Grist for the Mill

Reclaiming this abandoned mill village set a new standard for preservation in North Carolina

Myrick Howard was a young man, only in his 20s, when he first saw the village of 130-year-old houses on the banks of the Haw River. The timber-framed structures, decorated with the occasional Greek Revival flourish, had once constituted an entire mill village. And though they were rundown and abandoned, Howard saw a glimmer of a forgotten world. He understood that a single house may have only limited architectural significance, but an entire mill village makes an indelible impression.

"It was in the early 1980s, [and] I immediately thought, 'This is a fabulous place,' " says Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. "There was this row of identical houses marching downhill … They spoke to a very different time."

Glencoe Mill Village was built north of Burlington between 1880 and 1882 by brothers William and James Holt. The mill they established became the first successful enterprise south of the Mason-Dixon Line to dye yarn commercially and manufacture colored plaid cotton fabric. But after the facility closed in 1954 there was no reason for people to remain in Glencoe, and the village was abandoned for more than 40 years.

"It was as though [the mill workers] just locked their doors and walked away," says Howard. "It was a true ghost town."

2010 Green Issue IconThe three-story Glencoe Cotton Mill and its accompanying 32 mill houses and village store fell into varying stages of decay. A hurricane knocked one house off its foundation; a fallen oak crushed the tin roof of another. Everything disappeared under years of vegetative growth.

Glencoe was added to the National Register in 1979, recognized for its "role in the industrialization of the American South." Eighteen years later, Preservation North Carolina purchased the village, acquiring more than 100 acres and 50 structures in a bargain sale. However, several "big impediments" stood in the way of adaptive use, says Howard.

"We were on the other side of the river from the water and sewer pipes, and the site rested on bedrock, so wells and septic tanks were not an option," he says. "Then Hurricane Floyd hit, and contractors had other jobs that were more emergency-oriented than ours."

Wanting to push forward nevertheless, Preservation North Carolina organized a "design workshop," during which planners, preservationists, and design professionals discussed how to develop the property.

In 1999 Preservation North Carolina rehabilitated one house, enclosing the back porch and connecting it to an existing freestanding kitchen. "We had the shell fixed to show what it would look like … to set the tone for how future properties would work," Howard explains.

Shortly after that model home sold in 2000, new water and sewage systems were completed. Crews also laid underground electrical wiring, erected replica streetlamps, and cleared the remaining houses of trash.

Nobody knew whether the isolated mill village would be attractive to buyers, but the remaining 31 houses sold quickly, as did eight vacant lots on which owners could construct new houses in any of three approved designs.

Today Glencoe is colorful and picturesque, and the historic cotton mill is under restoration. It will become a mixed-use building full of everything from office space to artists' studios.

And Myrick Howard says Glencoe still strikes him as "a very evocative place. There's not much left quite like it."

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