Preserving old mills offers opportunity to experience past
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of a two-week Sunday series about the proposed West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail which aims to link towns once connected through the textile industry for a new era of economic development and tourism.
Last Sunday’s installment looked at project goals. Bringing new life to old textile mill structures is the major focus. This week, Assistant News Editor Winston Skinner looks at opportunities from preservation of these historic structures.
“For three decades, investors slowly have been breathing new life into old mills,” said Steven Moffson, an architectural historian with the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. Bill Hover, also of the state HPD, stated, “Textile mill restoration has had a pretty successful history in Georgia.”
The buildings which once were economic cornerstones of their community are worthy of preservation — not only for economic gain but for unique qualities the buildings bring to area residents and to visitors, according to Dr. Richard Cloues of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Cloues, Hover and Moffson were among the speakers at the recent West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail Conference in Bremen.
Cloues outlined the economic development possibilities of transforming old mills into restaurants, shops, apartments or condominiums. Then he turned to the tangible connection with another era of history — and another way of life — offered by the massive buildings.
“There is an important role to be played by historic preservation,” Cloues said.
“Historic buildings are tangible evidence of our history,” Cloues said. In an old building, people can see and experience the unique smells, sights and sounds.
People can have an experience that cannot be duplicated — “instead of just reading about them in a book or on a plaque, as important as they may be,” Cloues said.
Preserving historic buildings “contributes to a unique sense of place, something that is missing in our increasingly homogenized modern world,” Cloues said. He said the historic textile mills that were built in Georgia from the late 1800s to the first decades of the last century had singular personalities.
Those buildings, he insisted, can be “managed, conserved and reused.”
The buildings represent a major investment. “These investments are lost to us when these buildings are abandoned or destroyed,” he said.
The mills — with their distinctive architectural features — can “attract tourists to see what was going on and what still may be going on in these interesting buildings,” Cloues said.
“We’re in a state where we could very easily lose a lot of this,” observed Dr. Keith Hebert of the Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia. The CPH is coordinating the textile trail project.
The textile mills and related properties are visible, tangible reminders of “a major part of our history,” Hebert said.
Hebert lives in Bremen, where some textile companies are still in business. Throughout the region, many former textile mills simply sit empty, which Hebert said is a sad thing to see.
“We have a lot of empty spaces,” he reflected.
Both Hebert and Cloues talked about historic buildings as attractions for tourists. Hebert noted many travelers get off the Interstates 85/75 and Interstate 20, “rather than go through the traffic of downtown Atlanta.”
Hebert explained, “They’re looking for an afternoon. They’re looking for a trail —for an experience — as they pass through.”
Barry Brown of the Georgia Department of Economic Development said heritage tourists tend to be better educated than most visitors — and to spend more money. “The heritage tourist is looking for authenticity. With that authenticity, they are looking for quality,” he said.
Heritage tourists insist “on integrity and accuracy,” Brown said, and are looking for experiences that engage all the senses.
The main route of the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail will run from Columbus to Dalton. “All along that route, we plan to have spurs,” Hebert said.
There also are plans for visitor centers at already existing locations — Hills and Dales estate in LaGrange, Sewell Mill in Bremen and Bandy Heritage Center in Dalton.
Dr. Ann McCleary, who is also with the CPH at West Georgia, said involving volunteers, using strategic signage and planning to incorporate the textile factor into other tourism events and activities can help magnify the success of projects along the trail.
She suggested incorporating the textile history into walking tours, “figuring out ways to connect your festival with your textile heritage” and putting a musical background to the history. “Country music was really created on the front porches of mill towns,” McCleary said.
Oral history projects and publications can also accent the heritage tourism possibilities.
“We hope to be a network where we and share the resources we do have,” she said.
“Georgia has a plentiful store of textile facilities that have gone fallow,” Hover said. “These mill complexes represent significant existing development within their existing communities.”
“For about a century, the textile industry in Georgia represented wealth and prosperity,” Moffson said.
He talked about all the facets of the industry from workers picking cotton in the fields through ginning and production to warehousing the finished product. There even were “the railroad workers who shipped the cotton to the mills.”
Mills “were often the largest building in the community and often the biggest employers,” Moffson said. He noted that influential Georgia editor Henry Grady felt the mill “represented the transition from the agriculture to the industrial.”
The mills “tell you about how your parents and grandparents worked with their hands to make a better life for their children and grandchildren,” Moffson said.
Moffson noted that, in many cases such as the Arnco and Sargent communities in Coweta County, “mills were the reason that many towns were established in the first place.” The relationship “between the mill and the mill worker was a complex one,” he said.
Moffson said tax credits can help make redoing an old textile building a viable project.
In finding new uses for textile mills in Coweta County and points north and south, “we are saving the history of our community,” Moffson said.