Return to a Mill
N.C.'s Glencoe Village, Now and Then
By Emily Matchar | Online Only | Feb. 22, 2010
Fifteen years ago, my Durham, N.C., middle-school class took a field trip to an abandoned mill village called Glencoe, to view firsthand how grimly our state's textile industry had declined. Glencoe in the mid-1990s could make even the most hardened visitor shiver. The brick cotton mill, opened in 1880 and closed in 1954, was in a Gothic state of ruin. The hydroelectric plant, overlooking the muddy Haw River, was nearly hidden by weeds. But creepiest of all were the houses. Once the modest homes of mill workers, they were now nothing more than skeletons of weather-beaten wood and shattered glass. We poked around the raised foundations, unearthing ancient moonshine bottles, shoes, broken combs.
Fast-forward a decade and a half to a recent Thursday afternoon, as I drove through the rural Piedmont countryside for a second visit to Glencoe. The site had always lingered in my imagination, and I'd long entertained idle thoughts about coming back one day, maybe with my camera. Now, having heard that the town had undergone an astonishing transformation, I had my chance. As I turned onto the main road, I realized at once how different my return visit was going to be: A massive tour bus was parking in front of the newly finished Textile Heritage Museum, housed in the former old general store. The roads had been resurfaced, the decrepit power lines torn down and replaced with charming turn-of-the-century-style street lamps. Most surprising of all were the houses, now unrecognizable thanks to new foundations, roofs, and windows, as well as bright paint jobs. Front vegetable gardens flourished, and American flags fluttered from sturdy new porches.
"It is quite an amazing transformation," said Myrick Howard, executive director of Preservation North Carolina, the nonprofit group that oversaw the town's revival.
Now, a coalition of preservationists is hoping to replicate successes like Glencoe in mill towns across the South. The Southwide Textile Heritage Initiative, with members from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, is creating a textile heritage corridor intended to bring fresh faces—and an infusion of money—to southern mill towns. The corridor will map and promote mill-related sights along the 700-mile stretch of I-85 between Richmond, Va., and Montgomery, Ala. Potential stops could include rehabbed mill towns like Glencoe, textile museums, textile festivals, and historic mill buildings that have been turned into restaurants and gallery spaces.
The group—founded in 2007 to preserve textile mill history, culture, and architecture—has begun to survey possible sites and has also begun grassroots outreach programs to help local governments secure funding for preservation. Ultimately, it hopes to have the entire corridor recognized by Congress as a National Heritage Area.
"The culture surrounding these mills was unique," said Lynn Rumley, one of the initiative's founding members. "You have to have a place to tell these stories."
Beginning in the late 1800s, New England textile manufacturers began shifting their operations below the Mason-Dixon Line, where labor was still cheap, and mill towns soon dotted the South, becoming sources of civic pride. Red-brick mill buildings, many built with dashing Italianate flourishes like arch windows and turrets, were situated next to streams or rivers, with separate hydroelectric plants to harness water power. Workers lived in rows of small pine cottages, rented from the mill by the week. General stores sold basic necessities, sometimes accepting payment in scrip—mill-issued paper money.
"People viewed coming to the mill towns as a major step up from their rural lives," Rumley said. "It was hard work, but workers thought of the towns as a new frontier." they considered it moving to a new frontier.
But the textile industry underwent a steep decline after World War II due to increasing mechanization; when the mills closed or moved overseas, many towns were decimated. Some buildings were quickly repurposed. Others were reclaimed by kudzu and river mud.
Cooleemee, N.C., about an hour west of Glencoe, is one former mill town that has never quite recovered. At its height in the late 1900s, Cooleemee's Erwin Mills #3 employed some 1,800 workers making flannels, ticking, tweeds, shirting, and other fabrics. The workers, most having moved from hardscrabble family farms in rural Davie County, had a brass band, a teen clubhouse, and a baseball team, as was common under the paternalistic mill system.
These days, Cooleemee's old downtown is completely gone, replaced by a strip mall that's already seen better days. Its population, once more than 3,000, has dwindled to about 950. Most of the 360-some mill houses feature pragmatic, if less than charming, changes: vinyl siding, satellite dishes, attached garages. By the river, the elegant old mill sits silently, its turret silhouetted against the white-hot Southern sun, a For Lease banner glued to the bricks.
Lynn Rumley is also the director of Cooleemee's Textile Heritage Center. She would love to see the mill redeveloped into restaurants, lofts, maybe an auditorium, but she has her worries. "We get stories in every month about people tearing mills down," she said. The properties' salvage value is often higher than its worth as a structure, since old bricks and thick wood floorboards are in high demand for reuse in upscale homes.
But, as Rumley points out, the buildings have historical and cultural value that goes far beyond their real estate price. So far, she's turned several historic Cooleemee buildings into tourist attractions, which she hopes to promote on the Southern Textile Heritage Corridor. The Textile Heritage Center, a small museum filled with such snippets of mill life as photos and old bobbin drawers, is housed in the one-time home of mill manager J.W. Zachary. The Victorian brick house was close to total collapse when Rumley found it in 1989; it's been fully restored and is now owned by the town. Across the street, the center's Mill Family Life Museum is a classic example of early-20th-century mill-house architecture, with a small porch, beadboard walls, and sloped shingle roof.
"These buildings are a part of us," said Martha Cato, president of the Southwide Textile Heritage Initiative. "When you lose one you are losing a part of your self."
Cato hails from Valley, Ala., where the opening of two textile mills along the Chattahoochee River in 1866 was occasion enough to draw the governor and a crowd of 2,000. The mills closed down in the 1990s, and the city of Valley purchased the properties at a bankruptcy auction. Officials have since been working with the Environmental Protection Agency to obtain grants to redevelop the mills as space for galleries and small businesses. But some locals think that in these cash-strapped times, the town would be better off selling the buildings to private developers or wreckers.
Glencoe only narrowly escaped such a fate. The local fire department had been using the mill houses for fire practice until they were bought up by the civic-minded wife of the mayor of a nearby town, who subsequently sold them to Preservation North Carolina in 1997. The preservation group has since sold the 32 houses and the factory buildings to private owners, who must obey certain strict renovation covenants. Building materials must be historically accurate--tin roofs, wood doors--and owners can't alter the fronts of the houses.
For Linda and Steve Cann, restoring a 129-year-old Glencoe mill house for their residence was the perfect way to indulge their love of history. The living room of their current 1,200-square-foot cottage has numerous original features, including heart-pine floors and stair railings made out of scraps of the beadboard that covers the walls. The house, however, was a mere shell when she and her husband bought it in 2000. "It's a miracle it survived," she said.
The Canns own two other structures in town: a brick outbuilding next to their house and a 1940s Quonset hut, once a cotton warehouse. They hope to turn the outbuilding into a yoga studio and the Quonset into a coffee shop, while maintaining the structures' original exteriors.
For the original inhabitants of Glencoe, the town was a place to get away from as soon as better opportunities presented themselves. But to the Canns and their neighbors—artists, teachers, skilled workers, retired professors, scientists—Glencoe provides something hard to find in modern suburbia: a sense of community.
"It's a real village here," said Linda Cann. "We know everybody."
Such potential—not to mention the tangible successes at Glencoe—gives hope to the architects of the heritage corridor that other towns will pay similar attention to their own at-risk mill buildings. But it's not always easy to get people to see the value of what's right in front of their noses.
"Mill towns are a part of history that's not real flashy," Myrick Howard said. "It's working-class history, and there's a stigma a mile wide. You have to figure out how to take these buildings from the wrong side of the tracks and turn them into interesting, cool places where people want to be."
Cato thinks the corridor will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. "We have something here that people need to experience and be a part of," she said. "Such beautiful buildings, such rich history. We just need an avenue to bring people in."
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