Stepping into the nearby Papertown Grill, I’m greeted by a friendly face, that of Edith Hutchins Burnette. At 79, “Edie” has spent her whole life in Canton, one filled with a bountiful career as an educator at Pisgah High School and a writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times. This is her town, and as I join her for a cup of coffee, she is rightly proud of where she grew up.
To some, Canton might appear to be a town that has seen better days. To Burnette, it’s just as alive and vibrant as ever, with the endless possibilities of tomorrow twinkling from her optimistic eyes.
And when asked about the Canton Labor Day Festival, Burnette lights up, as do many folks within this blue-collar community, when asked about just what makes this town tick. When I reach for my coffee cup, taking a big gulp, Burnette launches into a collage of words, emotions and fond memories that are cherished and shared by those who lived the kind of moments many of us could only be so lucky to be part of.
“I’ve lived in Canton all my life. Labor Day was a big deal. I remember being amazed at the numbers of people. Every community and every cove emptied out and came to town. The parade was heavily supported by the local businesses, including by the paper mill. They always had large, lavish floats, with many pretty girls in their long dresses. Everybody wanted their float to stand out.
“The paper mill (originally Champion Paper & Fibre Company) was heavily involved, and they always had the most beautiful floats. Reuben Robertson, who ran the mill, would always cruise the parade in his convertible. It was the crowd’s reaction to him that I remember well — no president would have received such a welcome as big as he got.
“I was a member of the square dancing club here and we had a float. The rides were always great, and put on by the Lion’s Club, so it was always someone familiar in the booth selling you tickets. It just made the community feel more connected. And even folks who moved away always came back because it meant so much to them. It is a source of pride, and it’s just a big deal for all of us.
“I fully support all of effort that’s going into it this year. It all has to do with the labor force in Canton. It’s a celebration of the workingman. It’s the theme of this town. And it’s to celebrate what we are. We’re a mill town, and we’re proud of that. We are very fortunate. The people in this community are special, and they need to be celebrated. We were consumed by the celebration back then — we looked forward to it and planned for it each year for a long time.
“They say it’s the longest-running Labor Day celebration in the Southeast, but I think if they did some research, I don’t know if they’d find a similar celebration around longer, anywhere. The town is still here, the people are still here, the mill is still here, the celebration is still here, and the pride is still here. The town today looks very attractive with the flowers and such in downtown, but you can also feel the life here. Now, I might not have said that a couple years ago, but I can feel it again.”