Wineka: Cooleemee not as sleepy as it looks

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2011

COOLEEMEE — From the driver’s seat of her Ford pickup, Lynn Rumley ticks off the status of every house she passes.
Rental, good tenants.
Fixing it up.
Mayor Rumley appreciates the character of these old mill houses in Cooleemee. They are woven into the fabric of a tiny community of 970 people and 420 homes — a hidden jewel rising up from the South Yadkin River.
“There’s Bob,” she says, nodding toward a man in front of his home. “He’s a veteran of Korea and Vietnam.”
This isn’t Cooleemee’s heyday by any stretch of the imagination. Over 100-plus years, it has experienced the rise and thud shared by countless rural mill villages in the South.
In the boom times, all commerce and social activities revolved around Erwin Mills. The company provided the paychecks, housing, public services and recreation.
And there was plenty of recreation. Cooleemee offered its residents an Olympic-sized swimming pool — the best in three counties. Ball teams flourished, and the Cooleemee Journal reported on every game. Erwin Mills turned its general manager’s home, the Zachary-Holt House, into a community rec center.
A lot of teens probably experienced their first kiss somewhere on these grounds, Rumley says from the Zachary-Holt House’s expansive front porch.
But by 1969, Burlington Mills had closed the plant — part of the industry’s consolidation moves of the day. Now, a handful of people working for the Stokes County Yarn Co. use the site for offices and warehouse space.
The steady factory jobs are long gone. A good chunk of Cooleemee’s old housing stock is empty or deteriorating. Some of its important historic buildings were lost when Burlington demolished the Old Square business district along Main Street in 1963.
The Zachary-Holt House is now the Textile Heritage Center, directed by Rumley.
Still, the town has plenty of positives: friendly people, eight churches within the town’s boundaries (12, if you go a mile farther), a solid elementary school, charming homes, a historic mill building, an active preservation group and, of course, the Bullhole.
The old South Yadkin River swimming hole has become a quite respectable and picturesque recreational spot, carrying the fancy name of RiverPark at Cooleemee Falls.
Visit Rumley for a morning or afternoon, and you’ll also learn that Cooleemee has a vision — and it’s not just smiley faces stamped on flip-chart ideas.
“We want something that works,” says Rumley, who is leading an 11-member task force looking at the town’s future. “We can figure out how to make this an economic engine.”
Only up and running since March, the task force already is developing a “Check Out Cooleemee” brochure, a 5- to 7-minute video sales pitch for the town and hand-sewn “Welcome to Cooleemee” packets for potential homebuyers.
Next month, the town will be host for a “Realtors’ Tea,” which will be held on the lawn of the Zachary-Holt House.
At the tea, complete with silver, linen and china, Cooleemee volunteers will be telling area real estate agents “what an amazing community this is,” Rumley says.
Meanwhile, a volunteer Cooleemee sales team is being recruited to give personal guided tours of the community to prospective homebuyers.
“We aim to recruit our own neighbors,” Rumley says.
Recent census data shows Cooleemee evenly divided among children, young adults, middle-aged adults and senior citizens. It has a good civic core, built on veterans organizations, clubs, school supporters and the fire department.
Rumley says there’s a mix of professionals who commute elsewhere, blue collar workers and small business owners. The town has had “doctors up the wazoo,” she says, but never an attorney.
“We need one,” she adds.
But the marketing of Cooleemee only scratches the surface of what’s going on. The town has hired a part-time code enforcement officer, instead of farming out those duties to a private firm in Kannapolis.
Rumley envisions the town and its citizens tackling housing problems block by block. Her husband, Jim, recently mapped 40 vacant properties within the town limits and at least 25 for sale.
Rumley wants to put pressure, for example, on absentee landlords “who don’t give a hoot.” But she also wants newcomers to see how welcoming Cooleemee can be and witness the social capital the town has in abundance.
A tradition that’s coming back to Cooleemee is “pounding.”
Bruce and Danielle Pennington were “pounded” after they moved to Cooleemee from Lexington last November.
Twenty people showed up at their house for the pounding, bringing things such as a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, canned goods and bags of other groceries. There was even a pound cake — the best she has ever had, Danielle says.
The Penningtons find the town safe and walkable, often strolling down to the ice cream shop in the small shopping center off N.C. 801.
“We love it,” Bruce says. “The neighborhood is so friendly.”
The town has reactivated its recreation program by hiring Sandra Ferrell and Jessica Lagle as co-directors. Improvements to the town’s two tennis courts are in the works. A church is offering its grounds for a soccer field.
Town officials also have to decide the fate of the 1949 swimming pool, which has been closed down for several years.
Recent recreational successes have included the Grimes Parker Invictus basketball camp, which attracted 50 participants last summer and will be repeated in June. The town also had a Family Fun Day April 2. In May, a fish fry and run are scheduled on separate dates to raise funds toward the basketball camp.
The Textile Heritage Center will be selling 1,000 raffle tickets at $100 each, and the winner receives the J.C. Sell/Cooleemee Journal property at Joyner and Marginal streets. The winning ticket holder (or a close relative) must agree to live in the house for at least five years. Meanwhile, the raffle allows the current owner to sell the property and the leftover profit goes to the center.
“It’s working all over the country,” Rumley says, noting that nonprofits are allowed to conduct these types of property raffles twice a year.
Two major initiatives are on the horizon for Cooleemee.
The first involves buying an additional 7.9 acres for RiverPark to provide for a bridge and “grand entrance” on the Cooleemee side of the river. Plans also call for a river outfitters’ store to supply items such as tubes, canoes and rafts.
It will take another fund-raising campaign, but “we have a good track record,” Rumley says.
Cooleemee thinks it also has found the right person — Mac Jordan of Alamance County — to redevelop the 110-year-old mill property near the South Yadkin. The Cooleemee Historical Association is sponsoring a field trip to the Jordan-developed Saxapahaw Rivermill & Village on May 28.
“This is exactly the kind of development we want,” Rumley says.
The historical association, Davie County Economic Development Commission and town of Cooleemee are guiding it forward. It would be a eight- to 10-year project, and the initial design phase will require $325,000 before its investor ready.
“The town will never own it,” Rumley stresses.
Cooleemee is full of charm and history — from its small “Holler Park” with five natural springs to its Fire Fighters Museum, an old hydrant house billed as the state’s smallest museum.
Every grade at Cooleemee Elementary visits the Textile Heritage Center annually to learn a new aspect of the town’s history. Part of the Cooleemee tradition has always been a simple philosophy, which is still alive and well.
“If I help you, you help me,” Rumley says.
Cooleemee tidbits
The town sits on the northeast bank of the South Yadkin River in the southern portion of Davie County, just across the river from Rowan County. N.C. 801 runs through it. Cooleemee is approximately 6 miles from Mocksville, 13 miles from Salisbury and 25 miles west of Winston-Salem.
Where did the name come from?
One legend says an Indian brave bent down on a hot day next to the river, cupped his hands and brought water to his lips. He exclaimed, “Cool-ee-me.” Hard history tells us that Jesse Pearson brought the name here. He was the son of a Revolutionary War militia captain, Richmond Pearson. During the War of 1812 most Creek Indians sided with the British. Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated them. In 1814, the “Kulami” village of Creeks (near present-day Montgomery, Ala.) surrendered to him. The name means “where the white oaks grow,” and Pearson was so intrigued by this, he came home to name his plantation on the big Yadkin River, “Cooleemee.”
The town owes its name to the old plantation, though the latter is located a good distance away in eastern Davie County off U.S. 64.
When was Cooleemee founded?
In an area that was once a plantation called “The Shoals Farm,” land purchases by the Cooleemee Water Power & Manufacturing Company began in 1898. This was a front company for the Dukes of Durham (American Tobacco Trust) who had already put some of their fortunes into a chain named Erwin Mills, headquartered in Durham. One of the state’s largest full “cotton-to-cloth” textile mills was built here along with more than 300 mill houses, a downtown square and a hotel overlooking the river.
The mill closed in 1969. In 1985, Cooleemee became an incorporated municipality. It celebrated a centennial in 1998.
Source: Town of Cooleemee
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@