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Gaston County, North Carolina
Traditionally, Gaston County has grown at a slower pace than some of Charlotte's other neighbors, in part because the Catawba River separates the two counties and reduces the number of routes for an easy commute. But Gaston is a secret no longer. Today, the communities of Belmont and Mount Holly in eastern Gaston County, as well as Gastonia, are attractive not only to those settling in Gaston to work and live, but Charlotte workers who want to escape to a place with a hometown feel.
A perfect example of a classic hometown with tree-lined streets where everyone knows your name is Belmont, located just south of I-85 across the Catawba River. Take a drive down Main Street and you'll see why it's such a popular place to live. The town's well-preserved mansions and mature magnolia trees add beauty and charm. Belmont's downtown area has recently been revitalized with new brick planters and sidewalks. In the evening joggers and strollers meander the streets. Each October Belmont's Stowe Park fills with couples and families enjoying the Belmont Fall Festival, which features food, entertainment and vendors.
A community of just over 9,000 residents, Belmont's town's slogan is "City of Diversified Textiles," which solidifies its position as a home to many major textile manufacturers. Today, the town's quiet mill villages of small cottage houses provide homes to many textile plant workers and also to young families starting out. A historic focal point in Belmont is Belmont Abbey College, a private liberal arts college founded in 1876 by Benedictine monks and now the only Catholic college in the southeast. The Abbey's cathedral, which can be seen from I-85, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Belmont Drive-In Theatre, one of the last of a dying breed of outdoor movie theaters, offers first-run movies in the tradition of convertible Chevys and poodle skirts. It's open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Another popular and growing attraction is the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, undergoing long-range development on South New Hope Road. A grand visitors center and several beautifully landscaped gardens are open now, with more to come in the future.
North of Belmont is Mount Holly, a community of just over 8,000 people. The town retains the charm and flavor of a small southern town while enjoying growth, as evidenced by a new neighborhood called River Front under development along the banks of the Catawba River. The neighborhood of 210 homes and another 90 townhomes off Tuckaseegee Road will include a clubhouse, pool, tennis courts and a 22-boat marina village with shops and restaurants. West of Mount Holly on I-85 is the town of McAdenville, which in December is more accurately called Christmas Town USA. During the holiday season, residents decorate their homes and yards with thousands of twinkling lights of all colors and put the town on display to the entire region. The mill town turns into a fantasyland, and folks drive from all around to line the streets at dark to view the lights from rolled-down car windows.
Gastonia is the heart of Gaston County and its county seat. You'll notice that residents here are mighty proud of the recent honor of being named one of only 10 All-America Cities in 2000. The city received the national honor for its communitywide efforts to find solutions to the challenge of illiteracy. This community of almost 65,000 people was once called the "Pacemaker of the South" because of the number of textile mills that used to churn here. Today, new industries are finding that Gastonia still offers an attractive business environment. Downtown Gastonia offers a glimpse into the past with many historic buildings, including the vintage Lawyers and Commercial buildings and the old Standard Hardware store, both built in the early 1900s, as well as the giant old Firestone Mill. York-Chester is a historic community of bungalow-style homes near downtown.
In recent years city leaders have been in discussions on how to redevelop some downtown buildings, and they are currently considering the idea of making the area a historic district. Meanwhile, the city has developed a new focal point thanks to the construction of several major new county service buildings, including a new Gaston County Courthouse, Department of Social Service building and a new police station along Long and Marietta avenues. Gastonia offers several shopping venues that draw people from nearby Lincoln and York counties as well as west Mecklenburg. On N.C. 74 is Franklin Square, a giant regional power shopping center with a Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other big-box power retailers. The shopping center, which recently completed its third expansion, offers everything from home improvement items and groceries to dinner out and a good haircut. Off New Hope Road in Gastonia is Eastridge Shopping Center, which recently underwent a face-lift and added major new tenants, including a new Dillard's department store.
Not far from downtown is the Schiele Museum on East Garrison Boulevard. The museum is a favorite field trip for thousands of Gaston County school children, offering a chance to explore the region's rocks and minerals, hills and rivers, plants and animals in its extensive exhibits. The museum's 152-seat planetarium hosts school programs as well as evening shows on astronomy. An on-site nature trail invites visitors to experience life on an 18th-century backcountry farm, as well as learn of Catawba Indian ways.
There's more to Gaston County than Gastonia and towns east. In all, the county has 14 separate municipalities, each with its own special flavor. They include Stanley, with a busy downtown that runs along either side of railroad tracks; Spencer Mountain, an isolated community nestled in impossible-to-believe craggy hills north of Gastonia; Bessemer City, home of a hugely popular '50s-style drive-in; and Kings Mountain, which straddles the Gaston-Cleveland county line. As you'd expect, many of the communities are or were focused on textile operations.
Most new development in Gaston County remains to the east, in order to catch the growing number of folks who want to live near, but not in, Charlotte. But you can find lovely two-story homes, sprawling ranches and country estates of all sizes throughout the county. A popular attraction that draws outdoor enthusiasts from miles around is Crowders Mountain State Park, in southwest Gaston off I-85. This 3,024-acre park with rugged peaks and breathtaking views (you can see Charlotte's skyscrapers) is a favorite for hikers, birdwatchers, rappelers and picnickers. It offers fishing, camping and rock climbing. The park drive has been designated as a North Carolina Scenic Byway.