By Lynn Hotaling
Part one of two
It is impossible to overstate the importance of C.J. Harris to the economic development of Jackson County.
Harris’ influence was pervasive in his lifetime and continues to the present. He built the stately Courthouse, now part of the Jackson County Library; he started the county’s first power company; he began the tannery that evolved into Mead Corp.
Though Mead closed in the 1970s, Jackson Paper Co. continues to operate on the site and utilizes some of the original structures. Harris was instrumental in funding the local hospital, which still bears his name, and he once owned some 76,000 acres of land in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In fact, Harris’ impact on Jackson County is so far-reaching that it will require two installments to tell his story. This week’s focus will be on the facts of his life and a listing of his economic enterprises. Part 2 will spotlight what is known of his personality, his philanthropy and his legacy in Dillsboro and Sylva.
In “The History of Jackson County,” retired Western Carolina history professor John Bell states that Harris is the most important of the entrepreneurs who shaped the county’s growth. Bell wrote two chapters in that book, “Economic Activities” and “Economic Development.” Harris figures prominently in both chapters. Bell is also the author of the comprehensive entry on Harris that can be found in the “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.” Almost all of the information here is obtained from Bell’s writing in those two sources.
The “Dictionary” entry makes it clear that Harris was part of a nationally prominent family. The son of farmer William Harris and Zilpah Torrey Harris of Putnam, Conn., Charles Joseph Harris was born Sept. 11, 1853, and died in Asheville on Valentine’s Day in 1944. One of his ancestors, Thomas Harris, sailed from Bristol, England, to Salem, Mass., with Roger Williams; a brother, William Torrey Harris was U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 until 1906.
C.J. Harris attended Yale University, graduating in 1874. While at Yale he was a fraternity brother of future U.S. President William Howard Taft. Harris and Taft maintained a correspondence until Taft’s death in 1930.
“The History of Jackson County” provides information on Harris, his background before coming to Dillsboro, and his many local business ventures. After earning his Yale degree, Harris continued his education at Brown’s School of Law in St. Louis. According to Bell, Harris surveyed irrigation ditches in Texas and “worked at numerous jobs in Colorado, including blacksmith’s helper, high school teacher of Greek, school superintendent and businessman.”
It was while in Colorado that Harris met and married Florence Rusk, who was the daughter of a wealthy lumberman from Michigan. Of their four sons, two died at a young age from diphtheria. Harris’ wife brought more than $100,000 in capital to the marriage, though Harris lost part of that money in unsuccessful business ventures. It was around 1888, after his marriage to Florence was over, that Harris moved to Dillsboro with his surviving sons to be near his brother William T. Harris and nephew Theodore, who operated the Hog Rock clay mine. C.J. Harris made his home in the first house built by William Allen Dills, which is now the home of Riverwood Craft Shops.
Harris and his nephew used $75,000 in capital to purchase the Hog Rock kaolin mine and renamed it the Harris Clay Co.; C.J. Harris in time became the sole owner. The mines were reinforced circular pits about 25 feet in diameter. Miners dug the clay and loaded it into buckets, which were pulled up to the surface by mule-powered winches. The clay was then carried to a water trough a few hundred feet away and then floated in suspension to the factory, a group of buildings where the clay was made into bricks through a several-step process. The dried bricks were hauled from the mine to Dillsboro on a tram often pulled by mules (and sometimes horses), where they were loaded into boxcars; most of the Harris clay went to East Liverpool, Ohio, and Trenton, N.J. Pottery made from Harris clay was on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
As the clay deposits at Hog Rock dwindled, Harris sought new kaolin sources, opening mines first in Beta, then in Mitchell County in 1910. By 1911, Harris’ Beaver Creek Mine there had an output that was greater than Hog Rock’s. Harris tried other mines in Jackson County, including the Rhoda Mine near East LaPorte and a second mine half a mile north of Hog Rock, but suspended local mining operations in the early 1920s, offering his workers jobs in Mitchell County. The company office, however, stayed in Dillsboro under the direction of Scroop Enloe until the 1950s.
With his clay-mining profits, Harris was able to branch out into other industries, including the Blue Ridge Locust Pin Co. and the Harris-Woodbury Lumber Co., both in Dillsboro; the Dillsboro and Sylva Electric Light Co.; the Harris Tannery in Sylva; the Sylva Supply Co.; and the Jackson County Bank in Webster.
Like other early manufacturing efforts, Harris’ locust pin company depended on plentiful supplies of wood. Established around 1890, the company made locust ship nails and locust pins for telephone line insulators. According to “The History of Jackson County,” the company produced millions of locust pins before it closed in the 1930s.
Harris was president of Harris-Woodbury Lumber Co., which owned about 76,000 acres of timberland in what became Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The one-time Harris property was sold to Champion Paper and Norwood Lumber Co. before becoming part of the Park.
Harris’ Dillsboro and Sylva Electric began the commercial development of electricity in Jackson County. By 1908 Harris was generating power with a small dam and hydroelectric plant near the mouth of Scotts Creek, which was close to his locust pin company. That site proved inadequate, and in 1909 Harris developed a new site on the Tuckaseigee River so he could also power his Harris-Rees Tannery in Sylva and provide street lamps in both towns. The Dillsboro and Sylva Electric Co. was incorporated that year. The wooden dam across the river gave way in 1913; a new dam was completed in 1914, and a larger dam was built in 1927 to expand service.
Harris founded a tannery in 1901. It was located in east Sylva, in the flats along Scotts Creek. Bell writes that it was called several different names, including Harris-Rees, Harris, Sylva, Parsons and Armour. It produced hides of a grade to produce industrial machine belts and shoe leather. Armour Leather bought the plant in 1915 but ceased operation in 1957 as demand for shoe-sole leather decreased with the advent of man-made materials. Armour sold its plant and property to the adjoining Mead Corp. Mead started in 1928 as Sylva Paperboard Co. and initially used the tannery’s excess wood chips to manufacture cardboard.
Another Harris enterprise, the Sylva Supply Co., remained in operation for a century, closing in 1999. For most of that time, the store was in the downtown Sylva building at the corner of Main and Jackson streets where Harris’ name is still visible. The store began operations in 1898 when Harris bought Oscar Coward’s share of a business he owned with E.L. McKee. From 1902 until the tannery closed, Sylva Supply was the tannery’s company store, where tannery employees used coupon books to purchase the goods they needed.
Not surprisingly, C.J. Harris was the first president of the county’s first bank, the Jackson County Bank, established in 1905. It was located in Webster and capitalized at $12,000. By 1906, it had deposits of $63,000. The bank, which moved to Sylva, weathered the Great Depression and continued to prosper until 1962, when it merged with First Union.
Harris’ was politically active, both locally and nationally. He spearheaded the successful referendum that “removed” the county seat from Webster to Sylva, and, once the votes were counted, he built the Courthouse that still overlooks Main Street.
At the state and national level, Harris attended every Republican national convention from 1892 until 1936, and he was elected delegate-at-large in 1908, the year Taft was nominated. Harris was a member of the U.S. Industrial Commission from 1898 until 1902 and was president of the N.C. Republican League in the early 1900s, serving as the Republican nominee for governor of North Carolina in 1904. He lost to the Democratic candidate, Robert Broadnax Glenn, the Tar Heel State’s 51st governor. Harris suffered a broken hip in 1938 and was confined to bed for the rest of his life. He died at his son Robert’s home in Biltmore Forest and is buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.