RDC takes over Great Falls Mill

Site of county’s 1st cotton mill one of “most evocative historic places”

By Kevin Spradlin

Related links
* National Register of Historic Places listing (PDF)
Ruins of the 1972 fire
* Rubble work a second glance
* Paul Warnock: My Falls Creek neighbor
* A look from N.C. State University
* Hootie and the Blowfish “Old Man and Me” video
* A walking video tour of the grounds
* More info, including an aerial tour

The Rockingham Downtown Corporation now owns the Great Falls Mill property.

Landowner Walter L. Parsons III signed the deed over to the private business association for the 11.17-acre property on Monday morning during a visit to downtown Rockingham. The site is now overwhelmed by kudzu, an invasive species native to Asia.

“This catches the eye of a lot of people,” said Susan Kelly, president of the Rockingham Downtown Corporation, of the property located along Highway 74 Business near the intersection with West Greene Street. “This is going to be exciting.”

Kelly said plans for the property have not been developed. In fact, she said the RDC might only be a through-way for another entity to take over the property. But instead of Parsons selling off the bricks, Kelly said the RDC was approached about preserving what’s left among the rubble.

“The RDC offered to step up and save the brick from demolition,” Kelly said, “and accept the donation for now. This is a lot for our little group to take on.”

Kelly said Parsons was connected with the Rockingham Downtown Corporation by RDC member and Rockingham City Councilman John Hutchinson. Hutchinson credited the idea to Rockingham attorney Ric Buckner and local historian Neal Cadieu. Buckner, Hutchinson said, kicked off the conversation with wondering “what if” talk.

That talk moved forward when Cadieu weighed in. Then Parsons happened to show up in Hutchinson’s office. Parsons and Hutchinson have been friends for some time.

Parsons, Hutchinson said, told him he never had plans to develop the property and began wondering what to do with it. Hutchinson then said he was simply one to to “connecting the dots.”

Those dots led to the Rockingham Downtown Corporation. Other entities were considered, of course. It’s possible the Richmond County Historical Society, which recently completed a time-consuming $100,000 grant challenge, had too many moving parts and too few key stakeholders to make a move. Hutchinson turned to the RDC. Hutchinson said it made sense for the RDC to consider the project as the location is “a gateway to downtown Rockingham.”

A Richmond County Historical Society image After the original 1837 mill was burned during the Civil War, it was soon rebuilt as the Great Falls Mill and was back in production by 1870.

A Richmond County Historical Society image
After the original 1837 mill was burned during the Civil War, it was soon rebuilt as the Great Falls Mill and was back in production by 1870.

The building is featured in The Architectural History of Richmond County, N.C., a 2008 publication of the Richmond County Historical Society. Authors claimed it to be “one of the county’s most evocative historic places” and recounted the site’s rich history.

The building is thoroughly described:

In its heyday, the massive four-story building featured elaborate corralled cornices in its gables and side eaves, with segmental-arch door and window openings and round windows in the gables. The gable and side elevations were recessed, the side elevations with an arcaded span that ran at the top of the fourth-story windows. A six-story stair shower in the form of a Romanesque campanile rose on the north side.

The tower was capped by a pyramidal roof, and its uppermost stage was embellished with multiple narrow round-arch openings — windows and blind arches — analogous to belfry openings. 

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com What's left of the Great Falls Mill standing today.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
What’s left of the Great Falls Mill standing today.

The antebellum Richmond Manufacturing Company mill was burned by Union forces during the Civil War in 1865. The Great Falls Mill began operation in 1870 and “John Leak served as its first president (until 1873), followed by Robert T. Steele (1873-95) and William Isaac Everett (1895-1911).

The Gore family, of Wilmington, acquired the property in the early 1900s and the mill continued to operate under the direction of Claude Gore. Parsons’ grandfather was the last to operate the mill.

The mill closed in 1930. It was later used as a cotton warehouse and, even later, a storage facility. The building was listed on the National Register of  Historic Places in 1971, one of 18 Richmond County structures to achieve such designation. At the time, locals expressed interest in a Carolina textiles museum but the building burned to the ground in 1972.

In June 2014, The Pee Dee Post reported when the south wall crumbled to the ground.

Though privately owned and closed to the public, the site was authorized for use in 1996 by Hootie and the Blowfish for an “Old Man & Me” video.

According to John L. Bell, when it closed in 1930, the facility included a five-story building, a dye house, six warehouses, two office buildings, 42 spinning frames, and 205 looms. The mill burned in 1972, but much of the ruins remained.

Any future possibility for the land is “an exciting idea for us,” Kelly noted. “We’ll just see …”

Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris, an RDC member with ownership of Helms Jewelers, acknowledged he had “some mixed feelings” on the project. There are upsides and downsides, he said.

“It’s been a great historical property,” Morris said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

But he expressed concern over the exposure for the Rockingham Downtown Corporation. The property remains closed to the public, but he also is aware that some choose to trespass to get a personal look at the mill’s ruins. Morris questioned what liability the RDC might have in such an issue where an unstable wall, or something else, injures someone.

Hutchinson acknowledged no one from the RDC toured the property — it’s the time of year where the kudzu vines and snake count both are high — before the property was transferred. But there’s no doubt there’s much to be done.

“It’s gonna take some work,” Hutchinson said. “We want to save the ruins. We’ve got to figure out how much is practical to save. But safety is a primary concern.”

It’s highly improbable — without an infusion of outside cash — that a mill is ever reconstructed there. But what’s left still could be a tourist attraction, Morris said, if a park-like atmosphere is created. The water fall already is in place. All that’s needed would be some hiking trails, he said.

Kelly said the acquisition could spark discussion — from current and new stakeholders — starting at the next RDC meeting, scheduled to begin at noon on June 16 at the Richmond County office of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension on South Caroline Street in Rockingham.

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