Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Walkabout Wednesday -- What to do when the mill closes

Let’s start with a little ancient history.

I grew up in the piedmont section of North Carolina, in a small town called Concord. The town, and many of the surrounding ones, was dotted with textile mills, and many of my family members, including my late father, worked in those mills. My father worked in one of the hosiery mills, and during my early years, he helped manufacture women’s full-fashioned stockings – the ones with seams up the back. When seamless hosiery became the rage, that mill closed, and Daddy had to find work in another mill. Not to brag or anything, but we always considered ourselves a cut above the cotton mill folks. Cotton mill workers emerged from work with lint in their hair. But there’s no lint on nylon. ;-)

These mills were the bread and butter of the local economy, and the largest was Cannon Mills, home of Cannon product sheets and towels. Cannon wasn’t just one mill; it was a collection of operations spread around the county and at one point was the world’s largest producer of textile products, employing 15,000 people.

Fast forward many years, factor in the death of the founding members of the Cannon family, the purchase of the company by a big-time investor and its subsequent sale to another company, an unfortunate run-in with Walmart, and a once a thriving industry closed its doors overnight in July 2003, becoming the single largest permanent layoff in the history of North Carolina. 7650 people became unemployed. In some cases, three generations of a single family lost their jobs. Factoid: Dale Earnhardt, the late, great NASCAR driver, grew up in the next town over from me and was born nineteen days after me in the same hospital.

In 2005, Plant 1 of Cannon Mills was demolished. It covered an area the size of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Over the next year and a half, remaining buildings of Cannon Mills were demolished by implosion. Over 1,200,000 square feet of building space was destroyed, making it the third largest building implosion in the history of the United States.

Huntsville, Alabama, the town where I live, was part of the textile trail that ran from New England down the eastern seaboard, the trail that included my hometown.

Lowe Mill opened in 1901 as Huntsville’s eighth textile mill and produced yarn, gingham and shirts. Six years later it merged with another manufacturing company, and in 1931, Lowe Manufacturing declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Two years later, in 1933, the mill reopened but was involved in a tension-filled strike a year later. The mill was sold again a few years later, the Lowe Corporation was dissolved and the mill was turned into a warehouse.

In 1945, during the waning days of World War II, the facility became a shoe factory and by the late 1960’s it produced most of the boots worn by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. But like many other mills before it, Genesco Shoes closed in 1978 and the building was purchased and once again became a warehouse.

In the years since, Huntsville’s other mills have been destroyed, either by demolition or fire. But Lowe Mill survived thanks to a group of historians, businessmen and philanthropists. Lowe Mill Village, which includes a collection of houses generally rented to mill employees, escaped the wrecking ball thanks to these people, and over the last decade, the building has been restored and revitalized into Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment, a collection of diverse artisans and businesses devoted to the free expression of the arts.

Lowe Mill includes private studios and art galleries featuring works in a variety of mediums, shops such as Karma Rags and Fred Bread, and the Flying Monkey Arts Center. A decaying textile mill now teems with activity and life.

I was introduced to Lowe Mill back in February when several girlfriends invited me to attend a performance of The Vagina Monologues with them. Since then, I discovered that a church friend has an art studio there and I’ve been back several times to explore what Lowe Mill has to offer. The first time I visited the Saturday Artists’ Market, I felt as if I’d been transported back to the 1960’s. Of course, conventional wisdom says if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there. ;-)

If you live in this area and have not visited Lowe Mill, I encourage you to do so. It’s a unique experience. If you’re somewhere else, click to their website and check it out. In another part of town, the Merrimack Mill was demolished, but the old Company Store building has been turned into Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, and the mill homes surrounding it are on the National Register of Historic Places. As a matter of fact, one of our RWA chaptermates, Debra Webb, has been restoring a home in Merrimack Village for the past several years.

Do you have anything like this in your area? It may not be in an old textile mill, but you might be surprised at what’s happened to an old school or retail facility.


Debra Webb said...

Wow, what a great post! I hate that we have destroyed so much of our history. Being a part of the revitalization of just a small aspect is amazing! Here in Merrimack Mill Village many families are working hard to restore the lovely old homes. Our village was very cool in its time. We had our own school, medical clinic, cemetery, company store! Many of the grand old trees still dot the landscape. My family and I bought and began our renovations two years ago and we're nearing completion. On June 26th of this year there will be an open house in the Village and my home is on the tour! One of the most interesting events in our renovating journey is the day we received a letter from the original owner. The Thornthworths purchased the home from the mill in 1949 (when the mill began selling the homes to workers). The family lived here for 50 years! They didn't know our names but the children who grew up here wrote to thank us for bringing their old home back to life.

Smarty Pants said...

PC and I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show at Lowe Mill. Personally, I think I'd rather prefer that area in the daytime.

PM's Mother said...

PM, you would not recognize the site where Cannon Mills was in Kannapolis now. The Bio-Tech Research Center that financier David Murdock is building there is amazing. It is rather bitter-sweet for me because The Daily Independent (newspaper) building where I worked for 30 years has been razed also and is now a parking lot. Many of the mill village homes have been sold to the tenants who have meticulously restored them. If you come to the Shelton Family Reunion in August we must go to Kannapolis and check it out.

Angel said...

I knew Deb's house was in the "historic district", but I had no idea what that really meant. I just assumed it was near downtown. And I've never heard of Lowe Mill either. In my defense, I didn't grow up here, but you'd think in 18 years I'd have learned a little about the place. :)