Multi-colored chenille bedspreads draped over long clotheslines — and blowing in the mountain breezes of Frog Level — have had a checkered history in Dalton, Georgia. As a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I admired the bright displays of tourist shops in nearby Frog Level. . Competing businesses on both sides of U.S. Highway 25, between Tuxedo and Zirconia, have hung outdoor clotheslines to display their latest selections of floral bedspreads.
In a previous post, I described Frog Level as an unofficial local name. It had been jokingly given to the area when dozens of frogs jumped from the roadside creek only to be run over on the highway by passing motorists. Older residents of Henderson County still remember the comic name, and they also remember those flamboyant tourist businesses.
The fluttering bedspreads were the eye-catching product that made tourists stop and shop. Without these flashy displays, weary vacationers might have continued to cross the mountains to distant home states. It was common knowledge that chenille bedspreads were made in Georgia, but no one seemed to know exactly where — or how — this part of the South became famous for the brightly colored fuzzy fabric.
On a recent trip, my husband and I researched the connection between Georgia and Frog Level. We were delighted to discover that Georgians are just as proud of their local history as we are of ours. The Hamilton House Museum in Dalton maintains several rooms of historic crawler memorabilia, and we were treated to a tour by two of their board members, Bruce and George Davies.
They were thrilled, but surprised, that Dalton’s bedspreads played such an important role in tourism in remote Henderson County, North Carolina. However, they certainly understood the appeal of long clotheslines displaying colorful bedspreads. A centerpiece of the museum is a large painting depicting Georgia farmers creating handmade chenille bedspreads on their porch. The tufting of bedspreads was a cottage industry in the early 1900s and, to attract tourists, the finished products were displayed on clotheslines by the side of the road.
Large, multicolored peacocks were a favorite chenille motif. So many travelers were drawn to the bright colors that Dalton’s US Highway 41 became known as Peacock Alley. It is remarkable that the people of Georgia gave their area an interesting unofficial name, such as the people of Henderson County named Frog Level.
Both US Highway 41 and US Highway 25 were popular routes for beach vacationers from the northern states. Local entrepreneurs in Georgia and North Carolina have capitalized on tourism for their livelihoods; many have managed to sell chenille products with great success.
Then Georgia’s roadside stores disappeared as I-75 passed through Dalton, just as Frog Level’s tourist businesses were acquired for the I-26 connector in Henderson County. Like us, Georgians celebrate the conveniences of modern interstate travel, but the elderly are quite nostalgic for the bygone era of the caterpillar. They ensured that these memories of Peacock Alley are preserved for posterity at the Hamilton House Museum in Dalton.
Northwest Georgia’s cottage industry began in the late 1800s after young Catherine Evans first saw an antique chenille bedspread. Determined to master and simplify the craft, and in need of a gift for a family wedding, the teenager produced her first bedspread in 1895. Soon many orders were pouring in from relatives, neighbors and friends. Recognizing the business opportunity, the young entrepreneur hired helpers to meet the ever-increasing demand. Cottage industries flourished and eventually helped Georgian farmers not only survive, but also thrive during the Great Depression. The fuzzy caterpillar became so stylish that people from far and near, as well as tourists, wanted colorful bedspreads.
The market reached levels where tufting had to be automated, and some equipment was specially designed by Singer Sewing Machine Company. National retailers like Sears-Roebuck began carrying chenille items, and they were released in high-end department stores in major cities. Bedspreads, bathrobes – and especially tufted rugs – became so popular that Georgian businessmen opened manufacturing businesses that gradually turned into rug factories.
Today, as much as 70-80% of carpets produced in the United States come from the Dalton area, and locals are quick to credit Catherine Evans Whitener (1880-1964) for her inspiration and ingenuity. Even the governor came to autograph his portrait, and the results of his life’s work live on in his home country. More than fifty miles from Dalton, high-tech, state-of-the-art carpet makers are bringing prosperity to Northwest Georgia – in the 21st century.
Likewise, tourism in the mountains of North Carolina has grown since the days of the roadside shops of Frog Level. Despite fewer travelers during the coronavirus years, visitor spending in Henderson and neighboring counties still benefits the region by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The hand-tufted antique bedspread that inspired young Catherine in the early 1890s has a long history dating back to the late 1700s in France. Interestingly, the word “chenille” means “caterpillar” in French since the finished design looks fuzzy, like the fluffy fur of a caterpillar.
Originating in France, the tufted fabric was popularized in Scotland. And in the early 1800s, it came to the United States. Although the sewing method is somewhat similar to the colonial art of candle wicking, the finished chenille threads are cut to produce the fuzzy look.
In the antebellum era, tufted bedspreads, known collectively as chenille, became fashionable for affluent Americans. In fact, Gone with the Wind production crews needed a vintage-style caterpillar to create teenage girl Scarlett O’Hara’s fictional bedroom. Dalton’s suppliers were very honored to meet Hollywood’s request. The replica bedspread is seen in the background as Mammy tightens up Scarlett’s corset for the house party. These early movie scenes represented the last good times before the Civil War.
However, during the years of post-war reconstruction, the caterpillar completely went out of fashion. The remaining bedspreads were considered heirlooms from the past. Seeing one of these antiques in the 1890s inspired Catherine Evans to improve and single-handedly revive the art of hand tufting.
It is amazing that a young woman brought an outdated craft into a new century and impacted the Georgian economy for over a hundred years. If a fictional story used such a plot, it might be considered too far-fetched to be reasonable. However, it really happened, and today we probably have a Dalton rug in our living rooms.
Although the days of roadside clotheslines in places like Peacock Alley and Frog Level are over, chenille bedspreads are still available. Sears still sells them online, as do Penney’s, Belk’s and Macy’s. Although most modern chenille spreads only feature one or two colors, a few are reminiscent of the multicolored flower patterns I remember from childhood.
Remarkably, new soft chenille robes are still being made, and I recently purchased one in pink with pretty decorative flowers. Chenille dresses were once so popular that movie stars like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck and Lucille Ball wore them on screen.
Vintage bathrobes preserved from those distant times are still resold, and antique bedspreads are recycled and sewn into bathrobes. Due to the extensive redesign process, these dresses often sell for hundreds of dollars. Skilled seamstresses bring the past to life and make old bedspreads useful for another generation.
Think about your hot caterpillar memories and the statewide economic impact of a teenager’s inspiration. Remember the freeway tourist shops that featured floral bedspreads blowing in the breeze? Perhaps you remember the colorful nicknames of the areas where you grew up. They were often quite descriptive and specific to the community.
Janie Mae Jones McKinely’s new book, “The Legacy of Bear Mountain, Volume 2,” (340 pages) is available in Hendersonville at the Historic Court House Gift Shop, The Curb Market, Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society, MA Pace General Store (Saluda) and on Amazon.com. Over three years of her Back in the Day newspaper columns are included, along with new stories from Granny’s life at Bear Mountain.