McAdenville residents Steve Rankin and Harvey "Dick" Roberts Jr. grew up across the street from each other. Rankin, 79, was the youngest of four who called the town barber Dad. Roberts, 83, was the son and grandson of Pharr Yarns mill workers. His father started at the mill when he was 9-years-old and worked there for 60 years. His mother was its first nurse.
Rankin and Roberts also worked for Pharr Yarns, the textile company that continues to be the backbone of this community on the banks of the South Fork River. Rankin worked there for 48 years, retiring in 2009. Roberts started there at age 16, retiring 58 years later in 2002.
Both have fond memories of growing up in the mill town, first playing together as boys and later helping to shape and continue Christmas Town USA, the internationally known display of more than 500,000 holiday lights strung across more than 250 evergreen trees, 150 homes and other decorations. At last count, they bring more than 300, ooo carloads of onlookers each holiday season to their hometown. And it all started with a simple question.
Rankin remembers pumping water on the back porch. In the mid-194os, when Pharr started drilling wells, the company ran a water line from the house next door so they could have a faucet. "You're talking about luxury," he said. "What else do you need?"
Roberts recalls going to the old swimming hole with friends, then knocking on the door of the mill's owner, Mr. and Mrs. Pharr. He said Mrs. Pharr would ask the housekeeper to offer them milk and cookies. "Mr. William and Mrs. Pharr were mama and daddy to this town," he said.
When Roberts and his wife were first married, they lived across the street from the Abernathy grocery store. They paid 50 cents a week for room and board and $2 a month for the light bill.
There are several stories about how the display of Christmas lights started, but Roberts knows it firsthand. "I'm the last living member of the original four that started these lights," he said. "I happen to have been there when it started."
Roberts worked in Pharr Yarns' shop when he and three others -Billy "Bud" Alexander, Dorus Woodward and Neil Hagan -gathered in front of the supply room, asking how they could make the town more festive during the Christmas season. The inspiration, in the form of steel rods, was right in front of them.
The quartet believed they could weld them together, forming letters to spell "Merry Christmas." So, after securing Mr. Pharr's blessing, work commenced. They wrapped their work in electric lights and placed it on the hill behind the fire station. They also put stars on the water tower and decorated an evergreen tree.
Pharr asked them to decorate eight or nine trees on Main Street the next year, Roberts said. Pharr's wife, Catherine, requested they use the traditional Christmas colors of red, white and green. They continue to be the only ones used today.
In 1956, the Men's Club and Women's Club became involved, and the display kept growing, Roberts said. Town residents started decorating their homes during the fourth year of the lights. "You can go anywhere and see decorated trees," he said. "But the homes being decorated is what makes McAdenville unique." Rankin agrees: "You've got real people decorating homes and real people 'welcoming."
Keeping the Tradition Alive
Rankin might not be part of the original foursome, but the photos he has taken of the spectacle they created have been viewed worldwide, and his website has helped spark thousands of trips to what's now called Christmas Town USA.
Rankin's pictures of McAdenville first gained publicity in the 1970s, when he submitted one of caroler figurines on the steps of the old boarding house to Charlotte television station WBTV's Community Pride Photo Contest. He took the picture, which won first place and $50, at night, when the grass was dusted with snow. "And so, my career goes back a long, long time," he said.
Rankin launched mcadenville-christmastown.com in 1996, when the internet was still a novelty. Few people used email, and he enlisted a Charlotte friend to scan some of his pictures so they could be posted on the one-page website.
During one of those early years, Rankin received a call from a newspaper reporter who wanted to know how many "hits" his website received. "I said, 'What's a hit?'" The reporter told him the paper was going to run a story on the front page about the
lights and list his website, and he'd seen the number of visitors to his website climb.
The website, which Rankin recently revamped, receives more than 184,000 visits each December. It now offers parking, entrance and other information to help first-timers enjoy the lights. He answers every email it generates, including photo requests from all over the world - Germany to Australia. It's not paid work, rather a labor of love. He wants to share his special hometown with the world. "You could have a company do a website, and they don't put into it what you do," he said.
Rankin still decorates his home, where he has lived since he was 6 months old, placing a wreath on the door and candle in the window. While the home where Roberts grew up has since been razed, he, too, continues the decorating tradition at his current home. "This is my hometown, 11 Rankin said. "And Christmas Town is my hometown.”
This year, McAdenville turned on its Christmas lights on Nov. 30, marking the occasion with its annual Tree Lighting Ceremony. You can see them 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 5:30-11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 26. Be sure to pack some patience; the typical trip through the 1.3-mile display, whether you start from Interstate 85 or U.S. 74/29, takes about 45 minutes. If you have more time, try parking and strolling the sidewalks. For directions to the four parking lots, and more information about visiting Christmas Town USA in general, surf over to mcadenville-christmastown.com.