Like memories etched in stone, the fingerprints, paw marks and hastily scribbled signatures embedded in the brickwork offer faint but enduring reminders of an era all but lost to the merciless charge of time and progress.
“What you have here is an old way of building; an old way of seeing,” said Bill Blackwell, as he pressed his fingers to the pitted wall on the second story balcony of the former Weldon Corn Mill Thursday.
The Weldon businessman took on the restoration of the historic mill four years ago and, though it’s taken longer than expected, he said the hard work is finally beginning to pay off. “It’s coming together. It’s been a slow process but we’re trying to make the best decisions for the building that we can.”
Built in 1890, the high production mill was in operation until around 1914. It was the center of a thriving industrial sight located in the area that now encompasses River Falls Park. In addition to the mill, the area once housed a rockfish hatchery, cotton processing plant and numerous machine shops. One of the state’s earliest industrial sites, it also boasted one of the first hydroelectric power plants in the state, a building whose skeletal remains still stand just behind the mill site.
The property was used as a community center off and on until the mid-1960’s, when it fell into disuse. Nearly four decades later, Blackwell “adopted” the site and began the long process of restoring the badly run-down building to its former glory.
During a tour of the site Thursday, Blackwell discussed the challenges of restoring the building and the effort he’s made to be true to its original look and design.
On the first floor, large wooden columns support a series of exposed beams running the length of the ceiling, all part of the buildings original framework, as are the brick walls that have been stripped of mortar to reveal the 19th century craftsmanship underneath. “Each floor has its own character,” stated Blackwell, pointing out that much of the wood has been recycled from the original building, such as the old pine timber used on the first floor, which was salvaged off an upstairs balcony.
The second story features a newly-renovated balcony overlooking River Falls Park and the Roanoke River. Exposed joists and bridging criss-cross the ceiling, highlighting what Blackwell refers to as a “minimalist restoration” approach. “We’ve tried to leave everything we could and be true to the character of the building,” he added. Blackwell pointed out that much of the lumber not recycled from the building itself has come from other existing structures, such as the heart-pine timber used on the second floor, rescued from houses in Tillery recently taken down by the Nature Conservancy.
Ascending the narrow passage to the third floor, Blackwell points out the plaster which has been left on the brick walls, giving the large, open space a rawer, less finished aspect than the floors below. The original ceiling has been removed as well, exposing the rough beams overhead and further heightening the room’s sense of antiquity.
Though many of the rooms are still without basic touches such as lights and electrical outlet covers, Blackwell said he hopes to have the first floor and a portion of the basement open within a month, hopefully coinciding with the grand opening of Riverside Mill just across town.
Though a sense of history clings to the building like the jagged mortar along its walls, Blackwell hopes the site will be a vehicle that helps propel Weldon and the surrounding communities into the 21st century.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from people who would like to rent, but we’re still not sure what it’s going to become. The challenge is to find an economic model to fit these times. You have to be cognizant of where you are, demographically and geographically and how much capital it will take to get it off the ground.”
Blackwell spoke with excitement about the challenge of finding the perfect use for the facility and bringing a much-needed asset to the areas tourism profile.
“When we’re closer to being finished we can change our focus from construction to the operation side and getting it open to the public in some capacity,” he stated, mentioning the possibility of renting the site for weddings or other events. “We also want to take advantage of the anglers in the area through possible retail business. This building has a lot of advantages, being close to the river combined with interest in the Canal Trail.”
Leaning over the second floor railing and scanning the park that once teemed with enterprise, Blackwell seems determined to see the town thrive once again. “The hope is it will spur more interest so we can figure out the best business model for the site. This is a real chance to get some synergy and move this area forward.”