Monday, March 20, 2017

Reach for the Stars

One of my favorite stories from Lexington’s history is about an amazing group of businessmen who dared to reach for the stars with a bold vision over 100 years ago. In spite of the fact Lexington was strategically located on the main line of the Southern Railroad; it remained a sleepy little hamlet at the turn of the 20th century with Wenonah Mills being the only major industry. (Dixie Furniture started in 1901.) In 1909 the town learned that a new railroad was being constructed, the Winston-Salem Southbound that would intersect with the mighty Southern precisely in Lexington. Town leaders knew this was a golden opportunity, but it would take more than two railroads to attract new industry. It would take a great vision and bold dreams.

The Lexington Board of Trade was established and the leaders immediately started to dream. They planned a lavish banquet at the March Hotel, inviting potential business partners across the state and region, to promote Lexington as a town of progress and promise. Those important visitors probably didn’t expect a great deal from this little town, so they must have been shocked at what they experienced.

Rather than simply promoting Lexington as a regional center of commerce and trade, the town business leaders had a much more expansive vision. Decades before the Internet, television, or even radio, they promoted Lexington as a city that was destined to become an “international center of business and trade.” They even planned an international menu for the banquet that included Cuban cigars. The main course was, naturally, barbecue — three types of barbecue: pork, beef, and opossum! (I’m not joking! They served up opossum to those swashbuckling tycoons.)

Did Lexington become an international center of trade? No, not even close. They probably should have left off the opossum, but what did happen changed the course of our town for the greater part of the 20th century. Because the visionary leaders of Lexington dared to reach for the stars, business and industry more than doubled over the next few years. The difference was not so much convincing others that Lexington would be a great place to locate a business, but it was the leaders convincing themselves that Lexington was an exceptional place to work and call home.DefaultsDone

Two years after the international banquet at the March Hotel one of Lexington’s business leaders who dared to reach for the stars was in New York City. He was bragging about his hometown and how much he loved Lexington. A textile manufacturer overheard the conversation. He had always wanted to have a mill in the South and the more he heard, the more Lexington sounded like the perfect place. He introduced himself to the Lexington man and told him how impressed he was with what he had heard. By the time the two men had finished talking, Mr. Erlanger had decided that Lexington, North Carolina, would be a place he would like to call home. Erlanger Mills opened in 1914 and played a significant role in Lexington for the rest of the century.

The scripture reminds us that where there is no vision the people perish. Our forefathers had a grand vision for their hometown. My prayer is that we will also reach for the stars and dream great dreams for our hometown. Just make sure we leave the opossum out of it.

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