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  • Farm to Factory:Secondary Road Building and the Rural Industrial Geography of Post–World War II North Carolina
  • Tyler Gray Greene (bio)

Like boosters in hundreds of southern communities during the post–World War II era, the members of the Nebo Men's Club of McDowell County, North Carolina, wanted to bring new industry to their town. As a rural county in the Carolina foothills, however, McDowell could not match the amenities offered by the metropolitan areas of the emerging Sun Belt. Nonetheless, the club believed, as one of its promotional brochures insisted, that "small towns offer big opportunities." The brochure touted the advent of mechanized farming for "[making] available in many areas a supply of intelligent, high caliber, native-born men and women who can be quickly and economically trained to the skills of industry." Moreover, the ad implied, rural North Carolina was no backwater. Thanks to investments in the state's rural transportation system, factories could locate far from large cities without sacrificing access to national markets or a local labor supply. As if to highlight the newfound ease of relocating to McDowell, the advertisement featured an image of a well-dressed businessman striding confidently forward with a briefcase in one hand and a model of a factory held aloft in the other. The headline accompanying the image asked, "Want to Put It Down in a Small Town?"1

The brochure was one piece of a much larger effort, begun in the 1930s, to recruit out-of-state manufacturers as a means of economic development. Though all southern states took part in this endeavor, [End Page 277] North Carolina was especially successful. In fact, the state lured new employers at such a consistent rate that by the early 1980s, 35 percent of North Carolina's labor force worked in manufacturing, a higher percentage than in any other state in the nation.2

Thanks to a large body of scholarship on post–World War II southern industrialization, we have some idea why North Carolina, like the rest of the South, became a leading source of manufacturing jobs. In his essential book The Selling of the South, historian James C. Cobb provides an enduring framework for understanding the transformation of the region. He shows how state leaders used subsidies, tax breaks, and cheap, non-union labor, among other incentives, to attract new industry.3 Scholars have built on Cobb's findings by connecting capital migration to the South with the labor history of the North, contrasting that region's unionized, politically empowered workers with the low-wage climate of the South.4 Other historians have emphasized the role of the federal government, arguing that postwar defense spending reshaped the southern economy.5 Despite this scholarly output, the geography of the South's industrial development has received little attention. The existing historiography tends to focus on how the South became the Sun Belt, with the defense and aerospace industries of the Deep South and the high-tech research centers of Texas's Metroplex and North Carolina's Research Triangle serving as the logical endpoint of a decades-long economic development campaign. [End Page 278]

But the South's postwar "crusade for new industry" was primarily a rural story. Indeed, while North Carolina became an industrial state, it did so without developing industrial cities. In fact, by the 1980s only one city, Charlotte, exceeded 200,000 in population. To understand the state's industrial geography, a side-by-side comparison of its manufacturing workforce and population density is instructive. In 1980, for example, the foothill county of Alexander was the most factory-dependent county in the state. Fifty-seven percent of Alexander's labor force worked in manufacturing, yet the county's population density was less than 100 persons per square mile. In Montgomery County, nearly 56 percent of the labor force worked a factory job, yet the south-central Piedmont county had a population density of less than 45 persons per square mile. Moreover, eight North Carolina counties (Alexander, Caldwell, Catawba, Davidson, McDowell, Montgomery, Randolph, and Rutherford) had more than half of their labor force working in manufacturing. Across all eight counties the largest city was Hickory, with barely 20...


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