Published 12:00 am Monday, February 25, 2013

COOLEEMEE — Standing on the first floor of the old Cooleemee cotton mill where he worked 50 years ago, Clarence Spillman looked around at the quiet emptiness.
“It’s like it’s died out,” Spillman said. “You don’t have the noise of the machines.”
Spillman was one of dozens — many former employees or relatives of those who worked in the mill — who turned out Saturday afternoon to see the inside of the once largest employer in Davie County.
Developers and town officials hoped to boost public interest in restoring the structure, which opened in 1901 and shut down in 1969.
The town announced last summer it had been awarded nearly $270,000 in federal, state and local grants to revitalize the 600,000-square-foot mostly brick monstrosity.
The first floor was once a loud rhythmic weaving room, Spillman said. He worked in the third floor spinning department.
His father was his trainer, he said.
“It is different than seeing it when it was operating,” he said. “That was when I was going to high school back in 1953.”
Only the first floor was open to a brief showing Saturday. Groups of about 30 lined up outside where years ago a loud whistle once dictated shift change.
In a separate, newer room of the mill, visitors signed in and browsed through rows of old mill photos and children’s art.
Earlier this month, Cooleemee Mayor Lynn Rumley asked local elementary school students to draw photos and give input on what they thought the former Burlington Mill should be.
The drawings were nothing short of entertaining.
Suggestions ranged from an indoor go-cart track or mega Chick-fil-A to a museum or movie theater.
Earl and Jo Ann Lester were among those viewing the photos inside.
“We wanted to come because I have never been inside the mill,” Jo Ann said, “my husband has but I hadn’t.”
Jo Ann said her grandmother worked in the mill around 1911.
“My grandmother worked here when she was 11 years old. She had to stand on a box,” she said with a laugh. “I’m sure she didn’t tell her true age.”
Crowds of visitors swapped stories about hearing the shift whistle as kids and seeing their parents coming up the Cooleemee streets.
The atmosphere was nostalgic, yet also excited as interest in the mill has grown in recent years.
Town leaders said restaurants, living space and shops are possibilities as developers enter a two-year design phase.
Organizers are gleaning hope from the Saxapahaw RiverMill, which was restored and redesigned into a mill village that offers apartments, restaurants and art and entertainment.
Developers said the restoring process would be similar. Residents said it could bring people back to town.
A hundred years ago, the Cooleemee mill built homes for employees and rented them to workers at 50 cents a room.
“The mill took care of all their needs,” Jo Ann Lester said.
Now Cooleemee residents hope to return the favor.
“It has unbelievable possibilities,” she said.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.