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Prison protest: Hazelwood residents voice concerns about prison conversion

fr pathwaysWith the lease drawn up and fundraising underway, most people attending the Haywood County Commissioner meeting last week figured that approving the lease for a trio of Christian groups to renovate the old Hazelwood prison would be a matter-of-fact agenda item. But when the public comment session opened, it became clear that all were not in favor. 

Folkmoot to finally get title to old school

fr folkmootAn old elementary school in Waynesville that serves as a giant bunkhouse for troupes of international performers during the signature Folkmoot festival each summer is being relinquished by the Haywood County school system and turned over to Folkmoot for good. 

Did that used to be a tree? The tragic legend of the ‘Hazelwood haircut’

fr haircutIt’s got more names than the Bible. The “round-over,” the “lollipop,” and the “bob” to name a few. No matter how you call it, Haywood County’s favorite way of trimming trees is despised by tree experts, yet it’s probably here to stay.

From down-and-out to up-and-coming, former factory town undergoes transformation

fr hazelwoodPatty Atkinson took a short break from helping the constant flow of customers at a local family pharmacy in the heart of Hazelwood to talk about the evolution of the community around her — from a bustling blue collar factory town to a mostly deserted streetscape to a quickly changing, thriving pocket of Waynesville.

Over the top and proud of it: Hazelwood neighbors light up a neighborhood to celebrate the season

Want to see, for free, one of the best examples of folk art to be found in Western North Carolina? Then head to the humble Hazelwood community in Haywood County and view what some of the residents living there have created using simple Christmas lights and inexpensive or homemade decorations.

This is truly art from the heart.

Thousands, literally thousands, if not actually millions, of lights festoon the trees and decorate the small former mill houses and the trailers that line Hyatt Street. Here, after dusk — in a blatant, unapologetic display of keeping-up-with-the-neighbors — one finds lit candy canes, Santas, reindeer, stars and more. Much more, starting sometime late in October until whenever the residents decide it’s time to take them down.

There are so many decorations per house that most of the people who participate in this volunteer neighborhood extravaganza are forced to buy or build individual sheds just to store their Christmas supplies.

There is a story bandied about Haywood County that the extravagant Christmas lights display on Hyatt Street started with a neighborhood competition gone mad. That, however, is not true. Though there was, indeed, at one time community Christmas lights competitions in this region, including here in Hazelwood.

The Christmas lights gala on Hyatt Street started simply enough, and this is how: more than two decades ago, some of Ronald and Cecile Fish’s then-neighbors decided to move to Pennsylvania. They gave Ronald and Cecile Fish two strings of Christmas lights rather than pack them.

From a single acorn grows a mighty oak.

Ronald Fish put up those two strings of Christmas lights, and something deep inside him grew three sizes that day. The next year, he put up more lights. Then more, and more each year, and Ronald Fish soon found the strength of 10 men, plus two, and hung lights from the house, the trees, the fence; he built more decorations, added reindeer and Santas and American flags and more, much more. Ronald Fish couldn’t stop and to this day he is still adding lights to his collection.

“I counted them one time, some years ago, and it was something over 100 strings — that’s 10,000 to 20,000 lights,” he said.

There’s a lot more than that in the Fish yard now, too many to count.

Down the street a few houses away, Ronnie Cook one Christmas season noticed the Fish yard aglow. Cook was struck by a wonderful, awful, idea: he would have more lights than his good friend Fish. He began stringing lights on trees, on his house, down the sidewalk, up the shed; he couldn’t stop and to this day he, like Fish, is still adding to his Christmas lights collection.

Across the street from Ronald Fish and a mere two houses or so from Cook, Juan and Rosy Camacho grew envious, too, of their neighbors’ yards and houses. Their mouths hung open a moment or two, until they knew what to do and so they ceased crying, “Boo Hoo.”

The Camachos started visiting box stores, thrift stores and more. They bought cases, perhaps even truckloads, of Christmas lights, and decorated their home and yard, too.

“It’s a competition thing,” Rosy Comacho freely admitted.

Other residents joined in. Though a few houses here on Hyatt Street are determinedly undecorated and dark. Perhaps in protest, or perhaps in sheer surrender to the virtuosity displayed by those who are decorating for the season.

The electric bills for these Hazelwood residents who do participate in this Christmas light festooning are insane. Cook’s jumps about $150 a month, the Camachos’ bill goes up at least $50 (they just started in the game about six years ago). And Ronald and Cecile Fish admit to their bill doubling, though they demurely shy away from saying what that electric cost is before the doubling.

One wouldn’t, after all, want to appear to brag over one’s neighbors.

Hazelwood clings to its post office under threat of closure

Hazelwood seems to be getting the short end of the stick these days. Once an independent blue-collar town boasting a half-dozen factories, it has seen them close one by one over the past two decades.

Now, the community is in danger of losing another vestige of its identity: the post office that stood on its former main street for nearly 50 years.

This time around, Hazelwood residents are taking firm action. More than a thousand Hazelwood residents have banded together to rescue their neighborhood post office from permanent closure, signing petitions and sending letters to elected officials.

The Postal Service has not made a final decision but continues to study consolidating the Waynesville and Hazelwood postal operations. The Waynesville post office is less than two miles away from the one in Hazelwood, which primarily serves Hazelwood and West Waynesville residents.

The Hazelwood branch is certainly not alone in facing closure, as the Postal Service is considering other consolidations across the country to improve efficiency and save some badly needed money.

Six of the 80 post offices in Mid-Carolinas district have already been shut down this past year.

The government agency cites changes in “consumer preference” and the recession-related declines in mail volume for a revenue shortfall of nearly $4.6 billion so far this year, with that figure projected to push $7 billion.

Bill Burkhalter of North Augusta, S.C., who owns the Hazelwood building that is leased to the Postal Service, said the possible closure is definitely not due to increased rents. According to Burkhalter, the Postal Service is actually getting the better deal.

“They have a very good lease rate, believe me,” said Burkhalter.

Despite plummeting revenues, the Postal Service says it will not lay off employees at closed branches but will transfer them to new jobs, according to spokeswoman Monica Robbs.

P.O. boxes at Hazelwood would be installed in an open section of the Waynesville facility with no change in address. Ironically, that would mean the Hazelwood address and zip code would apply only to P.O. boxes outside of Hazelwood itself. Those who get mail delivered to their doorsteps in Hazelwood switched to the Waynesville address long ago.

 

Signing for support

After receiving more than 1,400 signatures from constituents railing against the proposed Hazelwood post office shutdown, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) enlisted in the battle to save the Hazelwood post office. That fight has multiple front lines in Shuler’s district, with the Postal Service’s threatened closings of two post offices in the Asheville area.

“I have seen and heard tremendous local support for keeping these facilities open,” said Shuler in a press release. “I am relaying that information directly to Postal Service officials.”

His relaying has helped persuade the Postal Service to keep doors open at the Biltmore post office, which indicates that the movement to save the Hazelwood facility isn’t all that farfetched.

“It’s not locked in stone that they’ll close it,” said Doug Abrahms, spokesman for Shuler. “If we present enough evidence, we have a chance of getting it off [the list], but there’s no guarantee.”

Shuler said there’s even more hope for success since Congress passed a bill last week that cuts its retiree health benefits fund by $4 billion.

“That should give the Postal Service some breathing room to pursue long-term options other than drastically slashing the number of postal facilities throughout the United States,” Shuler said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown is not so optimistic. Though he has also sent on a letter to the Postal Service, stating it would be a convenience to have both offices open, Brown said the post office would “likely” be closed.

“I’m just another citizen in the community,” Brown said “I don’t think my voice has much weight.”

Mary Ann Enloe, long-time mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville, said though the Biltmore facility was saved, Hazelwood has always been a middle-class community and residents there might not have the same clout as the customers in the upscale Biltmore area.

“My honest opinion is that we will probably lose this, not because of any ill will toward the community of Hazelwood but because the U.S. Postal Service sees it as a cost-saving measure,” Enloe said.

 

Fighting for survival

Whatever the outcome of the Postal Service’s review may be, no one can say Hazelwood residents didn’t put up a fight.

On the day Lynda Baltzell learned the Hazelwood post office might close, she became one of the leaders of a campaign to save it. She and others in the neighborhood took petitions to local businesses where they sat collecting signature after signature for three weeks.

“This is a small post office with a big heart,” said Baltzell.

Apparently, many Hazelwood residents feel the same way.

Those who walked into Within Reach Resale Shop were “very anxious” to sign, according to Linda Dirscherl, assistant manager at the store.

“They felt like it is needed in the neighborhood,” Dirscherl said.

The same went for customers at Smoky Mountain Roasters, where most who walked in also signed.

“All the people who come in and sign it say ‘Heck ya!’” said Lauren Lankford, an employee at the café.

Patty Atkinson, a sales clerk at Waynesville Pharmacy in the Hazelwood neighborhood, said so many people signed the petition there that she continually had to add additional pages.

Atkinson herself wrote to Shuler for the first time to try to save the post office. She sent a letter to the Postal Service’s district office in Charlotte as well. Atkinson stressed that many elderly residents use the Hazelwood post office, including veterans who should have the convenience of a nearby post office.

“I don’t think they realize just how much this post office is used,” said Atkinson.

Joe Moore of Hazelwood is one of the neighborhood veterans who will be saddened to see the post office go. Moore makes daily trips to check his post office box where he receives his prescription medicine. He’s worried about how he will get to his medicine if the post office closes.

“It’s a shame because I’m disabled,” said Moore. “I don’t go too much away.”

Moore said his primary concern is the prospect of waiting in long lines at the Waynesville post office.

“I’m worried about the time that it takes to get all this done, waiting in line if you’re not well,” said Moore. “I have to have my rest.”

But for others, the move would simply be a minor inconvenience.

Tammy Hutchison, who works at Hazelwood Family Medicine, runs to the post office three times a week and said she would miss getting her five minutes of fresh air walking there.

“Now I have to get in my car and go,” said Hutchison. “The parking at the new post office can be horrendous.”

Darlene Lowe, who regularly uses the main post office in Waynesville, said it is obviously busier than the one in Hazelwood.

“Parking can get a little crazy,” said Lowe. “I have been here when both parking lots are full. I must admit, I’ve gone to Hazelwood, and I’ve gotten right in.”

According to Moore, the Waynesville post office sees enough people as it is.

“There is no way that they can handle the traffic, they can’t now,” Moore said.

Kim Medford, manager of Carver’s Cloth Shop & Vertigo, deliberately avoids the Waynesville post office because going there is time-consuming, she said.

“This is a small town, but there are a lot of people here,” said Medford. “I think we need more than one post office.”

 

Disappearing Hazelwood

According to Enloe, the Postal Service had promised that the post office in Hazelwood would remain open when the towns of Hazelwood and Waynesville merged.

Enloe said she was told it would take an act of Congress to close it, since it was a stand-alone post office rather than a secondary branch.

Robbs with the Postal Service said the Hazelwood facility is now a branch of the Waynesville office, so the agency has full authority to close it.

While saving the Hazelwood post office is about convenience for some, other residents are also concerned about preserving a part of history. The post office was one obvious sign of Hazelwood’s former status as an independent town.

“The whole crux of it is we don’t want to give up that part of our identity,” said Enloe.

Atkinson wrote in her letters that that the post office has long been part of the Hazelwood community’s identity.

“I stressed that it was like losing our heritage because it has been here for so many years,” said Atkinson.

Even if the post office does close, thereby striking a blow to Hazelwood’s identity, few say the actual community will ever cease to be a community for its own residents.

“The people will still have the Hazelwood identity,” said Moore. “As for the rest of the world, they’re not going to know.”

Europe’s unrest lead to creation of Wellco

When Heinz Rollman left behind the unrest of Europe and struck out for America in 1939, the fate of his family was riding on his shoulders.

The Nazi regime had seized a successful shoe factory from Rollman’s father in Germany a few years earlier. Forced into bankruptcy, Rollman’s father fled to Belgium with two sons and two nephews in tow. They tried to rebuild, but the entire continent was on the brink of war and the climate was increasingly unfavorable for Jewish businessmen.

So the family dispatched Rollman to America armed with their final asset: a patent on a new method for attaching soles to shoes.

Rollman began courting major rubber manufacturers of the day, hoping to set up shop in the shadows of a company that could make the compound they needed. Rollman’s quest led him to A. L. Friedlander, the head of Dayton Tire and Rubber in Ohio. Friedlander, who was also Jewish, was taken by Rollman’s charisma and wit.

Friedlander was in the market to open a new plant in North Carolina and invited Rollman along on a trip to Charlotte to scout locations. From Charlotte, the two were pointed toward Waynesville where they would find plenty of the top criteria for a plant: cooling water.

Friedlander chose the town for his new rubber factory and leased Rollman his very own wing for a shoe enterprise. Rollman’s brother and cousins joined him in the new venture, which they called Wellco.

The twist of fate that led two sets of Jewish brothers — Heinz and Ernest Rollman and Walter and Curt Kaufman — to start a shoe factory in Waynesville was a fortuitous one indeed. Wellco has provided a living for hundreds of workers spanning three generations, one of the last manufacturing holdouts from the town’s bustling blue-collar days.

The company remained in the family for nearly 70 years. Rolf Kaufman, the son of one of the original founders, joined the company in 1956 and was groomed as a family successor. Rising in the ranks alongside Rolf was Horace Auberry. When it came time to name a new leader, Heinz Rollman called both men into his office.

“He said ‘I want the two of you to be joint officers, but I can’t decide who is going to be number one,’” Rolf recalled. So Rollman flipped a coin.

Kaufman ended up president and Auberry became chairman. The two ran the company in tandem for more than 30 years.

In 2007, new owners came on the scene, however. Wellco had been a publicly traded company since the mid-1960s. Over the years, one buyer had amassed a controlling interest in the company.

“He liked the company and thought it was a good investment and just bought up the stock as it became available,” Rolf said.

The buyer rarely exercised his influence, however. But in 2007, he passed away. His estate sold off the Wellco holdings, which were bought up by a new controlling entity along with all remaining shares as well.

Although Rolf had stepped down as president in 1996, he remained on in a part-time capacity as vice chairman until 2007 when the new owners came along.

It’s hard to say whether Wellco would be ceasing its local operations today if the new controlling entity hadn’t taken over. It’s a fate Rolf had resisted for years, but the economic pressure of imports and growing competition in military boots made it increasingly difficult. Rolf said he wasn’t surprised to hear the news last week.

“It was probably expected by the people who worked there,” Kaufman said.

Loss of Hazelwood manufacturer marks the end of an era

When Mary Ann Enloe was growing up in the blue-collar hub of Hazelwood, she didn’t know anyone with an alarm clock. The town woke to the sound of the factory whistle and followed its cues all day long.

“Everybody here had jobs,” said Enloe. “Industry is what made Hazelwood what it was.”

The town’s stationary and the badges of police officers even bore the town’s motto: “A Center of Diversified Industry.”

Tight-knit neighborhoods proliferated around several factories, especially after WWII. A quintessential mill town, everyone walked to work carrying their lunch pails. Credit flowed from merchants, be it the local grocer, the drug store or dress shop.

“I could go down there and get what I wanted and it would be written up on mother’s bill,” recalled Enloe, who was the last mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville. Enloe’s father was also mayor of the former town.

But one by one, the factories have closed shop: a leather tannery, a textile mill, a furniture plant, a rubber factory. There was just one holdout from a bygone era— until now. Wellco shoe plant announced last week that it will cease operations in Waynesville in September, taking with it 80 jobs and yet another piece of Hazelwood’s former heart and soul.

Wellco shoe plant opened in Waynesville in 1941. Enloe remembers Wellco’s early days, when you could walk through town and see women on their porches stitching boots under contract for Wellco.

“They have been extremely important to Hazelwood,” Enloe said of Wellco. “This is a sad day for Hazelwood.”

Wellco was taken over by new owners in 2007. The owners issued a press release announcing the closure last week, but declined to elaborate beyond calling the plant “no longer economically feasible.”

Wellco had long been battling the pressures of cheaper imports, said Rolf Kaufman, president of the company for 30 years and vice chairman up until 2007.

In Wellco’s early days, it made shoes of all sorts and even slippers, but the market “became so dominated by imports from China we could not longer compete,” Kaufman said.

Over the years, Wellco had shifted more and more of its production to Puerto Rico where wages and overhead were cheaper. By the mid-1990s, nearly all production was done in Puerto Rico to remain viable, but it was an uphill battle to compete against plants in Mexico, China and India.

Wellco ultimately survived as long as it did by catering to a single but powerful customer: the U.S. military.

“The military must purchase garments, including footwear, from U.S. sources whenever available,” Kaufman said. “That protection did save us.”

Wellco began courting military orders in the 1960s, when the company’s innovative technology for attaching soles to boots proved invaluable.

“They had so much trouble in Vietnam in the jungle with soles not staying attached,” Kaufman said.

Military contracts became a larger and larger portion of Wellco’s production line, eventually dominating it operations.

Who’ll pay the price?

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It’s lunchtime in downtown Hazelwood, and the small area’s only parking lot of roughly 30 spaces is jam-packed. People jump out of their cars to grab a bite to eat, a haircut, medications, or a cup of coffee from the various businesses in this section of Waynesville.

Residents irate about DOT’s plan for Hazelwood Elementary road

A $1.66 million plan to build middle turn lanes on Plott Creek Road from Hazelwood Elementary School to Sulphur Springs Road in the Hazelwood district of Waynesville drew strong opposition from residents at a public hearing last week.

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