The harsh sound of silence hangs heavy over the empty textile plant on the edge of town. It is a huge, cavernous place, 16 acres under one roof.

Once 1,000 people worked there, handling up to 2 million yards of textile goods daily. Now, only 23 people remain on the payroll at the Old Fort Finishing Co.

They have one job -- to close the place down.

"It's pretty lonely now," plant manager Thurmond Padgham sighs. "I'm going on 38 years here. It feels just like your family broke up. You get close to everyone. You know their families, their situations. It's very saddening."

The plant, owned by United Merchants and Manufacturers Co., halted production July 31, sending shock waves through this town of 752 along the Catawba River at the foot of Black Mountain in western North Carolina.

The same scene has been repeated in dozens of towns across the South in recent months. In 1984, 61 textile plants shut down in North and South Carolina alone. The industry as a whole shrank by 19,500 workers.

There is a certain irony in the closures, a painful lesson for an entire region.

The textile industry originally moved south seeking cheap labor. Now it is leaving for pretty much the same reason. Cheap labor in the form of foreign imports has undercut the market for American-produced textiles.

Now some southern towns are undergoing the same trauma that old textile centers in the North experienced decades ago. And an industry once viewed by some as the salvation of the region has come to be viewed as a curse in places like Old Fort, named after a frontier fort built in 1756.

There is little hope of improvement in the near future. Apparel imports have more than doubled during the last three years, and some textile spokesmen say the industry faces its most difficult days in a quarter century.

It is hard to exaggerate the upheaval caused by the closing of Old Fort Finishing Co., which dyed and finished cloth for apparel manufacturers.

The move eliminated 492 jobs. The average worker was paid about $7 an hour, considered a good wage here, and had 20 years of seniority, according to the company.

Since then, a supermarket, a general store, a tire distributorship, a florist and a cafe have closed in Old Fort, according to Mayor Robert Wilson, the former night superintendent at the plant.

The shutdown announcement last May caught almost everyone by surprise. People knew about problems in the textile industry, but United Merchants had embarked on a $17.5 million modernization program here and workers thought their jobs were secure.

"It hit us all like a lighting bolt, or a death in the family," said Jim Settles, 51, who was hired soon after he graduated from high school and never worked anywhere else. "It still hurts. There are times you get mad. You feel the company let you down because you gave them so many years of your life."

Wilson and others estimate that about 150 of the plant's former workers have found other jobs. The rest have retired or are living on unemployment benefits.

With three other textile plant closures in surrounding Marion County, "it has gotten to the place where nobody is hiring," said Wilson, who has joined other local leaders in an effort to find another industry to take over the Old Fort Finishing plant.

Several firms have visited the facility, and Wilson thinks that eventually someone will take it over. But, he said, "I'm afraid things are going to get worse before they get better."

Settles and his wife, Jan, a plant secretary, have applied for about 15 jobs in the surrounding area.

"The county has become too dependent on the textile and furniture industries," he said. "We didn't make much by national standards, but it was good money here. Every time you apply for another job they ask, 'What did you make at your last job?' You tell them and they laugh at you."

Settles has resisted applying for unemployment benefits, but now is resigned to doing so. "That's something I never wanted to do," he said, sitting on a living room sofa. "I really don't know what to do. It's like your whole life is in limbo. You're physically able to work, you want to work, but you can't find anything to do."

Settles, who has been living on severance benefits, is luckier than many here. Unemployment benefits for many are running out, and the Labor Department has rejected company claims that foreign imports caused the shutdown. If the department had accepted the claims, workers would have been eligible for extended unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks.

Joe Allison, his wife and his daughter all lost their jobs when the plant closed. Another daughter is a freshman at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, a four-hour drive away.

Allison, 47, worries that his daughter may not be able to finish her education.

"My brothers and my sisters, all my nieces and nephews all worked at that plant. That's all we ever knew," he said, shaking his head. "I stayed there 28 years. The only thing I've ever done is finish cloth. All I know is textiles.

"To get out and hunt another job is hard, real hard," continued Allison, a wiry, energetic man. "When they slide the rollers under you like this, it's not a good feeling. They hurt us bad. They hurt the whole community when they closed that plant."