About 238,855 miles separate Earth from the moon, according to NASA. But a piece of Rhodhiss has been on the moon’s surface for 50 years — at least according to town lore.
Rhodhiss folks say the material used to make the American flag that remains on the moon from the 1969 Apollo 11 manned landing was made at Burlington Industrial Fabrics in the small town that sits on the border of Caldwell and Burke counties.
Carl Compton, a former loom fixer at Burlington Industrial Fabrics, said no one knew what the material would be used for when it was manufactured. “We produced thousands of yards of that stuff. To us, it was just a job,” he said.
A few weeks after the moon landing, 27-year-old Compton and other employees learned that the material that came from their plant was used for the flag on the moon. Burlington posted the notice on a bulletin board at the facility.
“We all thought it was a pretty big deal. We were all grinning and excited about it,” he said.
“Of course, some (employees) read it and said, ‘Oh, I don’t believe that. I don’t even believe they went to the moon,’” he chuckled.
The material for the flag wasn’t the only Burlington-manufactured item prepared for NASA. Rhodhiss Town Historian Sherrie Sigmon has a Burlington magazine article that says the company contracted with NASA and the military for many items, including bulletproof vests for Vietnam soldiers and material for the nose cones and heat shields for the U.S. Navy’s Polaris and Trident missiles and the spacecrafts of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
There is some question about if the material can be directly linked to production in Rhodhiss. A NASA report from 1993 notes the flags were purchased through a government supply catalog. A Raleigh television station (WRAL) reported this week that the flag was likely made in South Carolina with material from a plant in either Burnsville or the one in Rhodhiss. The report was prepared by Tony Rice, who is listed as a NASA ambassador, and concludes there is no definitive account of where the fabric was made.
But Rhodhiss Mayor Rick Justice is confident. “I don’t blame these others places that want to take the credit, but it’s ours,” he said.
Justice said reports of the flag being made in Burnsville or in South Carolina are mere rumors. “To my knowledge, a gentleman from Burnsville came to Rhodhiss to set up the machines in Rhodhiss,” he explained. He added that those same machines were sent to a location in South Carolina after Burlington closed the Rhodhiss plants — 14 years after the moon landing.
“That’s it, that’s how those stories go,” Justice said.
SUBHEAD: Memories from the mill community
Sigmon’s father, Boyce Hartsoe, worked in the Burlington Industrial Fabrics plant as a loom fixer. Sigmon said she was 10 or 11 years old at the time of the moon landing.
“I was in Baltimore, Maryland. We were on a family vacation with my dad’s brother,” she explained. “I don’t remember what time it (the moon landing) happened, but it was a Sunday night. We were watching it, and we were so tired.”
Sigmon said she and her younger brother watched anxiously. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. Was he (astronaut Neil Armstrong) going to fall through the face of the moon? We had no idea,” she said, laughing.
When the family came back to Rhodhiss after their vacation and Burlington announced that the flag material came from the Rhodhiss plant, the company celebrated their employees with a steak dinner.
“They didn’t skimp on it either, buddy. They had all the fixings,” Compton recalled. “Back at that time, they took care of their employees. It’s not like that now.”
Sigmon agreed, remembering her childhood in the close-knit mill community. “I knew nothing but the mill village. It was a good place to live,” she said. “Everybody knew each other, and everyone was kind. It was family.”
Burlington closed their operations in Rhodhiss in 1983. Sigmon said she won’t soon forget the many Christmas parties Burlington and the former Pacific companies held for the mill community families, ballgames that took place at Rhodhiss Elementary School and the town’s claim to fame with the flag on the moon.
“It’s history,” she said. “You can’t forget your history, it’s very important.”