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Mayodan Mill Coming Down

Jeff Tiberii: In between the railroad tracks and the Mayo River rests a once vibrant building. The windows of this former Washington Mills factory have long since been bricked up and no one has worked inside for 13 years. On the back side of the building is a gaping hole, and on this cool winter afternoon, workers are dismantling what has become a symbolic eyesore.

Bill Morehead: It was the backbone of the community, while it was running. It kept people working; they made a living, a good living.

Bill Morehead is 88-years-old. For 34 of those years he was an engineer at Washington Mills. He saw the big machines spin cotton into everything from pajamas to sweatshirts.

Morehead: It meant everything because that’s where the only place you could make their living. Most everybody in town worked there, or some part of their family worked there.

Refurbishing the mill would cost tens of millions of dollars. And even then, it's not clear what function it would serve. However, you will have to excuse the locals for being nostalgic. The town of Mayodan has been around for 115 years. This mill, it's even older.

Perry Vernon: A lot of people, this is all they knew, from the time they were born to the day they died, that's all they knew.

67-year-old Perry Vernon stands next to the rundown factory, looking at the river. He’s a third generation Mill worker. His late mother put in 49 years. And his grandfather was a foreman in the early 1900s. Long ago when the river would flood, snakes and rodents would end up around the mill and in the basement.

Vernon: Used to be a lot of rats around here. And he would let these two little boys in there and they’d get up on the top floor and shoot the big wharf rats that were running around down here. With a gun or a B-B gun? No man, with a .22 rifle … And, back over there that was the town dump; now in the summertime with the wind blowing just right. I’m feeling the wind coming this way. It would gag you. You couldn’t stand it. How big were the rats? Oh god, That's as big as a Mountain Lion. It was a big as most domestic cats.

Vernon lights up a cigarette. Looking forward isn't easy around here, but someone had to figure out what to do with this place. Back in October, Garen Nelson bought the property for about 350-thousand dollars. He plans to dismantle the building and sell and of the wood and brick that has value. What comes after that isn't entirely clear yet. Nelson says there are significant limitations for the future of the site because its in a flood plain.

Another North Carolina community is saying goodbye to its textile mill. The town of Mayodan sits near the crossing of the Mayo and Dan rivers, about 45 minutes north of Greensboro. The once bustling community now has vacant stores on Main Street and a poverty rate of about 20-percent. Recently, crews began deconstructing the iconic mill factory that sits on the edge of town.

Garen Nelson: We’re trying to maybe focus on something that is recreational. I can elaborate on that more once we run everything by the town and the city and have there blessing on it. We do plan on reusing the property, we don't plan on flipping it. And we want to incorporate as much of the mill theme into what we’re wanting to do in the future.

Nelson may be able to salvage one of the small Mill buildings and turn it into a museum of sorts. Town Manager Michael Brandt wants to utilize the water next to the old mill.

Michael Brandt: The Mayo River is one of the cleanest rivers in North Carolina. The rapids that are on it are sought by kayakers and boaters. And so we need to think about how that river that built the mill, now can sustain the town.

Brandt wants to attract tourists with a state park or recreation facility. Perry Vernon the third-generation worker says the locals aren't happy to see the Mill come down, but it’s time.

Vernon: I don’t like it. And when it’s completely gone it will make me sad. But that’s just part of getting old I guess.

The process of completely dismantling Washington Mills should take two to three years.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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