Telling Stories, Connecting Communities

Author: Greg Bell

Strategic Planning with the Textile Heritage Trail

Author: Greg Bell

 When you join a project that has been going on as long as the Textile Heritage Trail, it can feel a little overwhelming. So many people’s energy and passion have gone into making this site what it is today, and at the beginning, I did not know exactly how to start getting involved myself. But when I was tasked with working with stakeholders this semester as part of our ongoing strategic planning, I knew this would be a great opportunity for me to really see how much this project means to people from all of our featured communities. As a result of the conversations I had this semester, I now feel like I’m right in the middle of the work being done. Our stakeholders’ passion is infectious, and their excitement about sharing what they are planning as well as ideas for how we at the Textile Heritage Trail can help them achieve their goals helped me understand how much the work we do here matters. 

Image of E-Z Mill Workers
E-Z Mill workers. Photo courtesy: Bartow History Museum

Working with stakeholders is an important part of any kind of public history project. Their input and expectations can be one of the most important elements that go into making a project succeed or fail. When I was first told that I would be responsible for speaking with our stakeholders this semester to find out what exactly they would like to see from the Textile Heritage trail going forward, I knew this was a major part of our strategic planning process. We had already been soliciting feedback from users on our website and had begun to make changes based on what we had heard, but this was going to be a completely different experience. I was admittedly nervous when I made my first phone call. What if I messed up a question, or misrepresented something one of my contacts asked? What if they didn’t want to talk to me?

As soon as I introduced myself, I realized that those were unwarranted fears. Our stakeholders were so excited to talk with me about what they were doing in their communities to interpret their textile histories and were eager to hear what ideas we had to support them. Everyone was kind and helpful, and almost immediately I began looking forward to making my calls. Altogether, I spoke with over 90 people who are involved in textile history, from librarians and museum professionals to city managers to tourism directors and chamber of commerce executives. They took place over the phone, over Zoom, and in a few cases through email. There was one of these conversations that were especially meaningful for me because I got to speak with the stakeholders in person. 

A view of the Atco/Goodyear mill site and water tower. Photograph by Greg Bell

    When I called Trey Gaines, the director of the Bartow History Museum, to set up a time to talk, I knew he would have a lot of meaningful input. Trey and I have known each other for a long time since I first interned at the museum while getting my bachelor’s degree. When he asked if I wanted to come and talk in person, I decided to make a day out of the trip. I arrived in Cartersville at 9:00 and met with Trey Gaines and Sandy Moore. We spoke at length about how the museum interprets the textile history of Bartow County, and I got wonderful feedback from Trey and Sandy about what we at the Trail could do to better support them in the future. As we were wrapping up, I asked what sites I should try to visit before I left Cartersville, and Trey and Sandy gave me directions to two of the old mill sites. 

Aerial view of Goodyear and Mill Village
Goodyear and mill village aerial view. Photo courtesy: Bartow History Museum

 I left the Bartow History Museum and headed towards the first mill site Trey had told me about, ATCO & Goodyear. I arrived and looked around for a while, and then drove through the nearby mill village Sandy had told me about. The mill site itself is mostly gone, and the village’s homes are now just private residences, but being there in person I was able to picture what this site must’ve looked like while still operational. I then drove over the other mill site Trey had mentioned, the former E-Z Mill. Today, it is in operation as the Spring City Technology park, so I was not able to get an up-close look, but from the perimeter I could see the original building. Finally, before leaving town, I pulled up our Cartersville community page from the Textile Heritage Trail site, and used our StoryMap to navigate to other places of interest. It felt like I had stepped out of the role of textile history interpreter, and was instead just an enthusiast using our site for its intended purpose. From this point of view, I thought about the ideas I had discussed with Trey and Sandy, and I couldn’t help but get excited all over again. 

As a result of the conversations like I had with Trey and Sandy, the Textile Heritage Team is planning on starting some exciting new work in the coming semesters. We’ve already made changes to our website, and new community pages are on their way soon. I’m grateful to be a part of the process and have enjoyed hearing the passion and joy other people have in interpreting these stories, because in the process it became my joy, too. I hope that as we continue in our strategic planning and determine what the Textile Heritage Trail will look like going forward, you are taken in by that passion too. I, for one, can’t wait to see what we do next. 

My Textile Connections

Author: Greg Bell

Before I began working on the Textile Heritage Trail, I had never really considered how the textile industry had impacted my life. When I was first asked to write a blog post about my experience with textiles, I worried that I would not have much to contribute. After all, the era of the mill village is basically over, and the textile industry has changed drastically to meet the demands of the 21st century. Despite growing up in Cartersville, one of the communities on the Textile Heritage Trail, I felt very removed from the stories I have been researching. After giving the topic some thought, however, I realized that my life has been impacted by the textile industry much more than  I assumed. My hope with this blog post is to inspire readers to think about how they have also been affected by our shared textile heritage and to hopefully convince some to share their own stories with us. 

Sweetwater Creek State Park New Manchester Mill Ruins
Sweetwater Creek State Park New Manchester Mill Ruins. Photo courtesy: Kymberli Darling

The first connection I was able to make with the history of the textile industry comes from one of my biggest recreational pastimes- hiking. When I was in high school, I had the pleasure of hiking the trails at Sweetwater State Park for the first time. Since then, it has become one of my “go-to’ hikes whenever I get the chance and is also one of my top recommendations for people looking to hike near Atlanta. Despite the special place the park holds in my heart, I had never given much thought to the history of the area, or to the ruins that can be found during the hikes there. Now, through my research with the Textile Heritage Trail, I know so much more about the story behind this special place. 

Throughout the history of Georgia’s textile industry, mills and factories have been closed for numerous reasons. Some closed due to increased foreign competition, or due to loss of capital. In the case of the New Manchester mill in Lithia Springs, Georgia, the mill was destroyed along with many other manufacturing centers during Sherman’s March to the Sea at the end of the Civil War. One of Sherman’s goals on his way to Savannah was to remove any industry that would enable the Confederacy to continue outfitting their armies. This meant the mills and other manufacturers were often burned, shelled, or otherwise damaged in such a way that repair would be almost impossible. In Lithia Springs, the mill ruins were abandoned and left alone until they were incorporated into Sweetwater State Park. Today, visitors can hike around the ruins, and guided tours led by park rangers actually go inside the ruins. While the mill at Lithia Springs was a short-lived operation, its legacy continues to impact visitors more than 150 years after its destruction. 

Canton Mill Lofts Sign
Canton Mill Lofts. Photo courtesy: Cherokee County Historical Society

These recreational connections go much further than just hiking the ruins of an old mill. Many towns have converted their mills into apartments, shopping centers, or event venues. People throughout West Georgia live, work and play in these repurposed mills, and these places can be the setting for lifelong memories. Additionally, many mill village homes are still standing, and are privately owned residences now. The amenities from these mill villages such as parks, baseball fields, and stores may still exist, either in their original form or in a modified way, and be a part of our everyday lives. 

Aerial view of Goodyear and Mill Village
Goodyear and mill village aerial view. Photo courtesy: Bartow History Museum

This idea that the legacy of a mill carries on long after its doors are closed got me thinking about Cartersville, where I grew up. Cartersville’s textile history is similar to many towns in the region. The first mill in the town was established in 1904, and by the mid-20th century, the textile industry had grown to accommodate multiple facilities and employed large portions of the town. Cartersville families also participated in the chenille trade along U.S. Highway 41, also known as Bedspread Boulevard. By the early 2000s, most of these businesses had closed their doors. But rather than disappearing entirely, the textile industry of the past changed. Now, rather than producing horse collar pads or hosiery, Cartersville’s textile plants produce carpet for Shaw Industries, one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the world. This evolution from a local and regional textile center to a globally relevant one has been huge for Cartersville. Growing up, I had several friends whose parents worked at “the carpet place,” and now many of my friends work there themselves. This is a story that many towns in Northwest Georgia can identify with.

Often, when we think of the textile industry, our minds are filled with images of mill towns, company stores trading in scrip, and individuals working long hours on dangerous machinery. While these images aren’t incorrect, they show us only part of the picture. As we say on our homepage of the Textile Heritage Trail website, the textile industry touches us all. If you’re like me, your connections with the industry may seem faint or tenuous at first glance, but upon further inspection, you find that they actually run much, much deeper. Whether you live in a converted mill apartment, grew up in a mill town yourself, or just hike in the ruins of a mill long gone, you are connected to the textile story of west Georgia. These are your stories, and we would love to hear them.