Written by Jason Luker
The South Fork Trail is a quick 2 mile hike along the river that feels completely out of place. As you move away from the roar of I-85, the sound of traffic is replaced with the melody of rushing water. In the matter of moments, you feel as if you left modern Gaston County and stepped back to a different time. Along the trail that lazily follows the South Fork River, you can find piles of brick and stones that now blend in with the surroundings. These ruins are all that remains from one of Gaston County’s earliest textile mill enterprises, Woodlawn Mill. Named after the small settlement close by, what is now known as Mount Holly, Woodlawn Mill was built around 1852. This was the second mill built in the county after Mountain Island Mill located along the Catawba River. Woodlawn Mill, also known as the Pinhook Mill, was owned and operated by the Lineberger family. The mill was a three story wood structure with a stone foundation. A canal was dug from the river to the mill that allowed for water to flow over the paddle wheel, providing the needed power for the cotton spindles and looms located inside. The small mill also included a dye house, a weavers shed, and a general store. Some accounts state that the industry was more store than mill which served the workers and community in the region. Woodlawn Mill, along with Mountain Island Mill and Stowe’s Factory, were the only textile mills in the area prior to the Civil War.
For most of the Civil War, industries in Gaston County were able to operate and citizens go about their daily lives shielded from the conflict and its engagements. However, this began to change as the war drew to a close. In 1865, Union General George Stoneman led 6,000 cavalrymen through parts of North Carolina and Virginia with the mission to break Confederate supply lines while creating a western threat to Confederate forces under the command of General Lee in Virginia and General Johnston in North Carolina. Known as Stoneman’s raid, Union soldiers moved through the area destroying structures and railroads that could be used for the benefit of Confederate forces. By April 1865, Colonel William J. Palmer’s brigade from Stoneman’s forces had arrived in Lincoln and Gaston County. It appears a portion of the troops were sent to investigate Woodlawn Mill. As the union soldiers approached the mill, they were met by Bill Sahams, the mill’s superintendent. Bill was from Germany but lived as a child in Pennsylvania. As he spoke with the union soldiers, one of them exclaimed “well, if it ain’t old Bill Sahams”. The soldier had been a neighbor of Bill’s in Pennsylvania. The soldiers were persuaded by Bill not to burn the Woodlawn Mill as they previously planned, but the soldiers burned the bridge that crossed the South Fork River instead. The remains of the bridge still stand to this day.
Woodlawn Mill was able to survive the war and continue to operate, but times were very tough for the textile industry. In 1876, the Lineberger family made major investments into the mill to make a comeback. Work was done on a new dam and surrounding acres were purchased for cotton production to be used in the mill. The biggest addition was the construction of Lawrence Mill. This state of the art mill was built a third of a mile down from Woodlawn Mill along the South Fork River. It was a three stories brick structure with a tower that provided a substantial growth in textile production for the organization. The Lawrence Mill became the center of activity and by 1880 the original Woodlawn mill had shut down. By 1882, the old mill was dismantled and pieces of the structure were used to build new homes in the surrounding area. Tragedy, however, struck the organization in 1883. During this year, cotton production was low due to a drought. The fields were not producing enough, so the mill purchased large amounts of cotton that were being stored in its warehouse. The building was filled to capacity with additional cotton bales outside. Sadly, a lighting strike to the building caused a massive fire that consumed all the cotton. Due to the large loans taken out to build the Lawrence Mill and the loss of all the cotton, the Linerberger’s were forced into bankruptcy. Though the remaining industry was purchased by a company out of Charlotte and remained Normandy Mills, the organization never truly recovered. Another large fire took place in 1889 that burned the Lawrence Mill to the ground. By this time textile mills were moving away from rivers being the source of power for the industry and no other mills were built on the site of Woodlawn or Lawrence Mill, allowing for the remaining bricks and stones that had once been the foundation to Gaston County’s emerging textile industry now be the footpath for a wonderful trail that allows visitors to experience the regions beautiful river and inspiring history.