RANDOLPH COUNTY, N.C. (WGHP) — It can be tough to reinvent yourself, especially for a small North Carolina community. But Franklinville is working to do just that.
That part of Randolph County just west of Ramseur has a long and proud history. It was here in the early 1770s that one of the first grist mills was built. By the 1830s, the state’s first cotton mills were built.
Mac Whatley is the president of the Randolph Heritage Conservancy and has spent several stints as Franklinville’s mayor. As he walks around the spot near the Deep River – the water the locals harnessed all those years ago to power the mills – he remembers where things stood.
“Fifty feet away was the mill that was built to grind wheat and corn. A grist mill,” Whatley said. “This mill…burned down in 1986.”
What that fire left behind is the nearly indestructible six towering silos that stored grain. They are a relic of the Cold War.
“They built this in 1957 – all six of these – to be bombproof…because it was a civil defense grant that they got because the thinking was if there was a nuclear attack, people would still need flour and a storage capacity, so each one of those silos is 50,000 bushels of wheat or corn, and there were another six of them right over here. So this mill had that capacity to store about a quarter of a million bushels of wheat and corn,” Whatley said.
But they haven’t been used for decades. Franklinville and the communities nearby were known for two things: Dainty Biscuit Flour (from the grist mill) and textiles which began their decline in this area long before the 1994 NAFTA bill passed by Congress and then signed by President Bill Clinton.
“Chinese competition…started the downside, and a lot of the mills like this had been going for years with relatively antique equipment. And they were still doing the job…just because the equipment was old doesn’t mean that it was bad quality. In fact, older equipment often makes better quality fabric,” said Whatley of the looms that could only do 120 picks per minute versus the ones that came along in the 1980s that could do 1,200 picks. A pick is a slide of the loom from one side to the other as it weaves the fabric.
The demise of those businesses – grain and textiles – meant Franklinville lost its identity.
“There were two signature products made here: you made Dainty Biscuit flour corn meal, and you made flannel. When they closed, they were making pajama flannel and printed it with the little fire engines on it for kids’ pajamas. That’s what Franklinville was known for,” Whatley said.
But it will be remembered because the Franklinville area will be the home of the state’s newest museum: the North Carolina Textile Museum which hopes to open in 2023, largely funded by the state. To help create excitement, Whatley had the idea of turning the old silos into art pieces and hired former Smithsonian Institute art project manager Stephanie Markgraf to do that work.
“I’m used to dealing with airplanes and spacecraft,” said Markgraf, who worked for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. “I thought (this project was) interesting. I knew of silo art in the Midwest. I’ve never heard of it here…so I was intrigued. I was not afraid of the scale and the size or anything. It all came down to was there community support and a budget.”
Whatley made sure she had enough of both, so Markgraf went to work, trying to use what was important in the area to put on three massive banners she hung on the silos.
“What does everyone recognize? What is iconic to the area? What is colorful?” said Markgraf about how she designed the project. “I wanted to get the history of the textile industry here.”
See the art and learn what happened to the Dainty Biscuits and the textile industry in that area in this edition of the Buckley Report.