The Industrial Re-revolution
In a forgotten corner of southern Appalachia, Kitsbow Apparel is helping to usher in a new era of American manufacturing
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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?
Made To Order
Kitsbow’s Icon shirt is almost too pretty to wear while riding. It’s made from Pendleton’s merino plaid fabric, with patches on the shoulders and elbows for extra durability. Slim cut, snap buttons, bright blue thread accents on the pocket … it’s dateshirt quality, and as of late 2019, it’s made-to-order in Old Fort, North Carolina.
Kitsbow’s production floor doesn’t look like a typical sewing factory. In Asia, factory floors are packed with sewers—all women—crammed together, sitting in front of machines, where they stay all day, every day, making the same cuff or lapel or collar, for about $2.10 an hour. Dozens of sewers will work on each shirt, assembly-line style, as scraps of waste fabric pile up on the floor. At Kitsbow, nobody sits. The floor is divided into work stations—horseshoes composed of several different white, gleaming machines—where one or two makers move from one machine to the next, putting together an entire shirt, or pair of shorts on their own. After the shirt is made, the sewer presses a red button, signaling the completion of another garment, and signs a “maker’s” card that gets packaged with the clothing. The floor is spotless. There are no scraps in sight. The crew at Kitsbow can make several tech tees in an hour, but the Icon requires more precision, so they’re making one or two of those an hour. Order one today and you’ll get your shirt in about a month. This is not a sweatshop. It’s a tech startup.
“One of the worst things about apparel moving overseas is that the industry missed the manufacturing revolution,” says David Billstrom, Kitsbow’s CEO, adding that this form of manufacturing, dubbed “the Toyota way” for the car company that pioneered it, is more efficient and less wasteful. It relies more on skilled labor and high-tech machinery, not cheap labor in developing countries. “This is how clothes should be made.”
Billstrom wasn’t really considering Old Fort for Kitsbow’s new factory and headquarters. The company makes high-end mountain bike clothing—$250 technical flannels and $175 riding pants that are classy enough to wear off the bike. The California-based company wanted to bring their manufacturing back to the United States but couldn’t make it work on the west coast.
“California wasn’t just expensive, there isn’t really a work force,” Billstrom says. “There aren’t enough people to fill the jobs.”
Billstrom cut his teeth in Silicon Valley but had spent years living in small southern towns, and he knew the region would be a good fit for Kitsbow’s new operation.
“People don’t move away from the Southern Appalachians. There’s a wonderful combination of resilience and a sense of place that you don’t find elsewhere,” Billstrom says. “As a business, it just makes sense to go to a place where people aren’t gonna move away, because it takes so long and costs so much to train sewers.”
Old Fort was originally off the table because it has historically been a dry town. You had to drive across the county line to get a beer when Kitsbow was choosing a new home city, and Billstrom wanted more than just a ready labor force. He wanted a town that offered a certain quality of life. But he gave Old Fort a second look and discovered that a new state law would allow breweries to sell beer in dry towns and counties. There was also a space available that would be perfect for Kitsbow’s sewing operation—the old Parker Hosiery manufacturing building. And the town, which had at one time supported several manufacturing plants, had an eager workforce familiar with the nuances of manufacturing jobs. And then there’s the location—Old Fort sits at the base of the Black Mountain Range, home to the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi. The town of roughly 1,000 is surrounded on three sides by a forgotten corner of Pisgah National Forest and has two trophy trout streams running through its limits. A couple of Pisgah’s signature mountain bike trails, Kitsuma and Heartbreak, end a few miles from Kitsbow’s new home.
“It’s the goldilocks location,” Billstrom says.
If you drove through Old Fort just a couple of years ago, you probably wouldn’t have described it that way. If you were being polite, you’d say Old Fort had good bones. The main street would be cute if it wasn’t for all of the empty storefronts. Look further and you’d find dormant warehouses and factories, half-empty churches, trailers with weeds growing around broken-down cars—the only thriving business was the Dollar
General, which seems to come standard with small-town Appalachia these days. As late as the ’70s, there were five manufacturers operating within the limits of Old Fort. They made furniture and clothes and car parts, but they started closing in the ’80s, when the Old Fort Finishing Plant, a textile company, shuttered its operations and let go 500 employees. The trend continued with most of the other manufacturers ceasing operations in the last two decades. Ethan Allen furniture was the most recent casualty, shutting down the majority of its operations in 2019 and laying off 300 workers. Now, only Auria is left, making carpets for cars.
It’s the goldilocks location
“My parents worked at the Old Fort Finishing plant,” says Lavita Logan, a third-generation Old Fort native who now runs People on the Move, a nonprofit advocating for the town’s Black community. “The town was doing really well for decades. When the manufacturing jobs go away, people either move or drive out of town to find other work. They shop elsewhere. The town just dies.”
Kitsbow started making clothes in Old Fort at the end of 2019. Only one employee moved with the company from California. The rest of the now-55-person workforce is local, coming from Old Fort, Asheville and the surrounding county. Hillman Beer Company opened a brewery and restaurant at the same time, operating on the other side of the Parker Hosiery Building. Kitsbow has since opened The Ride House, a retail space and café that serves as a meeting point for cyclists and a de-facto visitor’s center for people hiking and riding in the Grandfather District of Pisgah National Forest.
“When Hillman and Kitsbow came here, we had nothing going for us,” Logan says. “But those businesses have opened things up. You can see the potential of the town now.”
This is just the beginning of Old Fort’s second life, so it still feels sleepy. The Ethan Allen factory flanks one side of downtown, empty except for a few employees who make furniture for U.S. embassies. The front roof is caving into itself and is covered in tarps. Other nearby warehouses and factories sit crumbling. Storefronts are still largely vacant on the main drag. But there are also signs of revival. One of the old warehouses has been converted into a CrossFit gym. A cluster of container homes with living roofs is tucked into a corner of town. A second brewery is under construction and scheduled to open this summer. And a second manufacturer, Triple Aught Designs, which makes backpacks and tactical gear, is moving its operations from California to Old Fort, bringing 70 new jobs. McDowell County Community College is converting another
warehouse into a trailbuilding school where potential trail workers can gain hands-on education and certifications. It’s good timing because Old Fort is set for a trail renaissance. The Fonta Flora State Trail, a 100-mile greenway that will run from
Asheville to Morganton, will bisect downtown, and 40 miles of new singletrack are slated to be built in Pisgah National Forest just outside the city limits. It’s the largest trail development project on Forest Service land in the south, and it’s happening in a part of Pisgah that typically doesn’t get a lot of attention. While the Pisgah Ranger District between Brevard and Asheville has become home to a world-class riding destination, the Grandfather District outside of Old Fort is largely overlooked. The mountains
here are tall and steep, but there’s a lack of trail density. Well-ridden trails like Kitsuma and Heartbreak are isolated and can’t be connected without significant road miles.
“The forest outside of Old Fort sits in the shadow of other parts of Pisgah,” says Jason McDougald, executive director of the G5 Trail Collective, the nonprofit that’s spearheading the trail project. “It hasn’t seen the attention or maintenance that other parts of the forest has seen, so even the trails that exist can be hard to find.”
The G5 Trail Collective has been rehabbing the handful of hiking and cycling trails that are already on the ground outside of Old Fort, and is waiting for the results of the environmental study before breaking ground on the new system, which will include much-needed connections for Kitsuma and Heartbreak. Beginner-friendly loops are in the works too.
“The sky’s the limit for Old Fort,” McDougald says. “There’s a lot of great energy around town right now, and once you have that momentum, you can’t stop it.”
And while most people don’t want to stop Old Fort’s inevitable growth, certain forward-thinking stakeholders are attempting to harness it, so that the locals who have called Old Fort home for generations don’t get priced out of the town’s evolution.
Karen Rogers has all kinds of stories about Old Fort from her childhood. Rogers was born and raised here and likes to tell stories about how her parents met while running moonshine down the mountain, racing to get their booze into town first. Or stories about how she would swim in nearby Curtis Creek, and walk from school into town to get ice cream while waiting for her mom to finish work at the Parker Hosiery building. The same building that Rogers now works at sewing Kitsbow apparel.
“I never thought Old Fort would be a bicycling town,” she says while moving from one white machine to the next, making a merino-wool tech T-shirt. “I’m excited that there’s finally some industry back in town. For so long, the only jobs here were $8 an hour for 40 or 50 hours a week. You can’t live like that.”
Old Fort has never been a leisurely city. Asheville, 30 minutes west, has been a resort destination almost since its inception, but Old Fort has always been about business. It was originally the meeting ground for the Catawba and Cherokee tribes, neutral territory to work through treaties (archeologists are working at the site of the new trail system and plan to have signs along the trails that tell the story of the original indigenous settlers in the area). During the American Revolution, it was called Davidson Fort, the westernmost outpost of white settlement in America. As a railroad hub after the Civil War, the labor force in Old Fort was responsible for pushing the iron line farther west, deeper into the mountains. The town’s industrial backbone was well solidified by the time manufacturing kicked into high gear.
Today, Old Fort might be embracing the bicycle, but only because the bicycle is good for business. The largest funding partner of the new trail system is People on the Move, which secured a $450,000 grant to fund small businesses for Black residents. They sent their first $75,00 to G5 to fund the trail project’s extensive NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process.
I never thought Old Fort would be a bicycling town.
“We’re trying to find ways to bring more revenue into the town, so local businesses can thrive, and we see people coming to hike and bike. They’ll need to have some place to eat and drink or stay overnight. It’s gonna bring more revenue,” Logan says.
If the notion of a Black-led, community-minded nonprofit being in the business of building mountain bike trails sounds unconventional, welcome to what progress looks like in Old Fort. The town has always had a large Black population—roughly 30 percent—but it has also largely been an unofficially segregated town. Black residents
have typically lived in two neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, known as Baptist Side and Cemetery Street, both of which have been largely ignored by the city to the point where they lack infrastructure like sewer systems and trash collection.
“We’re working to make the Black community more visible and give them a safe space to express themselves,” Logan says.
She sees the progress coming to Old Fort and is working hard to make sure Black residents don’t get left behind. In addition to funding the trail project, the grant money that People on the Move earned will help kickstart a handful of Black-owned businesses, from a barbecue restaurant to a cluster of log cabin rentals. Logan, along with Billstrom and McDougald, are also part of a council of community leaders that’s helping to shape the impending growth. Their first priority is affordable housing so that low-income families won’t get pushed out of their own neighborhoods as Old Fort grows, as has happened in other mountain towns.
“We’re making a big push to get a jump on affordable housing before prices get so crazy,” McDougald says. “How do you retain wealth in a community so people aren’t kicked out? If someone’s living in a mobile home, how do you create a path for them to buy an affordable home?”
Right now, that push is taking the form of a massive workforce housing project going in next to the campus of McDowell Technical Community College, 10 miles from downtown Old Fort. The project is being spearheaded and funded largely by local nonprofits and trusts that are making housing equity a priority in the county over the next decade.
Billstrom sees the revitalization of Old Fort as a key aspect to Kitsbow’s thriving bottom line, so the company is involved in a number of practices that seem to be good-natured altruism. The company runs a bike shop for employees and is distributing donated bikes to local kids, so families that work at Kitsbow can learn to ride together. They pay for 100 percent of their workforce’s health care and are vocal proponents of the push for affordable housing. They’re also eager to turn Old Fort’s food desert into an oasis, where locals can make affordable, healthy diet choices. It sounds generous—and it is—but it’s also profitable. Ensuring affordable housing means his employees can stick around and Kitsbow won’t have to train an endless cycle of new hires. Paying for health insurance and encouraging healthier habits keeps his employees able to work.
“It’s obvious to me you can be a capitalist and compassionate at the same time,” Billstrom says. “There are so many examples of where the right thing to do for a long-view profit motive is the right thing to do, period.”
The notion of profit through altruism is never more apparent than in Kitsbow’s decision to bring its manufacturing back to the United States. On the surface, it’s a feel-good story about restoring American jobs, but Billstrom insists it was a sound business decision. Manufacturing in the U.S. allows Kitsbow to shift to an on-demand model instead of ordering batches of garments from a factory in Taiwan a year in advance. You order and pay for a shirt, Kitsbow makes it. Instead of borrowing money to place large orders ahead of time, Kitsbow became cash-flow positive. Making the clothes here also cuts down on waste (40-percent of clothes made overseas go into the landfill), and allowed Kitsbow to transition from sewing mountain bike clothes to sewing personal protective equipment within a matter of hours when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
And all of Kitsbow’s profit-minded philanthropy is working; Kitsbow originally brought 60 jobs to Old Fort and they need to hire at least 10 more people to fill demand. Since moving to Old Fort, the company has seen 50-percent growth—and that’s during the pandemic.
“We can’t make stuff fast enough right now,” Billstrom says, adding that there’s also so much work to be done in the town of Old Fort. He envisions a pumptrack, pedestrian- and cycling-friendly streets, access to the trout streams and more healthy food options. He’s determined to see Old Fort learn from the mistakes of other mountain towns and make smart, long-term decisions. “We want Old Fort to thrive, and the people here want us to thrive. If you do it right, one hand shakes the other. That’s what’s happening here.”
Photography: Ben Ward
From Summer 2021