Making a home in history: Renovation work in Glencoe mill village makes history livable
A quiet drive a few miles north of downtown Burlington and a quick turn off N.C. Hwy. 62 will leave you feeling like you’ve drifted back in time.
As Glencoe Street twists right, you’re greeted by the former Glencoe cotton mill, a looming brick building on your left, the Textile Heritage Museum directly ahead of you and then rows of simple homes.
The neighborhood is quiet and quaint, with residents meandering along the narrow roads. Porch swings and American flags hang from the small front porches and a quick peek into many of the backyards will reveal old outhouses, chicken coops and workshops.
Loop around onto Hodges Street and you’ll find more of the same. As you circle back toward the mill, you’ll find a variety of brick buildings that were once filled with workers toiling away 11 hours a day, six days a week in the mill complex.
While the Glencoe mill village still appears to hold remnants of the textile boom in Alamance County in the late 1800s, there are now modern families here. Parents leave the village for work, students attend county schools and residents lead a 21st century life inside the façade of local history.
Some, like the Geise family, spend their evenings on renovation projects, still working to bring their 19th century home back to life. Their story is not unique in this area.
After the Glencoe cotton mill closed its doors in 1954, the nearby mill village started to empty. Houses were abandoned and left to deteriorate until, about 30 years ago, preservationists stepped in to bring vibrancy back to the Glencoe Historic Mill Village.
History of Glencoe Mill Village
The Glencoe Mill and mill village were constructed between 1880 and 1882.
The cotton mill was one of several established by the Holt family in Alamance County. They produced cotton cloth, flannels and woven plaids. At the height of its success, the mill supported about 500 people, about half of which lived in the mill village.
“Glencoe was one of the 17 cotton mills which, by 1890, made Alamance County the leading cotton manufacturing center in the state in terms of cotton looms and spindles,” documentation leading up to the mill village’s local historical designation noted.
Because of its isolated location and poor transportation systems at the time, the Holt family built the mill village on a portion of the property which gave employees easier access to and from the worksite.
According to John Guss, supervisor of the Textile Heritage Museum that now occupies the former company shop in the village, the first mill home built was the supervisor’s house in 1880. The house still stands directly across from the mill on Glencoe Street.
In the two years between when construction started and the mill opened in 1882, 48 houses were built in the village as well as a number of additional structures like a company shop, a church and a schoolhouse.
These buildings joined the mill, warehouses, dye house, and several other buildings that make up the mill complex. Additional structures like the Quonset hut, the water tower and more were added many years, some even decades, later.
“They built these communities because down here in the South people had lived on farms. If they had to wait for people to come into work every day, there’s a tendency of people being late because of weather and so on and so on. The idea was to create this mill village and bring them from the outside countryside into a community where they can be here (at) the mill,” Guss explained.
Mill village homes were reserved for employees at the Glencoe mill, so when the mill shut down in 1954, the living situation of the families housed here came into question.
Guss said he’d estimated that occupancy in the village declined in the years following the mill closure, but the area never became a ghost town. Part of what kept residents in the mill village, he said, was the reuse of the mill by Bud Sheppard, who opened a rug and remnant retail store on the site.
In the decades after, occupancy in the Glencoe mill village fluctuated. Some abandoned houses were used for training by local fire departments and were burned to the ground, Guss said. Others fell into disrepair.
As the mill village started to wither, the area became the focus of ghost stories and folklore. One of the most prominent rumors about the mill village was the tale that angry munchkins lived in the abandoned home and would yell, throw things or even shake cars that drove through the village at night. Thus, the mill village earned the nicknames Munchkinville or Munchkinland.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the village started to take a turn for the better when preservationists began noticing the luxury of having such a well-preserved mill village in Alamance County.
The Glencoe Mill Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was designated as a historic landmark by Alamance County in 1997. Also that year, Preservation North Carolina began taking an interest in the mill village, which set the area on its track to rehabilitation.
In 1997, Preservation North Carolina purchased the Glencoe mill village in a bargain sale. After the sale, the preservation-minded nonprofit held an event in the village, inviting architects, designers, landscapers and interested buyers to visit and brainstorm what could become of the area.
At the time, 41 of the original houses still stood and the character of the mill village was still very much intact.
“Preservation North Carolina recognized that this is such a special condition.” said Cathleen Turner, a representative of the nonprofit. “(The mill village) had been recognized as a very intact architecturally and historically significant mill site and mill village. We knew that this was something special, so (we didn’t want) someone going in there just willy nilly redeveloping it. It needed to be something that was more thoughtfully done with respect to how it was.”
The goal was to make the mill village livable for the 21st century, but to preserve the character and turn the village into an Old Salem-style outdoor attraction where visitors can stroll through a piece of history.
The first step was updating the infrastructure of the area, Turner said. Streets were paved, street lights were added, and the nonprofit made sure each property got access to water, sewer, electric and gas connections.
In 2000, the mill village was divided into plots so that individual homes could be purchased and restored and lots where previous homes had been destroyed were also sold for new construction, Turner explained. An HOA was established for the mill village and a set of design guidelines were created to ensure that any new construction or future renovation would preserve the historical character and integrity of the village.
“What these people did and committed to do is nothing short of heroic. We have, fast forward, this beautiful village that is filled with life and vibrancy,” Turner said.
“Creating a space that respects the intact, historic, original character of these buildings and the landscape, as well as allowing for modern living, is very important,” she added.
While Preservation North Carolina worked on selling lots to preservation-minded buyers, Hedgehog Holdings, a Raleigh-based company, purchased the mill complex in the mid-2000s and began restoring it bit by bit.
The warehouses, the dye house and some of the other outlying structures have been restored, Turner said, and the mill building itself is the final step.
Other parcels of land and buildings were sold to the City of Burlington or Alamance County Recreation and Parks to develop parks, trails and the museum.
In 1999, the Burlington officials recognized the mill village as an historic district.
“Much of the mill housing is deteriorating and one or two of the houses are beyond saving. Most of the houses have rotted sills. Many of the unoccupied houses are missing porches and are plagued by water damage. Few houses … with the exception of the mill superintendent’s house have indoor plumbing. Many houses, particularly on the back street, may never have had electricity. However, even though there is deterioration, almost all of the mill houses can be rehabilitated,” noted a report from the local historical designation process in 1999.
A drive through the Glencoe mill village today tells a very different story, largely in part to the homeowners who have worked tirelessly to revive their homes and the overall neighborhood.
“It’d be very interesting to see what would have happened to Glencoe if Preservation North Carolina hadn’t come in and grabbed it up,” Guss said.
To date, 46 houses stand in the mill village, 39 of which are restored original structures and seven of which were new construction in-fill, Turner said. Thirty-seven of the original homes have been rehabilitated by the owners, according to Lynn Cowan, a Preservation Burlington member and Glencoe resident. One building lot is still for sale.
Glencoe renovation and rehabilitation
One of those restored homes belongs to Wendy Geise and her family. The Geise family moved into their 1880 Glencoe Street home in May 2021. It had been partially restored in 2004.
The home includes a kitchen, dining area, spare room and an open porch on the first floor as well as a bedroom, bathroom and living space on the second floor. The previous owners added on to the home during their renovation, creating another bedroom, bathroom, porch and a den at the rear of the house. The family has also built a chicken coop in the backyard, which joins the garage built by previous owners in 2006.
“This is our fourth historic home,” Geise said. “They’re so well built unlike newer construction.”
The family has previously restored a 1920s bungalow in Asheville, a 1918 four square also in Asheville, a 1892 Victorian in Burlington and now the 1880 mill home in Glencoe.
When asked what excites her about historic home renovations, Geise said “imagining all the families that have lived in the house” was a major draw.
“(We are) trying to have modern conveniences but still have that character of an old home, blending the two,” she said. “I want (the renovations) to reflect the character of this particular house.”
When the family was looking to downsize, they were determined to stick with historic homes. When they saw that the Glencoe Street home was for sale, they knew immediately that was the house they wanted.
“There’s so much character and it’s nice because everything is smaller and easier to manage. I’m glad we did it,” she said.
“We’d been here walking, hiking and (for) different events that were happening,” she added. “We saw that this house was available first and the decided to sell our West Front Street house. … The vibe (here) feels a little more like us.”
Despite the previous repairs, the Geise family still has more work ahead of them to restore the mill home to its former glory.
Their Glencoe home had been on the market for about nine months before their purchase, likely due to the 75-page document of repairs needed, Geise believes.
“When we move into a new house like this, we take out a brand new notebook and we start (listing) … what needs to be done. We kind of triage (and decide) what is most urgent,” she said.
So far, the family has replaced the HVAC system, painted rooms, refurnished with period-appropriate pieces, yard work and pest control. Future renovation plans include restoring the outhouse in the backyard, repairing some water damage to the structure, exterior painting, replacing rotted boards on the exterior and addressing drainage issues.
“I would much rather be spending my money on kitchen cabinets or things that are more exciting but unfortunately this is what we always seem to have to do. I call it the unfun but necessary,” Geise explained.
“You want to preserve the house. We know that in these old houses we are just the caretakers. These houses are going to be around a lot longer than we are so we want to take care of it so future families can enjoy it as well,” she added.
While Geise’s husband Evan has been able to do a lot of the work himself, the family has had to consult with the preservation commission, arborists, engineers, plumbers, and many other experts along the process.
This kind of renovation work has become a staple for the family.
“We kind of joke that this is just what we do. Old houses is just kind of our thing,” Geise said.
Their oldest son Ian even bought a historic home nearby for himself.
“It’s fun to find out the stories that your house has to tell,” Geise said.
Value in Preservation
As the renovation work continues for the Geise family and their neighbors, the value of preserving the Glencoe mill village only continues to grow.
“It really is a unique historic landmark for this community and even for North Carolina because so much of this stuff is eroding away or just being ripped out of the ground,” Guss said.
For Cowan and her peers with Preservation Burlington, preservation work adds immense value to a community. Among the highlights are economic impact through increasing home values on renovated properties driving up tax revenue, stability and longevity of neighborhood community building, better constructed homes, sustainability and preservation of local history.
Turner added that the adaptability of a historic community to be made livable in the 21st century further strengthens the argument for preservation.
“It’s a very livable, beautiful place and there’s value in that,” she said. “Every way you slice it, it is a positive for Alamance County and our region. It’s been held up as an example of how you can use and appreciate the places of the past, give it a new life and continue to create a new history there.”