In a stately 19th century mansion in the middle of this former textile mill town, a local political scion has formed a mortgage foreclosure resistance movement.
O. Max Gardner III, 65, pioneered techniques in preventing big banks from foreclosing on loans and has taught his methods to 559 other lawyers in the last four years.
He teaches a sort of legal jiu jitsu: how to exploit opponents' large size and disorganization for the benefit of consumers who do not want to give up their homes.
Once lawyers exit his training program, they stay on his expanding e-mail list, and are allowed access to an online document repository to share information. They work together to come up with new ways to slow down foreclosures and share strategies on other bankruptcy issues, communicating at a rate of 350 messages a day.
In the fragmented world of consumer bankruptcy law, where lawyers that represent consumers often work at small firms, Gardner, from his one-person law firm, is creating a sort of virtual law firm with hundreds of partners.
"My clients are desperate. They have insurmountable financial problems, and I'm able to give them a remedy and an answer and an assurance it's going to be all right. That's pretty rewarding stuff," said Gardner, sitting at the desk in the tiny first floor office in his 9,000 square foot home.
To his admirers, Gardner is a sort of a folk hero.
"He's Atticus Finch," said April Charney, an attorney with Jacksonville Legal Aid in Florida, referring to the lawyer in the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" who is seen as a model for lawyers protecting the disadvantaged.
Charney attended one of Gardner's boot camps in 2007, and she has known him since 2004.
Gardner has been thrust in the limelight recently thanks to what his techniques have uncovered: banks have been taking shortcuts in their efforts to foreclose on homes quickly.
Banks and their lawyers have been cranking out paperwork faster than anyone could properly review it, and they are often making mistakes.
"He's been on top of this from the beginning. He's on the bleeding edge," said David Treywick, a Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-bankruptcy attorney who views Gardner as a leader in the field.
Lawyers representing borrowers have started demanding that banks show all their paperwork to move forward with foreclosures.
To Gardner's critics, that's exactly what's wrong with the North Carolina lawyer: he is keeping insolvent borrowers in their homes for longer than they ought to be living there.
Counsel opposing Gardner often view him as an agitator who gums up the bankruptcy process, said Joseph Greer III, a corporate bankruptcy lawyer in North Carolina who often works with creditors.
"Max has never been afraid to go his own way, and isn't one that needs to fit into a crowd," Greer said.
At Gardner's boot camps, as many as a dozen attorneys spend 5 days at his farm in Casar, North Carolina, nestled in the state's South mountains. Lawyers spend $7,775 to delve into Gardner's strategies for defending clients through a bankruptcy.
There, surrounded by his dogs, lawyers study consumer bankruptcy strategies for 10 hours a day. Sessions last from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m, and often longer, attendees said.
"It was nonstop," said Charney. "Even at meals everyone was talking shop."
Gardner's wife cooks elaborate meals for the guests, including five course dinners and French toast marinated overnight for breakfast. The couple supplies all the food and drink for boot campers, in a nod to their decade operating Gardner's family mansion, called Webbley, as a bed-and-breakfast.
The boot camp sessions range from the basics of running the business of a consumer bankruptcy law practice, to presenting evidence at a hearing, to identifying improper foreclosure fees.
Unlikely folk hero
The Gardner family tree has deep roots in North Carolina.
Gardner's grandfather was governor of the state from 1929-1933, an undersecretary of the Treasury, and later an ambassador to Great Britain. He was also a textile mill owner and a lawyer.
In a side hall at the Webbley mansion hang photos from the family's brushes with the country's political elite. It includes Gardner's framed ticket from John F. Kennedy's first birthday party as president. His uncle Ralph Webb Gardner organized the party, as a fundraiser to pay off Kennedy's election campaign debt.
Next to the ticket is a framed letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thanking his grandfather for a pair of pajamas made of nylon -- part of his family's textile mill pitch to use the then-new synthetic material for parachutes after Chinese silk production was seized by the Japanese.
Gardner said both his father's and grandfather's work were a major influence in his life.
Before becoming governor, O. Max Gardner owned the first textile mill to pay blacks the same rate as whites in the Jim Crow-era South.
Gardner's father, O. Max Gardner Jr., died in 1961 at age 39 due to complications from progressive multiple sclerosis, when Gardner was a sophomore in high school.
Gardner said his father pushed for increased access for those with disabilities and drove him to school in a golf cart he had licensed for street use.
"He had very strong views that you had to make a difference at the ground level, and things were either right or they were wrong. There was no in between," he said.