Workers filled boarding houses
By Norris Dearmon
For the Kannapolis Citizen
When J.W. Cannon started the new town of Kannapolis, he knew it would need housing for the employees. He immediately began building houses as the mill was being built.
Not long after the mill began operation, the need was more than he realized. To have a place for new employees when they arrived in town, he began building boarding houses. One of the first was built for ladies only, The Martha Washington Inn. It was on a short street (First Street) just about 100 feet north of the back of the YMCA, on the corner of Chestnut Street.
The ladies could leave the house, walk about 50 to 75 feet and be in the mill. They loved living there. In a photo made in the early 1910s, on file at the Kannapolis Branch Library History Room, they gathered on the front porch and had their picture made. In another, they decorated a horse-drawn wagon in white, including the wheels and axles; then all the women donned long, white dresses and wide-brimmed white hats to ride in the Fourth of July parade.
I am sure it took a lot of work to accomplish the task.
The cost of living there was low, as little as $3.25 a week. The company subsidized it, furnishing maid service, linens, furniture, fuel and plumbing. A Mrs. Russell first managed it for the company and served as house mother. She was also in charge of meal preparation.
In 1919, a Mrs. Farrell took over operation of the inn. The company disengaged itself from the operation of the boarding house and sold the inn and all its furnishings — the whole package — to Mrs. Farrell.
She changed the name to Kannapolis Inn and started taking in men and women. Upon her death, daughter Pearl Funderburk became landlord. In 1949, the inn was torn down for expansion of the mill. Mrs. Funderburk moved to South Ridge Avenue, to the old Cline House, and the boarders moved with her.
As the workers began arriving, many boarded in private homes of those who had extra beds or could find space to put one. It was a way for the people to earn a little extra money.
Often, the beds were occupied first by first-shift workers; then a second-shift worker would sleep in the same bed when that shift ended. The lades of the house fixed meals and lunch boxes. The shifts were 12 hours long, and on the weekends the boarders would go home. The cost was about a dollar a day.
In 1917, Cannon began planning what was at first called a girls’ dormitory. The Charlotte Observer picked up on the story and said it was to be the largest girls’ dormitory in the South and would accommodate 350 girls.
The building had all the amenities girls would desire. A large swimming pool was to be in the basement, along with exercise equipment, game tables and room for other activities. There were to be three sections with three floors each, connected by arches and halls. The building would have a kitchen and large dining room and a couple of smaller dining rooms for the main office personnel. Four meals a day would be served.
In 1919, the building was completed and named The Mary Ella Hall, in honor of J.W. Cannon’s wife. It was decided to permit single men and women and married couples to occupy the facilities. For years, there was a waiting list of those who would like to live there.
Many of the single men and women found their future wives and husbands while living at the Mary Ella Hall. The town park was just across the street next to the lake, which made it convenient for courting. There were strict rules to abide by, and the single men and women were not allowed on the floor of the opposite sex.
The black workers of the hall lived in the basement. The doors were locked at 11:30 p.m.
The Mary Ella Hall was so successful, a second facility was built on West Avenue near Cabarrus Mill (Plant No. 4). It was called Cabarrus Hall, and many teachers from McIver School across the street lived there, as well as the workers. The Cabarrus Hall did not have all the amenities the Mary Ella Hall had.
As time went by, both of the halls were used for other functions, such as Red Cross work during World War II and other community services. Eventually, the cost of operation was more than was being taken in and both were removed. The Cabarrus Hall was first to go, and then the Mary Ella Hall in the 1970s. The space was converted to parking.
Interestingly, when the Mary Ella Hall was torn down, the basement swimming pool was covered with wooden beams and paved over. Recently, when construction crews were grading in the vicinity, they found the pool’s remnants. I suspect they were surprised, especially since it was covered with wooden beams.
In addition to the above-mentioned facilities, there were many other boarding houses scattered all over town. On North Main Street was the Brigman Boarding House. On South Main Street was the Tillman boarding house; Towel City Inn, managed by Mrs. Poteat Alexander; and other boarding houses. On Ridge Avenue, there were several.
In what used to be called Cur Town, the Roy Barnhardt family operated a boarding house on Cedar Street, which had 12 small rooms upstairs. The house is still there today, but no boarders.
All are no longer operating as boarding houses, and some have been destroyed.
Norris Dearmon is a local historian and member of the Kannapolis History Associates. He also volunteers in the History Room of the Kannapolis Branch Library.