Gaston & Catawba

Piedmont Wagon building begins new life

On Jan. 10, people streamed into the newly repurposed, sole remaining shop of the once sprawling 13-building, 13-acre Piedmont Wagon & Mfg. Co. at 1020 Main Ave. N.W. in Hickory.

Co-hosted by the building’s new owner, Cornerstone United Inc., and The Hickory Landmarks Society, the grand opening included a ribbon-cutting ceremony, tours, a video presentation, music, food and mingling.

Guests wandered the two and half story space, marveling at walls made of handmade bricks, massive heart-pine columns and ceilings; shiny wood floors and wavy glass windows.

“I think this is wonderful – a marvelous way to utilize an old structure,” said longtime Landmarks Society member Alice Watts, whose grandfather, J.J. Sigmon, worked for Piedmont Wagon more than 40 years. Watts has a 1938 newspaper clipping that pictures her “Papa,” as Watts called him, and refers to him as “a foreman of one of the shop’s departments.”

Also among the guests was Winston-Salem resident Summey Leonard, whose father, Henry S. Leonard, served at one time as Piedmont Wagon’s secretary-treasurer.

Founded in 1878, the company was an international manufacturer of horse-drawn wagons. In its heyday, it was a Hickory giant, revolutionizing local industry by offering large-scale factory work done with the aid of machines.

Additionally, the factory spurred the region’s logging industry.

Situated next to railroad tracks, Piedmont Wagon crafted 15 wagons its first year, 50 its second and, eventually, thousands of wagons each year. Within 10 years, the manufacturer jumped from five employees to 100: machinists, painters, carpenters, wheelwrights and salesmen. According to a DVD prepared by Cornerstone United, Hickory’s population was 2,800 at that time.

Early on, fire was enemy No. 1. Piedmont Wagon’s frame buildings and wooden wagons and wheels suffered numerous blazes. In 1889, officials decided to construct a brick building, firewalls and 12,000 square feet of space. It is that building, listed in 1985 on the National Register of Historical Places, which remains. A final fire, in 1958, destroyed most of its surrounding structures.

The second enemy of early 20th century horse-drawn wagon producers rode into town on rubber tires, powered by an engine. As automobile production rose in the 1920s, the market for wagons declined. The company closed in 1959.

In a written statement from Landmarks Society headquarters at historic Maple Grove on N.C. 127 in Hickory, Director Patrick Daily and Leslie Keller, curator of collections and education coordinator, said that from 1959 until 2014, a series of owners used the building for varied purposes: dental laboratory, beer distribution and textile storage and shipping.

In 2008, the Landmarks Society added the building to its list of local endangered properties and began working to ensure the future of the structure.

Several parties attempted unsuccessfully to acquire and preserve the building, Daily and Keller said. In February 2014, Cornerstone United, Inc., a provider of warranty, protection, and specialty attachment programs for manufacturers, distributors, and dealers, bought the structure.

Thanks in part to federal and state rehabilitation tax credits and Hickory incentives, Cornerstone United, led by CEO and President Richard Swartzel, renovated the mill in an authentic manner. The building is now a warranty claims call center with offices for up to 75 employees.

Eighty-five percent of the building’s original materials remain. Missing pieces were replaced with items salvaged from other old Hickory structures. Where new materials were necessary, they were designed to look old.

The windows, for example, had been removed at some point, and the openings filled with bricks. Workers removed the bricks, and using new German-made wavy glass and frames patterned after one lone window found in the building’s basement, returned the factory to its original light-filled state.

Three spruced-up cupolas invite sunshine into the attic spaces, where wagons were produced and then lowered via a large steam-operated freight elevator. During the rehab, the elevator was divided and now provides electricity-powered transport.

Renovation experts, historic planners, Landmarks Society members and Cornerstone United officials teamed up to return the building to its original beauty while at the same time outfitting it to be a call center.

For Cornerstone employees in Hickory, the definition of a cubicle will be an area containing a desk made of contemporary materials but partially enclosed by 19th century wood and old-looking glass.

Landmarks Society members are breathing a sigh of relief. “Some of us who saw it before it was preserved thought, ‘You can’t tear it down,’” said society member Catherine Norris. “We almost lost it a couple of times.”

While Jan. 10 was the only opportunity for the public to tour the facility’s interior, it will continue to stand, visible to all who drive by, a salute to Hickory’s past industrial success and a symbol of hope for continued prosperity.

“You know why I’m active in Landmarks?” asked member and retired teacher Kathy Ludwig. “When I taught third grade, (the children) loved to come to all the historical landmarks in Catawba County.”