This is how a town dies.
The first thing to go is the jobs. The plant that employs 30 percent of the town shuts down. Everyone knows it’s coming but it still feels like it happens overnight. The other plant on the other side of town goes next. Textile jobs move overseas. Then the people disappear, longtime residents migrate to other towns for work, and the shops wither away. The ice cream store, the mechanic, the drug store … they all close one by one, replaced by vacancy signs. The plant sits empty, tarps covering holes in the roof. Kids throwing rocks bust out the windows of brick warehouses. Storefronts are boarded up. Some people hang on, but the population shrinks to triple digits, down from a few thousand. A skeleton crew really, just enough people to keep the lights on. There are a few jobs to fill. McDonald’s. Security at the old plant to make sure the local kids, bored and nothing to do but look for shit to break, don’t take it over.
On the edge of town, the interstate hums. There’s life to the east and west—towns that are thriving with jobs and art scenes and restaurants with charcuterie plates, but all of that progress skips this town. This town, which thrived with industry at one time, isn’t even a pit stop anymore. It’s just a memory.
It’s happened all over the country as small manufacturing towns suffered when blue-collar jobs were lost to cheaper labor in Asia. It’s a Bruce Springsteen song. A Hollywood script about hardship and perseverance.
There aren’t as many songs or scripts about a town coming back to life, but that’s what’s happening right now in a corner of the Southern Appalachians where Old Fort, North Carolina, a textile town that has been a shell of its former self for two decades, is staging a comeback through a revival in American- made manufacturing. In 2019, Kitsbow Cycling Apparel moved its headquarters from Petaluma, California, to Old Fort, bringing 60 new jobs. These are old-school jobs at a sewing machine, the same kind of jobs the people of Old Fort used to rely on. The same kind of jobs nobody thought would be coming back. Kitsbow’s move has helped spark a resurgence in this forgotten town. Signs of life are everywhere, from the new brewery just off the main street to the new trail system being planned in the nearby national forest. Growth is imminent. Old Fort is poised to become the next great small mountain town in the South. But can the town grow without displacing the locals that have always called Old Fort home?