China Grove Roller Mill preserving history of milling, town

  • Posted: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 12:52 a.m.
    UPDATED: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 12:58 a.m.
The Historical Society of South Rowan owns and operates the China Grove Roller Mill Museum in the historic roller mill.  All of the equipment is still in place in the mill for visitors to view.  photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post
The Historical Society of South Rowan owns and operates the China Grove Roller Mill Museum in the historic roller mill. All of the equipment is still in place in the mill for visitors to view. photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post

CHINA GROVE — Roller mills provided North Carolinians with bread flour and livestock feed for generations.

But today, the China Grove Roller Mill is one of the last of its kind: a 19th century mill, converted into a museum that collects both local history and the history of milling.

Sunday, the mill held its monthly open house — a chance for locals to come inside and see the milling machines and the intricate workings of the mill.

Although it was rainy outside, a small crowd of families dropped in throughout the afternoon.

In celebration of spring, kids painted flowerpots, then planted begonias.

Inside, guests had cookies and lemonade and walked through the rooms where, alongside the machinery and tools, memorabilia from China Grove’s past is gathered.

The seats and projector from China Grove’s downtown movie theater are on the third floor, as are photos from the movie house’s heyday.

On the first floor, a display case holds doctors’ bags from the days when physicians who made house calls were the norm. Nearby is a fluoroscope, formerly used for making X-rays.

There are radios, typewriters, school yearbooks and more on the shelves nearby.

“It’s a history of China Grove, as well as of the roller mill,” said Judy Haire of the Historical Society of Southern Rowan. “Everything that’s here came from a home or business in the South Rowan area.”

Barbara Doby, president of the Historical Society of South Rowan, was a key player in the effort to buy the mill and preserve it.

When the mill closed in 1995, a century after it opened, Doby said she knew it was something that needed to be kept for future generations.

“We’re very pleased to tell you that everything has been preserved,” said Doby, standing in the office of the China Grove Roller Mill Museum.

“The only thing that we don’t have … is a 14-inch belt,” Doby said.

That “mother” belt, she said, would drive the machinery and start the mill working again.

Of course, that’s impossible to do. Safety concerns and federal regulations would keep that from happening, she said.

Instead, Doby said, the Historical Society’s goal is “to keep it as it is, and to teach students about where flour come from.

That’s proving to be a challenge.

At present, Doby said, most local schools are not taking the opportunity to bring children to the roller mill.

“We don’t understand why they don’t come here, when they go on field trips to other farms and places,” Doby said.

“We’re working on being able to have the schoolchildren allowed to come here,” Haire said.

When groups of children do come to visit, Doby said, they emphasize the connections between food and farming.

They trace how the loaves of bread, biscuits and cookies that kids love start out as grain, using visual aids and photos.

“We’ve got stalks of wheat out there ... and we tell them how all of those pizzas and things come from that grain of wheat,” Haire said.

For the monthly open houses, Haire said, “we try to do some kind of unique display, or have a special speaker or storyteller.”

Next month, she said, because June is a traditional month for weddings, there will be a display of wedding dresses.

Already, some samples of homemade clothing from decades ago are hanging on the walls, and displayed on mannequins, throughout the museum.

This is the third year the museum will be presenting a display of wedding dresses, Haire said.

“Sometimes, we’ll have two or three generations (visiting), mother, daughter and grandmother,” Haire said. “It brings in a lot of people,” Doby said.

The museum currently offers tours to the public by appointment, as well as an open house on the second Sunday of the month, from 2 to 4 p.m., April through November.

This month’s open house was held a week early due to the fact that this coming Sunday is Mother’s Day.

Doby said members are discussing whether another day would allow the museum to reach more potential visitors.

Overshadowing other concerns is the fact that the China Grove Roller Mill Museum is one of a relative few remaining examples of how millers plied their trade.

When Rowan’s other surviving roller mill, Grimes Mill in Salisbury, burned to the ground on Jan. 16, Doby said “it was a wake-up call” to the Historical Society board.

When Haire heard about the fire, “I thought, what a terrible loss. But I immediately thought, it could have been China Grove Roller Mill,” she said.

Doby said steps are being taken to make sure the mill is secure, but declined to discuss the particulars for the record.

However, she said that the Grimes Mill fire had also prompted the Historical Society to redouble efforts at cataloging and preserving history.

Recently, she said, the museum began shooting a video that documents the operations and history of the mill.

Doing so will also help preserve memories of China Grove in advance of the town’s 125th anniversary celebration in 2014, Doby said.

At Sunday’s open house, at least one resident with ties to the community shared the mill with the next generation.

Emily Hilton Goforth, who now lives in northern Iredell County, grew up in China Grove.

She brought daughters Lily and Bryony to visit the mill on Sunday.

“My mama’s family is 11 generations in Rowan County, in south Rowan,” Goforth said.

“This is the first time I’ve been to the Roller Mill,” Goforth said, but added that she recalls spending time at the Historical Society’s former museum location, a short distance away.

As they walked upstairs and looked at the milling machinery, Goforth asked Lily, 7, about what she thought of the mill.

“I really like it,” Lily said — especially the “trap doors” where millers would dump grain or check on machinery.

“Do you think it would have been easy or hard to work here?” Emily asked her daughter.

“Hard. There are so many machines,” Lily said.

For Doby, it’s hard to imagine China Grove without the mill.

“I call it holy ground,” Doby said, “because God’s allowed it to stand here.”

She shows where some of the interior wood beams are charred from a fire that started in the mill years before, but didn’t catch.

The reason she believes the mill is still standing is the history that’s collected there.

From the “weather board,” where decades of snowfalls and weather facts are penciled, to the equations and calculations written on boards above the machines themselves, Doby said, there’s much in the mill that’s irreplaceable.

“We kept everything where we found it,” Doby said, even putting tools back out in the places they had been left in 1995 when the mill ceased operating.

“We would really like to be able to promote the mill and educate people,” Haire said.

“That’s why we’re trying to do a video, and record more history.”

“It’s an engineering marvel, the way these chutes go from floor to floor, from machine to machine,” Doby said.

She said she wishes she could see into the minds of the people who built the roller mill, and talk to them about how the place was made.

“I find something new every time I come here,” Doby said.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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