Glencoe Mill Village the subject of new book, renewed local interest

Over the past quarter-century, the Glencoe Mill Village in Burlington has emerged from a falling-apart wasteland into one of the more intriguing parts of Alamance County. Through years of extensive renovation work, the mill has been revived to its former glory, complete with the old mill, the original office, and several of the original houses within the mill restored to their former glory. Two of the individuals involved in the renovation work - George Nall and Dr. Sam Powell - recently published a book on the project titled Celebrating the Past and Looking to the Future.

It has taken two decades, a significant amount of money and countless hours of dedicated work on the part of numerous volunteers. But Alamance County’s Glencoe Mill Village has been preserved as something of a local time relic - a relic of a time when textile mills and associated villages were prevalent in Alamance County and throughout the Southeast.

“What could have gone into the dust bins of history is now a destination point - no question about it,” said George Nall, co-author of Celebrating the Past and Looking to the Future, a recently-published book on the renovation of Glencoe Mill Village. “In the 1990s, the small village of Glencoe was in shambles. The mill, the mill houses were in a state state of affairs. But the mill was still intact - one of the few you’ll still find. It was a thing of beauty that happened later, and it had to come back. But it took a lot of work.”

According to the book’s co-author Dr. Sam Powell, the Glencoe Mill opened between 1880 and 1882, and stayed open until 1954. During peak times at the Glencoe Mill, there were approximately 500 employees though for the majority of that period, it was closer to 300 employees. It was a center of business and social activity within Alamance County for nearly three-quarters of a century. 

“Transportation was very limited back then. They didn’t have bus service and taxi service, and most people didn’t have a car. To get around, you had to walk. The mills opened up very early in the morning and it was a long day, maybe 12 to 14 hours,” Powell explained. “I guess somebody could live downtown and walk in and work, but that just added more time to the day. The mills recognized that the workers needed a place close by, so they created the Village. The Village was about 40 houses. And you would have had in those houses families. Most of those families had multiple members of their family who were working in the mill.”

Although the Glencoe Mill closed more than 60 years ago - sitting dormant for approximately 40 years from the mid 1950s into the 1990s — when interest finally came in renovating the Village in the 1990s, the volunteers were excited to see that the records of the Mill were left virtually intact and largely undisturbed inside the facility by the former owner. 

“When Walter Green, who was an attorney - a very bright guy - when he closed the doors in 1954, one of the great things about it was he just closed the door,” Nall said. “We had the office equipment, and all these archives that were there. It’s unbelievable what you would read in the archives in that place. Interesting stories about World War II veterans. Walter was one. We had classified material in there. The building part of it, we wouldn’t have those things if we had not had the good building, and the good people (involved in the restoration). I think it’s important for us to remember that history.”

“Timing is of critical importance. And we have to seize opportunity when it is available. It’s too easy to miss your chance,” Nall added. “When chance or opportunity knocks on the door, weigh the options and look at the good circumstances and act. Get things done.” 

Time, in reference to rebuliding the Glencoe Village, is a remarkable story. The Mill Village was listed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 1979. But by the early 1990s, many of the dilapidated old houses and dwellings within the village were becoming local eyesores. 

“The houses in the village were literally being burned by the Faucette Fire Department for practice,” Nall said. “What a turnaround when this came about. And it started barely in the nick of time. I purchased the Holt Green house (owned by a former Mill executive). The condition was pathetic, kind of like the Mill Village. But gradually, the public became aware. And as the house began to take shape, there were newspaper articles. But then a critical point - along came Myron and Sara Rhyne - two great people that I knew well in Graham.”

The Rhynes were one of the driving influences of the Glencoe Mill preservation, as they donated much of the land of the Village, as well as providing financial gifts. 

“When we began to talk, one day Myron stood in front of what is now the Textile Heritage Museum - and it looked pathetic at the time,” Nall recalled. “He said, ‘George, is there any way these buildings can be reconstructed?’ I said, ‘Myron, most anything can be reconstructed if you have enough money, and you have neough time, and you have enough dedication.” 

Not too long after that conversation, according to Nall, Myron and Sara Rhyne donated half of the property, which was part of the Holt Green property at the time. In 1997, Preservation North Carolina purchased the Village and began the task of restoring it to its former glory. 

“And that (the Rhynes’ donations of land and money), in turn, allowed Preservation North Carolina to obtain the property, and the story has gone from there,” said Nall. 

Dr. Powell, joining forces with Nall’s wife, purchased the old Mill Office building on the property in 2004, which has emerged as the Textile Heritage Museum.

“We had an opportunity. We took advantage of the opportunity to purchase the office,” Powell stated. “The store was offered for sale by Preservation North Carolina. We bought that building on February 5, 2004. That was to be for the permanent home of the Textile Heritage Museum. This Mill Village was there. And if nobody stepped up, the bulldozers would have stepped in, and that would have been the end of the Mill Village. I think it’s really important that we have gotten involved with this project, because Glencoe is one of the icons of Alamance County. 

“With modernization, and the highways that have been built, and the big-box stores and all the McDonalds and all the fast food and everything, one community begins to look like another. It’s important that you maintain the feel for the history of the companies, the opportunities that were in the community, and the people. That we have an identity as to what is Alamance County? Just a huge amount of volunteer work has gone into this project.”

Powell indicated that the Textile Heritage Museum on the Glencoe Mill Village property earned a preservation award in 2017. Considerable work has been done, including replacement of windows and doors, renovation of brickwork throughout the site, as well as the addition of parking and handicapped ramps. 

“The purpose of the museum, we came up with a mission statement, was to interpret and preserve textile history of Alamance County and beyond,” he said. “It’s not just Alamance County. We wanted to include other textile history beyond Alamance County. We were going to do this through education programs, exhibits, and significant permanent collections. And I think we’ve come a long way down that road. A lot of work went into it.”

According to Powell, the different houses in the Mill Villages are purchased by individual owners who have gone in and renovated them. Preservation North Carolina, a non-profit based in Raleigh, entered the picture in 1995 by purchasing the entire village and putting restrictions on the developments of the homes. Each of these houses have to maintain the streetscape. From the front yard, it has a similar appearance resembling what one of these mill villages would have looked like many decades ago. 

“If you look across the entire South, and really the entire country, there’s very few of these mill villages left,” Powell added. “When we talk about textiles, we have the museum to interpret the textile history. But we also have the village itself, so people can drive through and see the old mill, the company store, the houses, the elevated water tank, and have an appreciation for what these mill villages look like.”

“I think you have to have a vision of what is important, and what needs to be maintained. It’s so easy for things to slip away from you. You can ask a lot of what ifs. And what if these events had taken place, where we barely got there just in time to save the houses, what if other things had taken place? What if no one had come along that had an interest?” Nall added. “I had a lot of interest, because Mill people had a dynamic impact on my life. The buildings themselves become important, because it can show a blueprint of what can take place over a period of time. And more importantly, what needs to happen in the future.” 

“When we started this project, the (textile museum) building was in pretty bad shape,” Powell said. “And today, I believe we have done 90 percent or more of what needed to be done. It’s in pretty good shape. We now have Alamance County helping us. Elon students have been helping us. Alamance County has provided us the opportunity to have salary for our full-time director and two volunteers.” 

“You talk about museums around the country. Most of them lose money, and then go under. Glencoe, from the start, has operated in the black,” Powell continued. “We do not have any debt. Everything is paid for. We have to thank our contributors, all of our volunteers, and all of those who have come together to make this possible. It’s to the credit of all our volunteers who have contributed their talents, and our friends who have contributed financial aid, that we have been able to do what we have done.” 

According to Powell, the museum currently draws in approximately 2,500 to 3,000 guests per year, with ambitious plans to dramatically increase that figure in the coming years. The museum is now open for regular hours Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

“We have a variety of plans in the works to improve marketing and improve the museum itself. That’s the goal, is to continue to improve what we have, and that we are attracting a larger group. We want to continue improving the exhibits and adding to our collections.,” 

A former Alamance County Commissioner, who is running to regain his seat this fall, sees Glencoe Mill Village as a potential tourist destination for the county if properly promoted.  

“I think what has been done here is absolutely tremendous,” said Bob Byrd. “And I think it can grow. When I went through the museum for the first time and saw all the different artifacts, that were too numerous to display, I thought what a great opportunity to have this grandiose destination place, where people would come from all over the Southeast and beyond to see what is here. There’s an opportunity for a big vision for this museum. It is really important to our history and our economy. It’s an investment into our community.” 

Powell and Nall explained that the book Celebrating the Past and Looking to the Future was written to document the efforts made to renovate Glencoe Mill Village. 

“This book is about the tremendous task of restoring the Glencoe Mill owner’s office and Company Store, and the founding of the Textile Heritage Museum,” he said. 

“I think the important thing in reference to this book is it gives a bird’s eye view as to the current state as of where this facility is,” Nall added. “It’s so important that you have a consistency. It’s so easy to start a project, but it’s hard to keep the whole thing going. There have been so many events that have taken place over this period of years. It has taken a lot of determination. It’s a combination of a lot of people. Many people put this project on. I just helped to coordinate it.” 

Born in Elon, Nall moved to Burlington, attended Burlington City schools and Elon College before entering the United States Army and serving in Korea. A 1956 graduate of Elon College, Nall taught at Graham High School until 1960. He was heavily influenced in his early years by the Mill people throughout Alamance County that he came to know, which motivated his later desire to get involved in the renovation of Glencoe Mill Village and the publishing of a book on the subject. 

“I’m a firm believer that early associations and events impact decisions that we make later. It has worked that way with me,” Nall said. “My dad, my mom, my brothers, my sisters, my neighbors, and my relatives - and I want to stress that is what really began to impact my life - were the Mill people that I grew up around. And also the schools." 

“We’re giving credit where credit is due. George, you played a really huge part in getting this project completed. And now we’re proud to have this book that goes through this process with pictures and writing,” said Powell. “Glencoe is an icon for Alamance County, in remembering our past, and defining who we are.”