Revolution mill is our heritage
The Revolution Cotton Mill smokestack, with its 10 letters painted in bold relief on yellow brick, rises starkly against a backdrop of kudzu and blue sky along North Buffalo Creek in northwest Greensboro. A rotting wooden loading dock runs alongside the plant’s south building.
On a gorgeous recent Sunday afternoon when the Gate City stretched about invitingly, I rode my bicycle around the mill. I had a vision for this deteriorated factory, which I’ve learned some significant others share. It doesn’t require my advocacy. It just requires that enough people find it attractive, and some key players marshal the resources to make it a reality.
Imagine the Latham Park and Lake Daniel bike and hike trails being extended along North Buffalo Creek from Moses Cone Health Center, and linking up the Revolution plant with the Friendly Center over on the west side of town. Imagine the brush being cleared back from the 28-acre campus and the grounds landscaped with flagstone patios and park benches. What if part of the mill were renovated to house a museum that celebrated the history and culture of textiles?
The Revolution plant, opened in 1898 to produce flannel and later refitted to roll out spools of corduroy, is an icon of Greensboro’s textile industry. Textiles, of course, were the economic engine of the North Carolina Piedmont’s post-bellum economy, and Greensboro was its business center. That history should be honored in this building, and the old walls should breathe with new business and new life.
Cone Mills stopped the giant looms in 1982 and the building passed through the hands of two owners who tried renovating it for residential condos, and leased it for warehouse space and manufacturing before Southern Properties Management acquired it in 2003, building manager James Peeples tells me.
The business development of the old mill is well underway. The new landlord is renovating a 230,000 square foot wing of the plant on the north bank of the creek for small business use. A coffee roaster, an advertising agency, a construction firm and a non-profit organization are among the tenants reinhabiting this vital space. A spacious room under a canopy of sturdy crossbeams and enclosed by brick walls and broad windows awaits the tenancy of Select Diagnostics, a medical research firm.
Of course, the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship was creating economic life at Revolution for many years before Southern Property Management came on the scene. The center relocated to the plant from downtown in 1991. Identified by Action Greensboro as the largest and most successful business incubator in the state, it has an excellent track record of helping small businesses launch.
It turns out I’m not the only one who has been thinking about a bike trail linking the old mill to the medical center, or creating a museum in the building. A color rendering of a trail winding under the railway trestle through pastoral grounds surrounding the red brick factory lies on a polished wooden table in Southern Property Management’s well-appointed offices.
Peeples says the city of Greensboro has had plans to extend the bike trail to the mill for some time. The city and the real estate development company are also discussing extending Revolution Mill Drive under the railroad trestle and connecting it to Church Street, he adds.
A public museum is something Peeples also eventually foresees for the mill. He shows me one of the plant’s ‘air rooms,’ whose function was to suck in the lint-heavy air and filter it with hot water for recirculation. Now the air room is being renovated as a reception area. Peeples wants to hang photographs of the cotton mill in operation on the back wall.
So far the plans include only a limited visual display. But imagine the city and private groups mobilizing resources for a full museum devoted to the textile culture of the Piedmont, which included an oral history collection and a full account of the region’s mill history.
There’s the role of textiles in industrializing the South, the brutal nature of the work, the labor struggles and the close-knit culture of mill villages to look at. It’s important to pay homage rather than shunting this history off to the side in our search for Greensboro’s golden future as logistics hub of the southern Atlantic seaboard. For Lynn Rumley, director of the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee in Davie County, there is more good than bad to that history.
‘“Working in a cotton mill could be nasty work,’” she tells me. ‘“They were linty, they were hot, and it was factory work. You can’t glamorize that, but these mills provided jobs that were easier than farm work. It gave people a cash pay envelope so you could get a sewing machine and canning jars. It had a movie theater, and at the same time you could grow your own food. You could cook a chicken from your backyard for Sunday dinner.’”