Gaston County is a wonderful area to visit during the holiday season. I chose this county to visit during December specifically to see McAdensville (Christmas Town USA) and the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens (DSBG). More on both of these attractions later.
Gaston County is a community of rolling hills combined with quaint, walkable downtown areas. The charming small-town vibe is quite attractive. From Belmont to Cherryville and Gaston to Brevard, there is something for everyone here–all wrapped up in a lovely NC ribbon. In its heyday, Gaston County contained the largest concentration of combed yarn mills in the U.S. And the recipe for the South’s Sun Drop soda was first scribbled on a piece of paper by a beverage salesman who was traveling through Gaston County in 1928. And the rest is history!
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Stop one was St. Joseph’s Chapel in Mountain Island, NC, the oldest Catholic chapel still standing in NC. You’ll find it off of NC-273 near Main St. on your way to Mt. Holly. It’s the fourth Catholic Church built in NC, the first west of Raleigh, and the first in today’s Charlotte diocese. This church was originally built to serve the area’s Irish miners, and underwent a long period of neglect until restoration efforts began in the mid-20th century.
I can imagine families gathering hear for both happy, small community celebrations and mournful gatherings in the adjacent cemetery. Take a few moments to notice the beautiful architecture as well as the wrought iron cemetery gates. I found it to be serenely peaceful and quiet.
This county seat of Gaston County has two international sister cities: Gotha, Thuringia, Germany and Santiago de Surco, Lima, Peru. Gastonia, the second largest satellite city of Charlotte (behind Concord) was named for NC Supreme Court member William Gaston. The historic downtown area boasts a small urban park, various shops, many homes and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and even some public art displays.
Perhaps the largest historical happening of the area surrounded the Loray Mill strike of 1929, which caused a big stir but collapsed after the death of the town’s police chief and a murderer trial of several of its organizers. Although the strike never gained much ground in achieving improved working conditions and wages, it was the setting for several novels in the 1930s.
Just outside of Mount Holly (home to a lantern parade every August), in Belmont, you’ll find the historic Belmont Abbey (100 Belmont-Mt. Holly Rd. in Belmont). If you’re coming by highway, it is directly in front of you at exit 26. Completed in 1893, it was once the only Abbey Cathedral in the nation. The cathedral is located on the campus of Belmont Abbey College, a liberal arts college. Take a drive around campus (It is a horseshoe-like drive, so you’ll need to turn around and go back.) You can schedule a tour of the basilica or just quietly stop in to enjoy the beautiful painted-glass windows, which won four gold medals at the 1892 World’s Fair, as well as a baptismal font of historical significance.
While in Gastonia, peruse through the Schiele Museum (1500 E. Garrison Blvd), an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution which houses dinosaur, creepy nature, stone, and animal exhibits (the largest collection of mounted land mammals in the Southeast donated by a retired Boy Scout and his wife) as well as a children’s pirate play area. Venture across the museum grounds for a nature trail, Catawba Indian Village, Stone Age Heritage Site, gazebo, grist mill, pond, farm, and more. The museum hosts planetarium exhibits, laser music shows, and many special events throughout the year. I spent a few minutes talking to a few Girl Scout leaders who had just finished an overnight Space Science-themed overnight event for younger scouts. They look like they had had a blast!
While in Gastonia–Bee City, USA– you can also visit the American Military Museum (109 West Second Ave.) and the Alfred C. Kessell History Center (300 South Firestone St.). The history center is housed in the renovated Loray Mill, which now has touchscreen monitors with online, interactive displays and artifacts of the daily life of mill workers of the time. Displays tell the stories of the infamous 1929 and 1934 strikes until the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company later ran the mill for more than 60 years.
Tucked in just north of Gastonia is Dallas, a quiet suburb of Charlotte. Named for George M. Dallas, Vice President of the U.S. under James k. Polk. This adorable little town is the oldest incorporated town in Gaston County (since 1863). It was also the original county seat for Gaston County from 1846-1911. The old Gaston County Courthouse was renovated in 1868 after a fire had damaged the building. The courthouse still stands on the main square of town and was decorated quite strikingly for the holidays. Dallas had an opportunity to become a larger metro area when plans were proposed for a rail line and bridges over several area waterways; however, the town’s residents declined for fear they would be awakened during the night and their livestock would be frightened.
In Dallas, you will find the Gaston County Museum (131 West Main St.), located in the former Hoffman Hotel, which was constructed in 1852 in a simple Greek Revival style. When you step through the doors, notice the amazingly intricate front door assembly–surely original to the structure. The hotel served travelers passing through. You’ll find authentically furnished period rooms, a parlor, changing art exhibits on the third floor, and a gift shop downstairs with many well-priced treasures. (I did some Christmas shopping here.) You’ll also see remnants of the county’s prolific combed yarn mills and photos taken during Gastonia’s mill strikes. The old courthouse is right across the street alongside a newer town gazebo.
Just a hop away, in Stanley, is the Brevard Station Museum (opened in 1991). The town was originally called Stanley for a Mr. Stanley who had panned for gold in the area long before the 1849 Gold Rush. The town was later changed to Brevard, and then changed back to Stanley. The area is also well-known for its discovery of the giant-leaf magnolia as well as the longest-serving police chief in America, congratulated via letter by then President Ronald Reagan. Take a walk through the small museum, including vintage clothing, sports and military memorabilia, local textile industry and railroad exhibits, as well as exhibits from the area’s modern claim to fame–The Cup Guy, who draws intricate pencil drawings on discarded Styrofoam cups. You’ll also find an area for local to research their genealogy, including reference books of vital records and family histories.
During the last half of the 18th century, German, Dutch, and Scots-Irish families from Pennsylvania migrated south and settled in what became Cherryville, NC. In 1862, the Wilmington, Charlotte, and Rutherford Railroad (later Carolina Central Railroad) extended westward, terminating in Cherryville (due to construction halting because of the Civil War). After the war, construction began again, and the railroad extended beyond Cherryville, which became a water and coal stop. A local resident planted cherry trees along the railroad, and train engineers began calling it Cherryville, and the name was officially adopted in 1881.
By the early 1900s, the town was a bustling industrial community of 1,000 people and the town was home to 13 mills–all of which eventually closed, leaving the town without an industry to feed its people. In 1932, the company that eventually became Carolina Freight Carriers took up shop in Cherryville with its trucking company hauling fruit produce from Florida to Cherryville.
On July 13, 1966, Trains #45 and #46 hit head-on on the southeast side of town, killing one and injuring three. Several rail cars were destroyed and scrapped on site. While in Cherryville, take a walk through the quiet streets and stop in the local shops and museums.
At the Cherryville Historical Museum, you can follow the history of the town from the early 1800s to today. The painting of a bull was once the exterior of a building until the museum building was constructed. The bull was covered in plaster for 80 years, and has since been uncovered. The town and historical museum are seeking funds now to fully restore the painting. Check out our Instagram page for an old photo of the bull in its original form as well as how it appears today.
Then experience the early days of trucking in Cherryville as it comes alive through exhibits at the C. Grier Beam Truck Museum, housed at the old Beam’s Shell Service Station and Office (listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997). The museum is run by a husband-and-wife team, both extremely knowledgeable about the industry and its history in the area. You’ll find a large variety of vintage, restored truck packed into the 7,500-square-foot museum. Don’t forget to stop by the Cherryville Historic Depot (105 Depot St.), where you can watch the model trains or bring your own. Then stop by the outdoor Cherryville Heritage Park located in the downtown area. The park includes 19th-century buildings that illustrate the developments of Cherryville, including the first City Hall, a school, smokehouse, liquor bonded warehouse, and a jail.
In the summer and fall, be sure to stop by Bush-n-Vine Farm, popular for their sunflower fields.
Back in Belmont, I stopped at the Belmont Historical Society (40 Catawba St.) to see their collection of historical exhibits. You’ll find artifacts surrounding the Indians who traveled through here as well as the textile industry, which was important for the area, and a sports hall of fame, 1920s restored mill house and a separate kitchen building.
Stop by the many quaint and kitchy shops in Belmont, including Gig’s Boutique, Stowe Mercantile, and the Cotton Candy Factory with all sorts of gourmet cotton candy flavors and candies. Then check out Stowe Park in downtown, home to numerous lighted trees during the holidays–Festival of Trees.
Before heading to the evening holiday light shows, I made one quick stop at Carolina Speedway (6335 Union Rd). Of course, there are no races this time of year, but head by here in the summer and you’re sure to catch the sounds and smells of good ol’ North Carolina dirt track racing at its best on Friday nights. The 4/10-mile track hosts a variety of dirt track cars throughout the season.
Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens
By day year-round or by night during the holidays, Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens (6500 South New Hope Rd.) is a feast for the eyes. And between the end of November through early January, they host the shimmering Mile of a Millions Lights with lighted topiaries, trees, fountains, and more. I suggest purchasing your tickets in advance in order to save a few bucks. Get there right at 5pm. Yes, it’s not dark yet, but by the time you peruse through the vendors and gift shop, then get yourself a glass of wine or hot chocolate, it’s plenty dark to start your journey. You’ll get lots of Instagrammable photos, as these lights photograph well. See our Instagram page.
Last stop–McAdenville–Christmas Town USA! First, I want to say there’s more to do here than see the Christmas lights. Spend some daylight hours here and check out the delicious treats at Floyd & Blackies Bakery, town shops, and restaurants. By night, enjoy the tradition that started in 1956. If you’re already in town, then enjoy a leisurely walk through the lighted streets and homes. If you’re arriving by car at night, you can drive through the 1.3 mile festive loop. Be prepared for a long wait as all exits from the highway lead to one lane through the town. I got in line just past 6:30 and it took four hours to drive the 1.9 miles from the highway to the town limit and then through the light displays. It was certainly beautiful and worth the wait. You’ll just need to plan to have a full tank of gas, drinks, and snacks as well as activities to keep the kids busy. There are a few gas stations/convenience stores along the way, so you can stop for an emergency bathroom break, snack, drinks, or gas.
So, back in 1956, the town’s Men’s Club decided to decorate several trees with lights. The town is now an annual destination for more than 500,000 visitors each year, with residents, churches, and businesses participating–and going all out. More than 400 trees are decorated with red, white, and green lights with a special display surrounding the lake at the town’s center. Check out their website for access instructions as some roads are blocked during this time. It’s free to drive through!