Two women join forces to save a forgotten mill town.
Near a curve in the haw river, where water rushes past boulders as big as cars, Jerrie Nall waits. Just after lunch, she spots them at the bottom of the steps — nine Girl Scouts from a troop in Kernersville. Nall leads the girls in, and right inside the door, she picks up something the size of a Ping-Pong ball.
“Do you all know what this is?” she asks.
The girls don’t answer.
“This is a piece of cotton, a raw piece of cotton,” she says. “Let me tell you what this piece of cotton did for this place.”
This place — a drafty building with high ceilings — is a project Nall has dedicated a decade of her life to complete. She is a former teacher with a new classroom — the old mill store at Glencoe Mill. Nall and her friend, Kathy Barry, another retired teacher, transformed the building into the Textile Heritage Museum.
They did much of the work themselves. And in the fourth quarter of their lives, a time when people slow down, these two women hustle. They’ve rounded up donations and recruited volunteers to help them create a museum that captures the vanishing textile South.
A busy place
A decade or so after the Civil War, two brothers believed they could make money along the Haw River. James and William Holt bought 105 acres in the country just north of Burlington. They built the last water-powered mill in Alamance County, and surrounded it with redbrick buildings and a mill store where workers could get anything from snuff to a sweet-gum toothbrush.
They hired 200 workers to make cotton fabric, and from their ingenuity sprang a village they named Glencoe.
Glencoe consisted of a barbershop, a two-room school, two churches, and 42 houses that framed either side of the street. Helen Phillips lived in one of the mill houses with her family.
James Clayton Holland fell hard for Phillips when he first saw her at a get-together at his uncle’s tobacco barn. He told her his nickname was Dink, and he knew he’d see her again. Holland fought the Germans in France during World War II, came home with a chest full of medals, and found Phillips at her house near the mill whistle.
In July 1945, Holland married the most beautiful girl he knew.
Nine years later, Glencoe Mill closed. At the turn of the 20th century, Alamance County had 30 textile mills. By the 1950s, Alamance had 54 hosiery manufacturers, and Burlington gained a nickname: the Hosiery Center of the South.
Over time, textile mills shut down to find cheap labor and lower production costs overseas. Or they simply closed, clocked by competition.
For 40 years, the village was a ghost town. Then, in 2001, Glencoe Mill got a fresh start.
Nall’s obsession with Glencoe started when she and her husband, George, bought the mill owner’s home in 1995.
Soon, Nall noticed families refurbishing the other 30 mill houses. A street, dead for decades, was resuscitated. But Nall and Barry wanted to do more.
In 1987, Barry moved to Burlington, and like many in Alamance County, she knew about Glencoe. In 2001, she visited the National Textile Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. She saw nothing about textile heritage down South.
She contacted Preservation North Carolina, the nonprofit organization that bought the mill complex from a local family in 1997. The organization put her in touch with Nall.
“We didn’t know anything about textiles, but we got busy,” Nall says.
Barry and Nall visited other museums, talked to educators, created a nonprofit, and began raising money. In 2004, Nall approached Sam Powell, a retired biochemist and former Alamance County commissioner, and told him she wanted to buy the mill store from Preservation North Carolina and turn it into a museum.
Powell and Nall bought the mill store and split the cost — $23,000 each.
The museum opened on March 28, 2004. Today, exhibits cover almost every inch of its 7,262 square feet, and visitors come from as far as California to see the industrial muscle of the American South.
‘Our past is important’
It’s Saturday. Holland, the man who fell in love with the village girl, leans on a cane. He has an audience, a couple in their 20s from Chapel Hill. He tells them about Helen Holland; they were married for 66 years. She died this past July.
As he talks, he motions to the model at his elbow. It’s of Helen Holland’s mill home and the famous front-porch swing. In 1944, Holland sat on that swing, and Helen’s father burst through the screen door. “Holland, get your hat and get on up the road,” he said.
The next day, Helen’s father apologized. “I loved that woman,” Holland says. “I was going to marry her no matter what anyone said.”
Holland captivates his audience, and while he talks, Nall walks past the big loom and military uniforms toward the mill store in the back. The Girl Scouts follow.
They crane their necks toward the ceiling, eyes wide, looking at the old remnants stacked on the shelves.
“Is that aspirin real?”
“Is that Coke real?”
“Girls, remember our past is important,” Nall tells them. “This is our heritage we’re looking at.”
Hundreds of old bottles are on display at Glencoe Textile Heritage Museum. Workers shopped at the mill store for these products — dated from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Textile Heritage Museum
2406 Glencoe Street
Burlington, N.C. 27217
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m.
Jeri Rowe, a Greensboro resident, is a staff columnist with the News & Record. His most recent story for Our State was “Plant Protégé” (January 2012).