Textile Heritage Center renovating space, updating displays

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The Textile Heritage Museum in Cooleemee is temporarily closed while it undergoes extensive renovations. The museum sits in a historic neighborhood where many textile workers once lived. (Courtesy of Lynn Rumley via the Winston-Salem Journal)

COOLEEMEE, N.C. — Changes are coming to the Textile Heritage Center in the historic Zachary House, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

The center is the first public museum in North Carolina dedicated to telling the story of life in a cotton mill town. It has drawn historians from around the region and the country, becoming a model for other preservation efforts in mill towns from Alabama to Virginia.

In the years since the center opened in 1995, its collection of photographs has grown from 1,000 to more than 4,000, many of them donated by the families of former mill workers.

“We probably have the largest single mill village collection in the South,” said Lynn Rumley, the director of the center, which is operated by the Cooleemee Historical Association.

And with so much new material on hand, “it’s time to change some things out,” said Rumley, who also serves as Cooleemee’s mayor.

The Textile Heritage Center is temporarily closed to allow the association to renovate the space and revamp its displays. But the association’s Mill House Museum down the street remains open, allowing visitors to tour a typical mill house and see what the living spaces of mill workers were like.

The Textile Heritage Center occupies an 18-by-32 foot space in the Zachary House, 131 Church St., which was once home to the mill’s manager. Members of the association have painted the walls and are in the process of selecting the photos and artifacts to exhibit when the center reopens Sept. 27.

“We have so much material to choose from,” Rumley said.

Among the new photos are dozens of family portraits.

“Those are invaluable, because you can see the character of the people who lived here,” Rumley said. “They weren’t docile, beat-down people. They were good country people, very proud.”

The new submissions also include an aerial photograph of the town, taken around 1940.

“It shows every single thing in town, before everything started being torn down,” Rumley said. “The churches, the hotel, the schools, it’s all there. That’s pretty exciting.”

In addition to photographs, the museum’s collection includes video and audio interviews with former mill workers as well as movies that were taken by a photographer from a portrait studio in Lexington. The photographer, in search of new sources of revenue during the Depression, went from town to town, shooting footage of community life. The films would be shown at local theaters, giving residents a chance to buy a ticket and see their lives on the big screen.

In Cooleemee, Rumley said, the photographer captured footage of shift changes at the mill, as well as people just sitting on their porches and going about their daily business. “You really get a sense of community life,” she said.

The mill in Cooleemee opened in 1900 and closed in 1969. “When the mill closed, the community kept going,” Rumley said.

The town continued to evolve. Many of its current residents didn’t grow up here and didn’t experience life in a working mill town. In 1994, a year before the center opened, 74 percent of Cooleemee’s population had grown up in the town. “Now that number is down to 40 percent,” Rumley said.

She said she hopes that the new display will be able to help newer residents understand how the mill operated.

“We hope to show more of the process of what went on in the mill,” Rumley said. “The cutting of the cloth, the spinning and weaving.”

The Textile Heritage Center and the Mill House Museum receive about 3,000 visitors a year combined. “We get a lot of seniors groups and church groups coming through,” Rumley said.

The association also takes its programs into the schools, offering lessons and excursions for each grade level so that students learn about the area’s heritage. “The whole town becomes our classroom,” Rumley said.

The association received a donation of $1,000 from Davie County’s tourism division for its renovations at the Textile Heritage Center, which it is trying to match with private donations.

There’s no set budget for the project, Rumley said. “We are really doing it by our bootstraps.”

Rumley’s husband, Jim, a textile historian, has been digitizing the museum’s photos. And two retired teachers, Susan Wall and Donna Henderson, have been working on the exhibit, along with the Rumleys and artist Bonnie Byerly.

Jim Rumley said that such mill towns as Cooleemee helped shape the South that emerged during the region’s industrial revolution.

“Nobody offered us a Marshall Plan after the Civil War,” he said. “When we turned to textiles, our people had expectations it would be based on mutual benefit. This shaped these places, operations and values.”

No matter what is eventually selected for the new exhibition, “the story line will remain the same,” Lynn Rumley said. “We’re still telling the saga of people who moved here from farms to build a new life in the mill village.”