After crossing the Atlantic on the Netherland ship Zaandam, the original settlers arrived via train on the Salisbury-Asheville line of the Southern Railway on May 29, 1893. Eleven families formed the first group, led by Reverend Charles Albert Tron, a pastor and philanthropist. Rev. Tron did not come to settle, however, but to lead the immigrants and help launch their enterprise.
Within a few days, the contract for the purchase of land from the Morganton Land Improvement Company was complete, and with a charter granted by the State of North Carolina, the Valdese Corporation was founded. It provided for a system of life in common, each sharing the burdens, the interest, the duties, and the privileges. The corporation was controlled by a Board of Directors.
About ten thousand acres of land were purchased at a cost of $20,000, mortgaged by the Piedmont Bank of Morganton (NC) with 250 bonds of $100 each, representing also the purchase of farm implements and food. The tract extended southward and south-westward of what is now US Highway 70. It was a vast extension of hills and forests for eleven families but the hardy mountaineers from the Italian Alps set immediately to work clearing, digging, plowing, cutting timber, and working a sawmill.
The original settlers were soon joined by their fellow countrymen. In June, eighteen more settlers arrived from Utah. On August 23rd, six families of fourteen persons came from Italy aboard the SS La Bretagne and on November 23rd, fifty-two families of 161 joined the original group after crossing the Atlantic on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II. Others would follow in later years.
Initially, things went fairly well, though not without hard work and sacrifice. On June 20, 1893, the first bread was baked in the community oven. On July 1st, the locations for church, Manse, school, and cemetery were chosen. The church was located where it stands now and dedicated in 1899. During the early years, services were held in the house above the railroad station (built in 1903) on the corner of Massel and Faet streets. The school was a wooden frame house and stood where now is the new Sunday School building of the Waldensian Church. On May 30, 1894, the Corporation elected a Legal Board and a Moral Board, the former with certain limitations under the latter to handle the affairs of the colony. One July 16th of that year, it was decided to hold, beside the regular services in French, one service a month in Italian.
Difficulties were forthcoming. The land did not prove to be as fertile as first thought, petty jealousies and administrative difficulties arose, helped by lack of knowledge of language (the Waldenses, in their daily conversation, speak patois, a dialect imported from the Waldensian Valleys of Italy, varying slightly from town to town and derived from the old French. They understand and speak French and Italian) and business; the expense of the Corporation constantly exceeded its receipts; and the people living further away (more than five miles from the center of the colony) wished to come closer. To save it from bankruptcy, the Corporation was dissolved at the close of 1894, and C.A. Tron, to save his brethren, paid out of his own pocket a deficit of about $6,000.
After the dissolution of the Corporation, Mr. Meir, along with Mr. John Garrou, started in 1895 a hosiery factory in a small, one-room house. In 1896, the year that saw Valdese's first grocery store, they moved to Newton, North Carolina, then to Manning, South Carolina, only to later return to Valdese. On May 8, 1901, they opened the first hosiery mill in Valdese which after a few years of hard labor, was housed in a larger building. It was the Waldensian Hosiery Mill. In 1910, the cotton mill (Valdese Manufacturing Company) was established. In 1908, the flour mill was started by Mr. Frederic Meytre. Destined to become one of Valdese's leading industries, The Waldensian Baking Company was also borne of this era. John P. Rostan and Philip Ghigo, after business ventures in New York, came to Valdese and opened on the corner of Colombo Street and U.S. Highway 70. As the town grew and roads expanded, trade increased and the Waldensian Bakery erected a new building in 1929 to meet increasing demand.
In 1910, the Waldensian Clubhouse was constructed, later purchased by Le Phare Des Alpes, a mutual assistance society exclusive to Waldenses. Behind the clubhouse are boccie courts a favorite pastime of the early settlers.
The post-WWI period witnessed the best years for Valdese, during which it earned renown as the "fastest growing town in North Carolina." The town was incorporated in 1917. Trade grew, business improved, and mills were established (Martinat Mill - 1919, Pauline - 1924, Pilot Full Fashioned - 1930, Pineburr - 1931, Blackstone - 1936, John Massey and the Francis Louise - 1938, and the Dolly - 1939.)
With the growth of industry came the necessary growth of retail. In 1917, the Valdese Cooperative store was organized by a group of Waldenses who pooled their savings. The first store of it's kind in Valdese, it carried a complete stock of the best merchandise in Burke County. In 1923, August Pascal decided to construct a meat market in the Cooperative Store building. He would later move his market and restaurant to Main Street in a building that still stands and houses Mister Clothes. Eventually the Cooperative was forced into bankruptcy in 1938. The old landmark was purchased at auction by J.M. Brinkley and Son for $7,500.
Education was always of importance to the Waldenses, and until the 1920s, their facilities lagged behind their needs. Most were one room / one teacher schoolhouses and countywide there were sixty schools to educate an enrollment of 2,993 children. In October of 1923 a new building was constructed for the public school. This school, now known as the Old Rock School, would not only house Valdese students, but those from Drexel and Rutherford College would be bussed in as well. Innovations included hot lunches served at the school and an auditorium that would seat seven hundred. Legend has it that some visitors were heard muttering, "Way to big for the number of children they've got. Must be gonna educate their pigs too!"
By 1938, the twenty-two rooms of the Old Rock School could no longer house the number of students attending. so Francis Garrou High School, bearing the motto "Education is the True Foundation of Civil Liberty" was constructed. Named for a local representative to the General Assembly in Raleigh. The new High School would serve until 1974 at which time it was converted into a junior high school and high school students attended the newly constructed East Burke High School in nearby Icard.
In the 1930s, traveling to a town even as close as Morganton was time consuming, a journey those seeking entertainment were often forced to make. This was soon remedied with the construction of the Colonial Theater in 1931 and the 1938 joint effort of local mills to build the Valdese Community Center.
With the influx of non-Waldenses into Valdese, other churches began to establish themselves. Among these new churches were: Abee's Grove Baptist (1914), First Baptist (1920), First Methodist (1928), Valdese Church of God (1932), Valdese First Christian (1930s), Mt. Calvary Baptist (1938), and East Valdese Baptist (1949.)
In 1939, the Northwestern Bank established a branch in Valdese. The same year, the Valdese General Hospital was organized by Drs. Palmer, Lynn, Ford, and Building, using the buildings of the old Rutherford College, three miles east of Valdese.
As business grew, so too did civic activism. The Chamber of Commerce was established in 1930, the Masonic Lodge and Eastern Stars in 1932, the Lions Club in 1936, and the Pilot Club in 1939.
In December of 1938, the Valdese News was established.
War does not discriminate and its impact on Valdese was as devastating as to any other town. A number of young men from Valdese served in World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam both stateside and abroad. Fatalities numbered 160, 11, and 17 in the respective wars.
Restaurants like Mr. Pascal's began to appear with the growth of Valdese. In 1945, The Valdese Sandwich Shop (aka "The Rat Hole) was opened by Harlon O'Quin. O'Quin came to Valdese in 1939 and worked at Valdese Weavers. Though he initially detested the little town, Valdese soon grew on him and instead of leaving, he opened his restaurant. A spot popular with mill hands, merchants, high school students, and tourists. In 1970, "The Rat Hole" was sold to Essie Murphy and later, the restaurant was demolished to build a parking lot for Silver Knitting Company.
Another restaurant, The Alamogordo (named for the New Mexico testing site of the atomic bomb) was founded by Lester "Fat" Cline. The main dining room's 125 seats were regularly filled with hungry crowds at lunch and dinner, especially after a local ball game. There were three private rooms that served as meeting places for civic clubs or private parties. The restaurant changed with the times, adding car-hops for curb service and live entertainment on Friday Nights. In 1973, the restaurant became "The Alamogordo Cafeteria and Steak House." The restaurant would close the next year, but the memory of that restaurant will remain with former customers forever.
With World War II behind, Valdese was eager to assume a more positive and uplifting outlook. In 1957, the Valdese merchants raised $1,200 for Christmas decorations to line Main Street, asking only for the Town to pay the $104.28 cost for the service wire needed. This partnership solidified in 1961 with the Town agreeing to provide $300 each year and the merchants $700 to decorate the street.
In 1968, Valdese celebrated its 75th anniversary with the revival of the Old Colony Players. There were two plays produced by the company that year: The first, "The Land Is Good," was a dramatic production that took place on the football field behind the Old Rock School. The show was a colorful cross between Cecil B. DeMille and the Ziegfield Follies which told the story of Valdese through narration, acting, dancing, and even fireworks. The second play was "From This Day Forward", the now-annual outdoor drama that portrayed the story of the Waldenses from their persecutions in Italy through their early years as immigrants in Valdese.
Valdese lost its high school when East Burke High School opened in 1974. The Frances Garrou school was converted into a junior high and served until 1992 when the new Heritage Middle School, located on Enon Road, was built.
Valdese made its voice heard on the issue of alcohol in 1979. On August 7th, an election was held on whether to allow beer and wine sales and an ABC store within town limits. Sixty-eight percent of voters participated and defeated the proposal.
1981 brought to the Valdese community a tragedy that is still discussed and puzzled over today. On December 23rd, Rhonda Hinson was shot in her car as she returned home from a Christmas party. The bullet, fired from a high-powered rifle, went through the trunk of the car into her back. Her body was found in a ditch beside her car, just a half-mile from her home. Police believe that she may have been pulled from the car after the shooting. The case has yet to be solved and was even featured on television's "Unsolved Mysteries." A wreath memorializing the tragedy is often found at the scene just north of the Interstate, exit 112 on Mineral Springs Mountain road.
Valdese has had its share of natural disasters such as in 1985 when a large forest fire crossed Mineral Springs Mountain to the south and threatened to jump Interstate 40 and overwhelm Valdese. The blaze was a low-burning fire which was difficult to access and moved quickly, aided by swirling winds. Fortunately, the fire eventually died out before much of Valdese was affected, but many of the homes on top of the mountain were virtually disintegrated.
The Old Rock School received a $1 million restoration in 1986 that included renovating the auditorium and making the classrooms suitable to house businesses, the Town's Community Affairs Department, and evening classes for Gardner Webb.
Hurricane Hugo swept through several southern states and across Valdese in 1989, bringing torrential rains that caused massive flooding and power outages that would last for over a week for some homes.
On May 29, 1993, Valdese held a reenactment of the original settlers' arrival. Though the train was not circa-1893, the "actors" were all clothed in authentic costume In fact, many of the participants played the role of their ancestor.
Valdese ushered in the year 2000 with the rest of the world on December 31, 1999 with a large fireworks show and patriotic program at the Trail of Faith and on the football field behind the Old Rock School.
In response to the growing popularity of swimming in Valdese and a successful swim team, the Valdese Community Center underwent extensive renovations between 1999 and 2000. The swimming pool was modified to Olympic size and added a handicapped entrance. The locker rooms were totally refurbished and a fitness center was added, along with several fitness programs. Also installed was a large inflatable "bubble" that could cover and protect the pool. Looking like an inflated parachute, the structure allowed use during winter months and could be removed for use in the warmer months.
Not content to rest on its laurels regarding monuments to the Waldensian heritage of the town, the Historic Valdese Foundation dedicated its Millennium Clock Tower at the 2001 Waldensian Festival. Funded entirely by donations, the Tower resembles those found in the Waldensian valleys in northern Italy.
In 2008, construction of Draughn High School was completed, bringing a high school back to Valdese since the mid-70s, when local students began attending East Burke High School.
Today, Valdese continues to grow without losing sight of its historic past and while maintaining a small-town charm.
The Best Little Town in North Carolina