Textile Heritage Trail: Project honors past, looks to future
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
(Editor’s note: This is the first article in a Sunday series about the textile trail proposed for West Georgia. Times-Herald Assistant News Editor Winston Skinner shares the goals of a newly-organized group working on the project. Look for next Sunday’s installment: “Preserving mill buildings offers opportunity to experience the past.”)
The West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail is aiming to link towns once connected through the textile industry for a new era of economic development and tourism.
Every dollar spent restoring or revitalizing a mill comes back to the community about seven-fold, Hebert said. “Making them useful today,” he added, “that’s really the goal.”
Hebert and Dr. Ann McCleary of the University of West Georgia are the prime movers in the project that is bringing together people from Dalton to Columbus. The first West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail Conference held recently at Sewell Mill in Bremen drew several people from Coweta County.
Hasco Craver, Newnan’s economic development director, and Tray Baggarly, director of the Coweta County Convention and Visitors Bureau, attended – as did local historic preservation consultant Lynne Miller and Newnan businessman Murray Parks.
There also was a contingent from Moreland where a textile mill listed on the National Register of Historic Places provides space for the town hall, a public meeting room, a tourism welcome center and the Moreland Hometown Heritage Museum.
Moreland Mayor Josh Evans, Councilman Dick Ford and Town Clerk Jimmy Haynes attended. Carol Chancey of Reel Southern Adventure, who has been working with the town and the Moreland Cultural Arts Alliance on tourism, also made the trip.
The Sewell Mill was built for the Sewell Companies, which remain in business in Bremen. The building includes the large room where the conference took place and a textile mill museum.
Robin Worley, CEO of the Sewell Companies, encouraged the attendees at the conference. “This is a project well worth doing. This project is going to be fun. It’s going to be interactive and – of course – it’s going to be economically advantageous to communities” throughout the area.
Richard Cloues of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources gave opening remarks at the conference and talked about the potential in the numerous textile mills along the path from Dalton to Columbus.
“You can take something like this from the past,” Cloues said, and turn it into something new – “a vibrant new social space or non-traditional restaurant or a commercial emporium or a conference center.” He added, “You can even turn it into places where people want to live.”
Taking those buildings – many of them empty or underused – and creating a new use can generate money, jobs and “revenue for local governments,” Cloues said.
Speaking specifically of the planned trail, Cloues said redevelopment can turn buildings in towns that once boasted textile companies from Dalton to Columbus into engines for a new round of economic development, “making money all along the way.”
Cloues said the trail offers a unique regionally coordinated project that can do great things “for all the mill buildings in our communities.” New opportunities for economic and social growth will come from “these buildings where textiles were once made,” he predicted.
The old mills “can again be productive members of our commercial environment,” Cloues said. “They’re just out there waiting.”
Hebert said the Center for Public History at UWG will oversee the trail project. The center has already worked on another trail and has done numerous community projects, including recording memories of the past from Moreland area residents at the mill there.
In addition to those projects, “we’ve developed all these local, state and national partners,” Hebert said. “We really try to take the university and work beyond the university walls.”
Hebert said the CPH has worked with the National Park Service, the Smithsonian’s Museums on Main Street program, the Georgia Humanities Council, the Georgia Historical Society, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Hebert said the trail has a goal of preserving and interpreting historic sites associated with the textile industry. The term “textile industry” will include places that made suits like those in Bremen, the hosiery mill in Moreland, plants that made thread and those which manufactured carpets and synthetics.
The outline for the project also can include integral parts of the mill process outside the mills themselves – including mill villages and the often vital connection between the textile firms and the railroad. “We’re really interested in framing that as broadly as possible,” Hebert said.
“We also want to promote heritage tourism,” Hebert said. The trail organization aims to help communities determine how they can “best capitalize on our past” and “bring revenues into towns,” Hebert said.
The opportunity to “create a regional network” will also bear fruit, Hebert predicted. “As we work together, we’re not just working together as one town. We’re a whole region. ... We have to come together and work as a cohesive team.”
Efforts are also being made to ensure the longevity of the trail. A membership organization will be created soon.
“We want to have money for the trail to make the trail something sustainable,” Hebert said. The project is “one I plan to work on for a long time,” he stated.
The trail will make it easier to “share the success stories,” Hebert said. Getting “resources into the hands of everyone” will make it easier for people in one town to repeat the successes of another in turning a mill into a restaurant or apartments, he explained.
Signage and branding will be used in an effort to get people from one place on the trail to others. “The goal is to get them to stop – to get them to stop more often,” Hebert said.
McCleary said an early part of the trail process will be “developing the story.” A brochure and an interactive website are planned.
McCleary said she would like to see an audio driving tour on CD — “something you could put in your car.”
Putting the history together in an manageable way will be a challenge. “It’s a big story,” McCleary acknowledged. “It does have lots of pieces to it.”
While the CPH and the trail board will focus on the overall history, there will be individual efforts in Newnan, Moreland, Arnco and the other places where there are mills. “Each community would figure out what is the story you have and how do you tell this story,” McCleary said.
“It’s the story that is important. It’s the story that attracts people,” said Bruce Green, a noted tourism expert who works with the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Leslie Breland, cultural and tourism product development manager with the state DED, addressed cultural tourists who “want to experience what made this place special.” She explained, “It’s far beyond reading about something. It’s that experience of perhaps having a meal in an old mill that is decorated in period that makes them remember what it was like.”
She told the community representatives at the conference that they have a vital role to play if the trail is to be successful.
“The story of the textile towns in Georgia and the Southeast is the story of how America grew,” Breland said. “This is story that only you guys can tell, because you are living it.”