MCADENVILLE — Back in August, a six-man crew began untangling the string of half a million Christmas lights, a web of twinkles and glimmers big enough to blanket the town in red, green and gold.
They tested every bulb, tossing out the duds.
They climbed into cherry-picker trucks and draped the strands over 375 trees, some of them 40 feet tall.
They worked three months to transform McAdenville into a yuletide version of the Las Vegas strip, a glittery attraction that draws 600,000 people a year, creating the world’s most festive traffic jam.
Then they threw the big switch.
“It’s just like a Maine Christmas!” raved Floyd Smith, a 68-year-old grandfather who traveled 900 miles for the sight. “Merry Christmas from a Yankee.”
With a population of just 651, this tiny town west of Charlotte manages to lure families in a mile-long line of cars, even on a Tuesday night, their children waving out of sun roofs and passenger windows.
In 2011, Yahoo.com ranked McAdenville No. 7 on its list of best Christmas light displays nationwide, putting the Gaston County mill town just behind New York, Walt Disney World and Branson, Mo.
No one charges a dime for the experience, even to park. Yet so many residents hang their own lights you’d think the town required it by law.
“It really becomes a source of pride not to have dark spots in town,” said Mel Collins, spokesman for Pharr Yarns, the town’s largest employer. “You’ll even have folks that will adopt a house if there’s nobody there.”
Dating back to 1956
The roots of this holiday outpouring date to 1956, a suggestion from the town Men’s Club both embraced and expanded by the mill. Pharr Yarns still pays for the display, footing the bill for enough electricity to light every house in town.
Pharr Yarns is the rare textile mill still thriving in North Carolina, employing 850 people to make the flame-retardant fabrics that go into carpets and firefighters’ uniforms. It recently invested $60 million in new equipment, and it’s adamant that the lights stay lit.
“Once upon a time,” Collins said, “McAdenville really was a typical textile mill town. People lived in company-owned houses, and the agreement was decorate to your heart’s content. We’ll maintain the power bill at the same rate in December as it was in November.”
Starting Dec. 2, the town attracts so many gawkers that it asks that visitors arrive early, park and walk the lighted route through town. Once the lights snap on at 5:30 p.m., McAdenville looks like a holiday drag strip, everyone puttering through at 5 mph. With all the lights on a timer, the town warns that drivers can easily get stuck on the busier weekend days and have the lights cut off midway through.
“I had a friend who lived right over there,” said Ralph Miller, 81, a Gastonia resident who attends the Baptist Church on Elm Street. “He went to work starting at 10, and I asked him how in the world he got to work. He said, ‘Very carefully.’ That’s the thing. Even in a traffic jam, they’re friendly about it.”
From Maine to McAdenville
It’s a town of hand-holders and cocoa-drinkers. Couples go there for anniversary dates. Floyd Smith came clear from Maine just to pull his grandchildren in a wagon. And Ben and Mary Ward parked their recreational vehicle by the lake, stalling their cross-country trip for a day.
They’ve been traveling since April, leaving Tequesta, Fla., putting their jobs on hiatus. Along the way they’ve seen Alaska, Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, Asheville and even Garner. But they waited in McAdenville an extra 24 hours just to catch the lights.
“I have 30 pieces of blow molds I put out every year,” said Ben Ward, 54, “and I put Santa Claus on the roof. But we’re not going to be home. So this will be Christmas.”
As he spoke, the first lights flicked on, so he and his wife walked through them together, the voice of Bing Crosby piping in from unseen speakers, bidding them happy Noel before the crew comes back to pack the lights away.