Tag Archives: mill village

Rocky Mount Mills and Mill Village

When it comes to travel, I’m a big believer in planning. So it came as a surprise to me to run across this cotton mill complex in Rocky Mount, NC. We were just passing through, but the sign made me slow down and take a small detour. What it led to was a textbook example of a 19th and early 20th century cotton textile mill and village.

The mill was first constructed in 1818 on the bank of the Tar River. The mill that is there today is not that old, as the original building was burned in 1863 by Union troops under the command of General Ferris Jacobs.

In pre-steam and pre-electrical power days, mills were powered by falling water. The earliest mills had to be built on a river with falls, or the falls could be made by damming the river as you see here. Part of the rushing water would be channeled into a mill race, which cannot be seen but still exists.

On the side of the Tar River across from the mill is a nice city park with good vistas of the complex, or they would have been good before the leaves leafed.

The mill complex had become run down, as production there stopped in 1996. The buildings sat empty and decaying until the site was bought by Capital Broadcasting Company. The part of the mill you see above now houses loft apartments.

This building in front of the mill was the power house, but today it serves as an event center. The little structure behind the water tower was the canteen. Other buildings in the complex are being used as restaurants and breweries.

It’s no surprise that this was the mill owner’s home. One of the founders of the mill was Joel Battle, and this was the home of his son, Benjamin Battle. Battle house was built in 1835.

Like most mill villages, low rent housing was available for rent to the workers in the mill.  The village at Rocky Mount seems to have been quite large, and much of it survives. There was also a beautiful old school that is no longer in the village.

When the site was bought by CBC, most of the houses in the village were ramshackle and vacant.

But today, the restored village looks like this. The houses are owned by CBC and are rented to tenants. The original tenants in the early to mid twentieth century could have only dreamed of the modern living spaces within.

Rocky Mount Mills had such a long history that it witnessed many changes in the making of cotton yarn and the people who made it. The first workers in 1818 were enslaved people, along with a few free Blacks. After the mill was rebuilt after the Civil War, the jobs within were for Whites only, though some Black men held jobs outside the mill as loaders of materials going in and out of the mill. The mill was finally integrated in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Along with the restoration, the owners have begun an initiative to collect and preserve the history of the mill, which included the memories of people who worked in the mill and lived in the village. Some of these videos can be seen on the Rocky Mount Mills website. The research is being conducted through UNC Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop.

Some people have complained that the project is just more gentrification by and for rich white people. Having just been to Rocky Mount and having seen its downtown that is almost completely deserted, I have to hope that people will see the possibilities in Rocky Mount, and that even more old buildings can be re-purposed as living and working spaces.



Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Henry River Mill Village

Some time ago I posted about the Henry River Mill Village and the fact that the entire village was for sale.  The village was used in the filming of the Hunger Games as the poor District 12 home of the heroine, Katniss.  I was traveling through the area last week, and took the short detour off the Interstate to see Henry River for myself.

The entire tract is privately owned (and still for sale) and due to on-going problems with sightseers, trespassing is forbidden, but the state road runs through the village so it is possible to get a good look from one’s car.  There are about twenty houses still standing, with more outhouses than I’ve seen in a very long time.

Henry River Mill was opened in 1905 as a producer of cotton yarn.  Originally it was water powered, and a dam that was built to concentrate the falling water is still standing.  The mill closed in the 1960s, and the mill building burned in 1977.  Like many mill villages, Henry River was fairly self-sufficient, with a company store, a school and a church.  The mill was even able to produce electricity for the village.

The setting is quite beautiful.  The site starts on the top of a hill and the village winds down the hill to the river.  I just hope that any buyers of the site plan to preserve the village as mill villages are now few and far between.

This building is the old company store.  In the Hunger Games it was a bakery, and you can see the word “cakes” painted beneath the windows.  Note the very white board to the left of the door, under the windows.  The word “Pastries” was painted there, but one day the owner arrived to find that someone had ripped out the boards and taken them as a souvenir.  He replaced the boards and placed the site off limits to the public.  Can’t say that I blame him.


Filed under Curiosities, North Carolina, Textiles

An Old Cotton Mill and Village, Reused

One of the aspects of textile history that many people (especially if you are not from the textile producing areas of the US) don’t know about, is the mill village.  Mill villages were constructed by the mill owner as housing for the workers.  Because the mills were often constructed miles from the nearest town, or on the outskirts of a city where there was no pool of workers nearby, the mill owners often provided modest, low cost housing to attract workers.  They sometimes even provided a church and a company store.

As our textile industry began its decline in the 1970s, many textile mills were closed, and in many cases, the mill village connected with a closed mill would be abandoned or even demolished.  The South was in danger of losing this part of our historical record.  Fortunately, preservationists and former residents of the villages began seeing the possibilities in these old structures.

The video at the top shows how the  Edenton Cotton Mill has been converted to condos and the surrounding village has been revitalized as a viable community.  The mill closed in 1995, and the owner gave the entire complex to Preservation North Carolina.  The houses were sold and renovated for modern living.  As one woman points out, this is not a museum.  There is however, a small museum in the former cotton mill office building.

To contrast with the community in Edenton, the next video shows an unrestored village, Henry River Mill Village.  You may have seen this village, as it was used in The Hunger Games as the setting of the coal mining region, District 12.  If you are interested in restoring this  little ghost village, it is for sale for $1.4 million.

I have a few villages and village museums on my radar, and will be paying them visits in the not too distant future, so stay tuned for more textile history.

On a bit of a personal note, I grew up in Canton, NC, which was home to Champion Pulp and Paper.  Before the mill was built in 1906, Canton was a small settlement of 230 people.  The building of the mill brought more jobs than there were workers, and soon the influx of new residents led to a housing shortage.  The owners of Champion began construction of a village, modeled on the textile mill villages of the region.  In all, about 60 mill houses were built in a new area of town which was named Fiberville.  On the hill above the company built thirteen larger houses which were to be provided to the mill’s management.

In 1949 many of the smaller houses were destroyed when the Pigeon River flooded.  The company sold the remaining houses, some of which were moved to higher ground.  What was left of the original village was destroyed in 2004 when Hurricanes Frances and Ivan caused more flooding.  Interestingly, all the management houses are still high and dry on the hill above.


Filed under North Carolina, Textiles