An amazing building, a heartbreaking loss

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 18, 2013

SALISBURY — Grimes Mill was like family — a favorite uncle.

That’s why it’s so hard to accept its fiery demise. For more than a century, the mill dependably anchored its Church Street hill next to the railroad tracks.

Even though you may never have stepped inside the place and marveled at all the chutes, belts, silos, rollers, ladders, elevators and pulleys, you knew they were there — and you appreciated the five-story hulk of a building held an engineering wonder.

The architecture alone made Grimes Mill one of Salisbury’s most recognizable structures, surely in the Top 10, maybe Top 5.

“A truly amazing building,” said Brian Davis, executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation. “It’s a heartbreak when you lose something, and you know you’re not going to get it back.”

Doug Black, head of the foundation’s property committee, recognized it, too. The old roller mill is “absolutely irreplaceable,” he said. It’s one of the big reasons the foundation, which owned Grimes Mill, did not insure the property.

If it were gone — as it is now — how would you build it back, especially the elaborate guts of an 1896 roller mill?

A second reason for not insuring Grimes Mill was the astronomical cost associated with protecting a structure so vulnerable to fire. The dust, the old growth lumber inside and the sheer size of the building — it had 14 different roofs and countless windows — made the cost prohibitive to the foundation.

Many Salisburians witnessed firsthand Wednesday night how the mill’s weakness against fire played out.

“That thing went up like a Roman candle,” Black noted. “I mean, 30 minutes, and it was fully involved end to end.”

Davis said the foundation had a mutual understanding with the Fire Department that if a significant fire ever occurred at Grimes Mill, firefighters would not be sent in and endangered.

Grimes Mill’s interesting Second Empire architectural style was a holdover from Reconstruction days in the South. So it was rare in that regard.

Combine that with the insides, and it became a special time capsule speaking to the industrial — and agricultural — heritage of the region.

Ed Clement, Salisbury’s notable preservationist, described it Thursday as an “amazing Tinker Toy interior.”

“The sudden loss of a historical landmark is a blow to the community,” said Clement, who had negotiated on the foundation’s behalf for the mill’s purchase 30 years ago. “It’s a loss of a part of its past, but just importantly, because it’s a loss of a piece of the future.”

Clement noted the foundation’s conscious efforts to preserve industrial, business and residential components of the city’s past, and Grimes Mill and the depot are prime examples on the industrial side.

The foundation had embarked on big plans for the mill, and a volunteer team headed by Black and site manager Jim Carli were working daily toward new goals, such as getting some of the machinery working again.

Black said his volunteers had 1,800 hours invested in cleaning, repairing, preserving old wood, replacing windows and frames and checking wiring.

A lot of knuckles had been scraped and knees were aching from all the cleaning and vacuuming, Black said. “We vacuumed the hell out of that place,” he added.

Under the leadership of Joan Rusher and others, a thrift shop also had been opened at the mill, and its proceeds were paying for items such as educational equipment and print displays.

All the work was in advance of the mill’s reopening for tours in March. Black said a whole educational package was coming together for school children, including the purchase of hand-operated grinding equipment to demonstrate some of the processes through different eras.

Black’s said Rowan County had about 48 grist mills in 1870, but the number had dwindled to five by 1910 when the roller mill technology had taken hold.

Until the fire, Grimes Mill and the China Grove Roller Mill Museum were the only roller mills left in Rowan County, and they were among only a few still remaining in North Carolina, Black said.

The mill was named for the Grimes family, which operated the mill from 1906 to 1963.

North Side Roller Mills Co. built the original building in 1896, and the Grimes family purchased the plant after North Side went bankrupt in 1906. The biggest addition to the mill, including 12 giant storage bins, came in 1912.

The milling operation converted from steam to electricity in the 1920s.

At its peak production in the 1930s, Grimes Mill produced about 100 barrels of flour a day. Local farmers brought their wheat and other grains to the mill, and other shipments came in by rail, explaining why Grimes Mill hovered over the tracks.

John Grimes closed the roller mill in March 1963, and Robert D. Davis bought it three months later. He continued to make family flour and custom grind grains. He also added a retail store.

The foundation bought the property in 1982 for $60,000.

Clement credited John Robinson, a Salisbury city councilman at the time, for alerting him to the mill’s availability.

Clement said the agreement with the seller was simple: “Walk out, give us the key and leave everything just as it is.”

The foundation used the mill for many purposes over the years. It was, for example home to Attic, Basement and Closet (ABC) sales, Casino Night fundraisers, OctoberTour stops and tours.

“The foundation tried to be a good steward of this property,” Clement said. “It wasn’t easy or inexpensive.”

Ron Thomas, who grew up on a Dukeville farm where he still lives, remembers traveling to Grimes Mill with his father to take loads of corn, barley and hay to sell or to be ground up for cow feed back home.

“I was just a little old fella,” said Thomas, now 77.

Over all the trips, he came to make friends with “Shorty,” an employee at the mill, and recalls even growing an extra watermelon at the farm to share with Shorty.

“As I got older, I would drive our tractor and wagon to the mill, a seven-mile trip,” Thomas said. “Of course, there wasn’t much traffic. I would pull right up there.”

Not unlike others, Thomas thought Grimes Mill had become a museum. He said he hates that fire consumed it Wednesday night.

“That’s a lot of good memories gone right there,” Thomas said.

If the fire hadn’t happened, Black would have been working on reglazing windows at the mill Thursday and today.

Volunteers had been replacing windows in the south cupola, and Black guessed there were six more to go.

The fire sent everyone with the foundation into shock first, followed by a crisis management mode.

Black said he couldn’t sleep after the fire.

“There’s no question we lost a part of the culture of Salisbury, Clement added.

Some foundation officials met at 3 p.m. Thursday to discuss the fire and what would happen next. The foundation will face, for one, the expense of clearing the site.

A full board of trustees meeting followed at 5 p.m.

Clement, ever the optimist, sounded a note of resolve.

“This is not the time for hand-wringing or a sad interlude or a time to be deterred,” he told the Post. “It is time for an active recommitment to our city’s notable effort to preserve its important historical architecture and older neighborhoods.

“We must move resolutely forward to protect and enhance the quality of living of our very special place for the benefit of this and future generations.”

It’s a fitting eulogy for Uncle Grimes.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or