Christmas Town USA coming to life for its 59th season, facing possible changes in the future

Seventy-two years before McAdenville flashed to life as Christmas Town USA, the eastern Gaston County mill town made another kind of history with the help of Thomas Edison.

Three hundred of the famous inventor’s incandescent light bulbs suddenly illuminated a textile plant, making it one of the first in the U.S. to use electric lights. People flocked to McAdenville from around the region to witness what many considered a miracle.

The 600,000 visitors expected at the 59th Christmas Town USA event, which begins on Dec. 1, can see the tower of the original mill that lit up in 1884 - decorated and playing Christmas music.

They’ll come from around the world, some in vehicles that line up bumper to bumper along the one-mile route and others strolling the sidewalks.

The continued popularity of the annual light show, along with growth in eastern Gaston County, is causing officials at McAdenville-based Pharr Yarns, which sponsors the event, to see a time when Christmas Town USA may take a slightly different form.

“We’ve got no plans of changing anything now,” said Pharr Yarns President Bill Carstarphen. “But we are concerned with the fact that we have more and more people walking around town. We’re concerned with keeping people safe.”

He said portions of McAdenville’s sidewalks are cracked and uneven and the town currently can’t afford major improvements.

Increased traffic is also a concern. Carstarphen said McAdenville is sandwiched between Interstate 85 and U.S. 29/74 - major thoroughfares already heavily traveled. During the Christmas Town run, vehicles often back up in the interstate’s emergency lanes and this year a big new apartment complex on U.S. 74 in Cramerton will throw even more traffic into the mix.

“Safety is becoming more and more of a concern as we look to the future,” Carstarphen said. “We don’t have an answer worked out. But down the road, Christmas Town USA may be more of a park-and-walk experience than a drive-through that clogs McAdenville, Cramerton and Lowell.”

The annual spectacle of lights is scheduled around shift changes at Pharr Yarns’ two textile plants in McAdenville.

On weeknights, timers shut off the lights at 9:30 p.m. Carstarphen said that gives second shift employees a chance to leave and third-shift employees time to check in by 10 p.m.

The Christmas Town USA tradition began in 1956 with the stringing of lights on a few trees and evolved into a large-scale operation, with Pharr Yarns in partnership with town residents.

Since August, a 5-member crew with a fork lift and poles has been stringing more than half-million red, white and green lights on hundreds of trees.

The lights will shine nightly through Dec. 26, using 187,392 kilowatts of power - enough to power an average sized house in North Carolina for nearly two years.

The 2014 tree-lighting ceremony will be held at a different location: a new plaza in front of the Pharr Family YMCA on North Main Street. A 90-foot hemlock that’s never been decorated before during a Christmas Town event will be lighted in honor of Pharr Yarns CEO J.M. “Bip” Carstarphen, who died in May at age 81.

Family-owned Pharr Yarns’ roots go back to Charlotte banker R.Y. McAden, who founded a textile company in 1881 with a mill along the South Fork River in what is now McAdenville.

In 1884, McAden built a second plant in the village and commissioned Thomas Edison to install a generator, known as a dynamo, to power lighting in the factory. (Dynamo 31 operated until 1955 and is now on loan to the Gaston County Museum of Art and History.)

Charlotte-based historian Robert Ragan’s grandfather, Gaston textile pioneer George Washington Ragan, ran the McAden-Ragan company store in 1884. A story handed down in the Ragan family is that McAdenville residents stood on a hill and watched in amazement as the mill and its tower lit up.

“It was unusual,” said Ragan. “These country people had never seen electric lights. They called it light in a bottle.”

Some historians claim Edison himself came to Gaston County and supervised the electrical work. That’s a detail Pharr Yarns officials have been trying to verify this year during the company’s 75th anniversary celebration.

McAden Mills closed in 1935 during the Great Depression. Four years later, Robert Stowe Sr., Daniel Stowe and William Pharr bought the operation.

Pharr and his wife, Catherine, founded the Christmas Town USA tradition that has continued despite changing times in the textile industry.

Christmas Town spokesman Mel Collins thinks the storybook-like spectacle lights up memories of past Yuletide seasons.

“It’s the Christmas of your childhood you thought was gone for good,” he said. “But it still lives on in McAdenville. It’s a gift to the children and families of the region. And it’s never been commercialized.”