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A big perspective on small towns 

by League Communications Associate Jessica Wells

Cleveland County is somewhat anchored by its two most populous municipalities, Kings Mountain and Shelby, but there are 13 other cities and towns in the county.

The smallest is Earl.

For some, the town of 260 is just a blip on the map en route to Charlotte or Greenville, S.C., but Mayor Max Hopper knows the importance of places like Earl.

"I’m convinced – absolutely convicted – that without small towns, we’d lose a great deal of what this state is and what it could be," Hopper said. "Tourism is dependent on authenticity – places like Ahoe, Bamboo, Patterson Springs and Earl – little towns that people just drive through, but they say, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ It helps give people an impression of North Carolina, and I think small towns contribute, perhaps more than any other way, by just existing."

Earl was founded before all surrounding towns when namesake William Earl of England arrived in the late 1700s. Shortly after his arrival, the 1790 census counted 10 Earl citizens, and it continued to grow as an agricultural community. Southern Railway came through and, in 1878, the town was incorporated as Earl Station.

The Earl School was established in 1810 as one of the first schools in the area and, according to Hopper, one of the Bechtlers (of the Bechtler Mint in Charlotte) sent his daughters to board there.

“Those sort of things make me think that Earl is sort of a special place,” said Hopper, who was born and raised in Earl. “It’s something I don’t expect you to believe, but it’s absolutely true. You can talk to people from Earl, and they’ll tell you – all around the state and possibly the Southeast – you can tell someone you’re from Earl, and somebody somewhere in the room will say, ‘I know Earl!’ ‘How?’ ‘Well, my grandmother’s first cousin’s second husband worked there.’ It has just been here for so long.”

Somewhere along the way, Station was dropped from its name, and the railway was abandoned. Now one of Hopper’s major goals as mayor is a rails-to-trails initiative to build a trail from Shelby to South Carolina.

"If you go to Earl, you’ll see how important it is to us because, like so many little towns in the South, the rails go right through the middle of my village. It would just be wonderful to make it into a greenway or park. If we can get our hands on it, we’re going to do it," Hopper said.

Unfortunately, securing grant funding is no small feat for a town of Earl’s size, and internal resources are scarce. The town’s disposable income doesn’t allow for some big ticket items residents would like to have, such as a local police officer. It does give them enough to provide waste collection, street lights, recreation and street maintenance. Residents also have access to Shelby gas, Cleveland County water, AT&T internet, and Time Warner Cable television and internet thanks to the former mayor Arrie Ellis, who babysat Hopper as a child and convinced him to run for mayor in 2001.

"When she said I needed to run for office, I could only say ‘Yes, ma’am.’ If Miss Arrie said it, I had to do it. She passed away a couple years later, but she did a lot for our town, and we try to keep on doing things," Hopper said. "It’s rewarding to try and make things happen in a very small town."

Hopper said he expected to be hands on as a small-town mayor, but didn’t expect to be hauling deer carcasses out of citizens’ yards in the middle of the night or picking up trash so regularly that someone asked his wife if he worked for trash collection.

More surprising was being struck by an oncoming vehicle while trying to direct a lost semi-truck driver toward Rock Hill at 2 a.m. one morning last summer. According to Hopper, there are only two places in Earl where an 18-wheeler can safely turn around, and while he was giving directions, a truck swerved into the wrong lane, hit him, and caused a knee fracture. Hopper spent 5 months in and out of the hospital learning to walk again.

"I’ve never even seen a car in Earl at 2 in the morning!" he said.

Hopper worked as an Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent for several years, then spent 37 years working for Motorola, a job that entailed being involved with local governments around the country. He spent countless hours in city council meetings, often picking up valuable information on local government operations.

"One of the problems we have in small towns is finding people to lead who have perspective outside the little town," Hopper said. "I’ve tried to be an advocate for very small towns. When I go to meetings, the questions I ask and positions I take – I hope – are beneficial to very small towns. I know the way it’s supposed to be, and I try to guide it that way in Earl."

The other lesson he learned working in sales is the importance of relationships, so he strives to maintain close ties to area officials by serving on more than a dozen boards and attending meetings of the Cleveland County Association of Government Officials.

While you might think of Kings Mountain or Shelby as Cleveland County’s anchors, Hopper knows that Earl – and other small towns in North Carolina – help hold it all together, too.

"Small towns allow you to be from somewhere. It’s a sense of place, purpose and permanence. I think that people need that sense of place – maybe less than they used to, but I think they do," Hopper said. "North Carolina is not going back to the way it was before, but there still needs to be some folks that have those experiences that leaven this new bread that we’re baking."