"I've lived in Stanly County all my life, and my mother used to bring me here to visit," Sullivan said. "In the springtime, you couldn't find anything any prettier."

Mayor Harrison, a retired Alcoa employee, often shows visitors through the meticulously restored Quadruplex Museum, which recalls the appearance and function of the one of the workers' houses in 1915.

With gleaming heart pine floors, period furniture and what looked like luxuriously large closets for the day, the house showed Alcoa's dedication to a quality existence for its workers, Harrison said.

"With running water, electrical service, sewer and fire hydrants, as the old folks say, 'It was downtown,' " Harrison said.

It survives

From the disparate treatment black workers received decades ago to the current battle over water rights, Alcoa's hold on the town has been controversial at times.

But Badin remains a fascinating reminder of the era when a company could define a community on mostly progressive principles, building a physical legacy and influence strong enough to survive even the company's shutting down.

"We appreciate anyone's coming to see it," Harrison said.

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