Brian Davis: On the loss of Grimes Mill

  • Posted: Monday, January 21, 2013 6:58 p.m.

The outpouring of condolences from the community over the recent loss of Grimes Mill has been overwhelming. No matter if you support historic preservation or not, the loss of the mill in a five-alarm fire last week left sadness in the heart of many, like the loss of a familiar friend.

Historic Salisbury Foundation is grateful to the emergency responders, investigators and city service crews who helped during and following the fire. Because of their diligence, there was no injury, loss of life or damage to surrounding properties.

Grimes Mill was a relic of the past – a time capsule. It was not difficult to imagine that the last mill worker had just left their station and would be back soon. Architecturally, Grimes Mill was an interesting complex of additions to the original 1896 brick building with granite quoins at each corner. Built in the Second Empire style, with a Mansard roof of pressed metal shingles, it was an exotic and worldly statement that an architectural style which originated in France could make it to Salisbury, N.C. To investors, customers and the rest of the city, it symbolized progress and prosperity as they approached the turn of the 20th century and the greater things to come.

To the community, Grimes Mill was a landmark. It was a member of that group of buildings that defines Salisbury and distinguishes it from any other town in the country. Every town has a landmark or two, which defines a sense of place. Grimes Mill was one of ours. Even the railroad conductors who ease along the tracks next to the mill shake their head in bewilderment that something that’s always been there, now is no longer.

Grimes Mill was nostalgia and respect for the people who built it and worked there for 85 years. It was a connection to the farmers who brought their crops there and to the families whose daily sustenance included flour and corn meal processed at the roller mill. It was a physical reminder of visits to the mill with their parents or grandparents — trips to get flour, feed for livestock or provisions at the store — or just driving past it on the edge of downtown.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours were spent cleaning, repairing and maintaining Grimes Mill over the past 30 years. Work to install educational displays was concluding, and plans were to open the first floor of the mill for educational tours in just six weeks. Students would get a chance to understand the journey of grain from the field to the table and to grind corn using various small-scale methods.

To Historic Salisbury Foundation, Grimes Mill helped guide the organization through the difficult years of adolescence. Purchased 10 years after the Hall House, it was a place to educate the community about the county’s agricultural and industrial past. It was a place to hold fundraisers like Casino Night or the Attic, Basement, Closet (ABC) Sale, which brought money to maintain sites and expand its service to the community.

It brought balance to the mission of saving historic structures and showed that buildings were worth saving, even if they were not former houses of the rich and famous. The character of a community is defined by buildings and people of different styles, interests and purposes — and all should be protected and represented in order to have an accurate depiction of the past. Historic preservation is about protecting a connection to a community’s entire past — good or bad, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do you part.

Goodbye, old friend.
Brian M. Davis is executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation.

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