Monday, March 4, 2024

Mill work

Up front: July 2013

Mill work

Sometimes at night, I lie in bed and listen. The old mill seems to moan, as if weary of wearing the million bricks in which it’s clad, its timber posts and joists creaking under an acre of roof and clerestory glass. Something haunts this place, but I don’t believe it’s ghosts, not even the one who supposedly does: a woman whose husband cut her throat with a straight razor as she tended her spinning machine in 1935.

My wife and I have a second home in the Edenton Cotton Mill. It was marketed as a luxury condominium, and though it’s more spacious — and cost more — than our house in Charlotte, it’s ironic we chose to live in a place where people, like many of mine, had no choice but to make their living. Once, cotton mills were North Carolina’s future. Between 1880 and 1900, an average of six were being built each year, but this was one of only two along Albemarle Sound.

“The erection of cotton, tobacco and other factories in Edenton will double its wealth and population in 10 years,” a newspaper editor wrote in 1886. It wasn’t until 1898, long after the paper went under, that 19 local residents formed Edenton Cotton Mills Co. At the time, the town’s population was 3,046. It still hasn’t doubled. But the mill, built in phases between 1899 and 1916, provided back then what northeast North Carolina needs now. Just read Ed Martin’s story that begins on page 52.

It put profits in investors’ pockets, made a market for the region’s cotton farmers and created jobs, steady work and wages, for people who had none. They came from counties all around. The mill stayed in local hands until 1990. Greensboro-based Unifi Inc. shut it down five years later, giving the mill and its village to the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina Inc. A developer converted the mill into condos, and we bought ours in 2007.

It’s history that haunts this place, history as rich as that found across the tracks in the 18th- and 19th-century houses the wealthy built, which this town is famous for. No one who worked here signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or served on the first Supreme Court, but their labor left its mark, as permanent and plain as those their machines made on the mill’s maple floors. As I drift off, I imagine I can hear them, the whisper of whirling strands spinning into yarn. Ghosts don’t groan here, just the living.


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