From Adaptive Reuse to Community History
From Adaptive Reuse to Community History

From Adaptive Reuse to Community History

From Adaptive Reuse to Community History: Why It Matters Here

Historical Context

Between 1885 and 1920, the economic, social, and cultural landscape of the southeastern Piedmont was transformed by what a contemporaneous commentator called the “Cotton Mill Campaign.” From Virginia to Alabama, thousands of textile mills and villages to house the families who worked in them seemed to sprout from the red clay. Nowhere was this transformation more pronounced than in North Carolina, where the number of mills increased five-fold. By the beginning of World War I, more than fifty thousand white men, women, and children (some younger than twelve) worked in mills. An even larger number of North Carolinians —white, black, and Native American— were connected to the mills in some way: growing, processing, selling, or transporting cotton; cooking in boarding houses and lunchrooms; caring for children; preaching in the mill churches; and teaching in the mill schools.[1] 

loray-postcard mill-house-and-garden

The cotton mill boom was itself built on the modest success of pioneering industrialists who harnessed shoals and falls in the state’s inland river valleys to power small cotton gins and mills and leased slave labor from surrounding farms to operate them. Whether these settler-entrepreneurs knew it or not, the falls they appropriated had been important features in the indigenous landscape for thousands of years.

The deployment of slaves and free persons of color as mill operatives came to an end after the Civil War. The business model of the late nineteenth century textile industry in the South depended upon a great regional migration of tens of thousands of white farming families, pushed off the land by ruinous tenant and sharecropping practices and lured into “public work” in the burgeoning small towns of the Piedmont by the prospect of housing, steady work for multiple family members, and the amenities of village life. As steam and electricity replaced water power, cotton mills and villages were sited along the expanding rail networks that connected raw cotton to manufacturing to markets for yarn, sheeting, and woven goods. Although African Americans would continue to be connected to the textile economy, by 1898 when African American entrepreneur Warren Coleman established the first black-owned and operated mill in North Carolina, the New York Times reported that there were no black “operatives” in any of the state’s two hundred mills.[2]

As historian Jacquelyn Hall and her colleagues demonstrated in their path-breaking book, Like a Family, a distinctive culture grew out of cotton mill work and mill village communities in North Carolina, affecting every aspect of everyday life: religion, music, education, sports and leisure, foodways, health, gender roles, and race relations. As they argue, cotton mills were sites of long, hard, and dirty work. They were also sites of struggle over working conditions and low pay that sometimes erupted into violence.[3] But cotton mill life engendered distinctive social relations and identities that spanned multiple generations across the twentieth century. Conditions were different in Roanoke Rapids and Ranlo, Saxapahaw and Shelby, but there were strands of shared experience involved in life on the mill village wherever it was.


African Americans, however, were excluded from most jobs in textile production for most of the twentieth century, and, concomitantly, from mill village communities. African American men worked on the loading docks in some plants; African American women were restricted to cleaning jobs and food service. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other victories in the struggle to break down Jim Crow barriers to equal employment resulted in a change in the textile workforce in the South of historic proportions. In 1960, textiles were still the South’s largest industry, but only 3.3% of textile workers were black. By the end of the 1970s, African Americans held more than a quarter of all production jobs. Historian Gavin Wright has called the dramatic influx of black workers, both male and female, in the 1960s and 1970s “a genuine revolution, very deserving of a prominent place in the history of the civil rights movement.”[4]

A century after the “Cotton Mill Campaign” began and over the same amount of time that it developed, the textile and apparel industry in North Carolina withered. Foreign competition, international trade agreements, changes in import quotas, the admission of China, Vietnam, and other low-wage manufacturing countries to the WTO combined in the 1980s and 1990s to drive hundreds of U.S. textile companies out of business. In North Carolina alone between 1982 and 1985, seventy-six plants closed putting 10,000 textile workers out of a job. The second largest textile producing state in the country, North Carolina lost more textile jobs and closed more plants than any other state. Between 1996 and 2006, fifty-five percent of its apparel plants closed, and its textile workforce dropped from 233,000 to 80,000.

The effects of the collapse of the textile industry in North Carolina cascaded through hundreds of small towns: unemployment soared; municipal tax bases shrank; small businesses that served mill communities failed. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the landscape of Piedmont North Carolina was pocked by abandoned textile plants, derelict mill houses, and boarded-up storefronts. Some plants and houses were demolished, but many stood as mute reminders of a bygone way of life.

However, a number of communities responded by initiating discussions among civic and business leaders, community groups, property developers and historic preservation organizations to explore the repurposing of textile plants and the revitalization of mill villages. The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program had been in place since 1976, offering tax credits for the rehabilitation of “historic, income-producing buildings.[5] In 1998, the State of North Carolina expanded its program of historic tax credits.

Since 1998, North Carolina has been a national leader in historic rehabilitation projects. Between 1998 and 2013, some 2164 adaptive reuse projects were completed, representing an investment of $1.36 billion. In 2011, the state was third in the nation in the number of such projects. Among these was the Loray Mill development in Gastonia, North Carolina: the restoration and repurposing of what was once the largest textile mill under one roof in the South. The $40 million, 630,000 square foot development—the largest adaptive reuse project in state history—opened in the winter of 2015 as 190 loft apartments and 80,000 feet of commercial and retail space.

Adaptive Reuse As a Catalyst for Community History

Historic preservation and adaptive reuse development efforts focusing on textile plants and mill villages represent unparalleled opportunities for communities to document and explore their histories. For cultural heritage organizations and community groups, these moments of collective reflection and recovery can be opportunities to add capacity, extend their reach into underserved communities, and gain new skills. Teachers and students at all grade levels can contribute to a dynamic, community-based archive, producing durable resources from which new generations of students can learn. For groups leading architectural rehabilitation and reuse efforts, community history initiatives can help to connect the history of iconic sites to their new purposes and both to the communities that will use them in these new ways.

Viewing them now as empty and isolated structures fenced off from what is left of the communities around them, it is easy to see closed and abandoned textile plants as autonomous architectural challenges. But effective community history initiatives undertaken as a part of adaptive reuse planning help the contemporary community re-imagine mills, mill villages, and the structures and landscapes around them in relation to the complex web of connections to which they were once connected.


Of course one of the greatest archival challenges represented by community history projects centered on mill communities is recovering the lives of the millions of people who worked in the mills and whose families lived in the mill villages. However, the explosion in digitized public records primarily for genealogical use has revolutionized our ability to conduct community histories at the level of the individual household, map migrations from mountains to mills, and “reconstruct” mill communities at particular points in the past.

The “structuring absence” of the histories of all communities in the South, but particularly cotton mill communities is the very real and continuous African American presence. African Americans were the first Southern mill workers in the antebellum period–both slaves and free persons of color. When the Southern textile business model shifted to white family labor after the Civil War, the role of African Americans in mill communities was marginalized if not expunged in most historical accounts. Our work is, in part, a response to the urgent need to recover the roles of African Americans in the mill and in the larger mill community. The “archive” of the lived experience of cotton mill communities is to be found in the living memories, home movies, mementoes, and stories of those–black and white–who continue to live there than in traditional archival sources. In some cases, they are our only link to the working world inside the mills and the culture of mill communities.


As humanists at the flagship research university of the state whose history has been most shaped by the textile industry, we have a special responsibility to seek out opportunities to work with communities that are struggling to reimagine themselves as post-mill towns. Our colleagues at land-grant universities have long connected with local communities across the state through their agricultural extension and outreach services. We in the humanities need to develop new models to connect our resources, expertise, and scholarship.

Robert Allen




[1] Brent D. Glass, The Textile Industry in North Carolina: a History (Raleigh, N.C.: Division of Archives and History, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, 1992), pp. 30-35.

[2] “Negroes as Mill Hands,” New York Times, September 5, 1898.

[3] See, for example, John Salmond’s Gastonia, 1929 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1995).

[4] Gavin Wright, “Economic Consequences of the Southern Protest Movement,” in New Directions in Civil Rights Studies, edited by Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan, pp. 175-83 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991); quoted in Timothy J. Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: the Racial Integration of the Textile Industry, 1960-1980 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 3.



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