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South Rowan library to host China Grove Roller Mill talk

CHINA GROVE — On Monday, the Rowan Public Library’s South Rowan Regional branch will host a talk about the China Grove Roller Mill, led by Rowan Museum Executive Director Aaron Kepley. The program, the second in South’s North Carolina History series, begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public; all ages are welcome. Meeting room doors will open at 6:30 p.m. the South Rowan branch is located at 920 Kimball Road in China Grove.

Kepley will discuss the importance of agriculture to Rowan County’s economy from the end of reconstruction (about 1877) to the 1950s and how roller mills initially restructured and then became central to new farming communities. Roller mills “became the hub of farmers and the town,” said Kepley.

“The roughly 100 year span I will be talking about saw a revolution in agriculture unmatched by almost any other period in history, and Rowan County was a part of it,” he said.

The China Grove Roller Mill is an artifact of this time, and everyone who drives down Main St. in China Grove passes the town’s historic roller mill.

“The mill is like a crown jewel of China Grove,” said Kepley. “It’s one of the oldest structures, and we have a great working relationship with the Town of China Grove to make sure the town can still use it.”

The Roller Mill’s legacy persists even today.

“There are still plenty of stories about the China Grove Roller Mill and the personalities that would be found around it,” Kepley said.

The building itself evokes interest.

“It is a marvel of engineering,” Kepley said. “And I still don’t know how someone was able to connect all those chutes to keep the flour moving. That’s amazed me since the first time I saw it.”

The South Rowan Historical Society has had the mill accessible and open since 1996. In 2016, the society merged with the Rowan Museum, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. Kepley notes that the museum has worked to “earn our way into trust for the community,” since, in the past, some have seen it as a Salisbury museum. The Rowan Museum wants “to be seen as a repository for community memory, and our community is defined as Rowan County by our name,” said Kepley. This broader view benefits attempts to share the full historical significance of historical sites like the China Grove Roller Mill.

“The Rowan Museum is just updating a few things and using the mill to tell a broader story than focusing on China Grove – just like we do with the Old Stone House, the Utzman-Chambers House, and the Courthouse,” he said. “We’re starting the process of looking at the mill as a county- and regional-wide structure, and the stories we’re getting are telling us it was more than a place to work or a place to buy local flour.”

Though there are many aspects to the China Grove Roller Mill project, Kepley can easily name what he enjoys most: “Learning is always the best part of any project. Researching Rowan County history, conferring with local historians, and seeing how our story lines up with regional and national trends has been a passion from an early age. Sometimes we line up; sometimes we are unique. When it comes to our agricultural story, it pretty much bucks the national trend, and it’s fascinating.”

There’s a lot of local history that is fascinating, and the Roller Mill offers a platform for learning. For example, audiences have enjoyed the baseball exhibit “Batter Up,” curated by the Rowan Museum and hosted by the China Grove Roller Mill.

“(It) has been one of our best so far due to the relationship between the textile mills in South Rowan and baseball. There are still lots of stories and even players who were a huge deal back in the day,” Kepley said.

Future projects for the China Grove Roller Mill include a new exhibit that focuses on the agricultural shifts Kepley will examine in his talk. The exhibit will “put the mill in the context of a larger story than it has traditionally been in,” Kepley explained.

“It’s still going to be China Grove, but how did China Grove adapt and grow to meet the demands of industrializing,” he said.

To learn more about the China Grove Roller Mill, visit rowanmuseum.org and follow @RowanMuseum on Facebook.

The last installment in South’s 2018 N.C. History series will be held on Nov. 26. Richard Eller, CVCC history professor and co-editor of “Polio, Pitchforks, and Perseverance,” will examine the effect of the polio epidemic on post-WWII Catawba County. For more information about South’s programs, visit rowanpubliclibrary.org or call 704-216-7727.

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