Hugh Fisher column: Seeking memories of Grimes Mill

  • Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:08 a.m.
This ceramic angel survived the Jan. 16 fire that destroyed the historic roller mill.
This ceramic angel survived the Jan. 16 fire that destroyed the historic roller mill.

’ll never forget the night of Jan. 16, the night Grimes Mill burned down.

It was happenstance that I was the reporter who responded to the fire. I wasn’t on call that night, but just happened to be in town when the fire call went out, saying the century-old mill was in flames.

Minutes later, I arrived downtown to find the landmark engulfed.

Jogging with the camera around my neck down the railroad tracks, I came across a couple of onlookers. One asked me what was happening.

“You’re seeing history burning down,” I said.

Not to be dramatic, but it was the truth.

When the roller mill, owned since 1982 by the Historic Salisbury Foundation, caught fire, irreplaceable artifacts were lost.

And I felt more loss than many that night, because I had actually been inside the mill, and knew much of its history.

In October, I volunteered as a docent during the OctoberTour fundraiser.

With Doug Black and Jim Carli, who spent many, many days restoring the mill, I got to talk through the building and learn about its ingenious technology.

How the wooden chutes, leather conveyor belts and zinc-plated screws moved grain throughout the building.

How the grain was ground by successively finer rollers until feed or flour was ready to bag and ship.

I can still picture it very clearly from the hours I spent there, and the tours I led.

I had hoped to return and lead more tours later this year, once the mill reopened for school groups and others.

That wasn’t to be, of course. Grimes Mill is gone, and I’ll never get to walk through those hallways among history again.

Still, not everything has vanished.

There are still artifacts being discovered amid the ruins.

This past Saturday, a month to the day that the mill burned down, I was a guest of Doug and Leslie Black at their Mitchell Avenue home.

They asked me there, along with other Historic Salisbury Foundation volunteers, to see if I could help with their newest project: collecting memories of Grimes Mill for a book the foundation hopes to publish this year.

While we sat around the table with coffee and dessert, I asked Doug Black what crews had been able to salvage from the ruins.

A minute later, they brought out an angel.

A small, ceramic figurine — one of the items that the foundation had been selling to raise money for improvements at Grimes Mill and elsewhere.

“She was washed downstream,” Doug Black said, by the tens of thousands of gallons of water firefighters poured on the blaze to douse it.

It’s possible that some other historic items might have survived the heat of the blaze, and will be recovered in the weeks ahead.

Others will gather the tin and the timbers, the bricks and the broken stone, for recycling or reuse.

But what we cannot see are the memories.

That’s where we need more “angels” to step forward.

The ones who might have snapped a photo during OctoberTour.

Or, whose parents or grandparents brought grain to the mill, or who bought feed there for their livestock.

The ones whose families baked bread from Grimes Mill flour.

Or, those who know facts about the days when it was the McCanless Mill.

We need to find the memories and the memorabilia that might have “washed downstream” through the years, and bring those back to the light.

Or else, there won’t be much left to show my children’s generation of an agricultural past that is ever more being lost to time.

I was there to see Grimes Mill in the last months it stood, and I’m glad to contribute my few memories and impressions to this project.

But what I’ll enjoy more will be to read your stories when they’re printed.

That’s when I’ll feel like I can walk back through those doors again, if only in spirit.

• • •

To submit material for the project via email, send to: Or, send your submissions to: Grimes Mill Memories Project, PO Box 4221, Salisbury, NC 28145. Please include your name and contact information, and whether you would like the material returned to you.

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