HILDEBRAN The hot new tourist spot in Burke County these days is just off Henry River Road. Once you leave Interstate 40, drive about a mile. Right before you reach Catawba County, look left.
There’s District 12.
Abandoned for nearly a half century, the Henry River Mill Village consists of about 20 empty buildings in eastern Burke County.
But last year, filmmakers used the site to portray District 12 in “The Hunger Games.” Since the hit movie’s March premiere, countless fans have trekked to the once-forgotten village to see Katniss Everdeen’s hometown with their own eyes.
“We have had families travel here from all over the country,” says Ed Phillips, Burke County’s tourism director. “I expected it to be popular, you just never know how popular.”
Burke County tourism is up 300 percent from last June, an increase Phillips attributes partially to “The Hunger Games” craze.
Wade Shepherd, who owns the property, says it has seen thousands of visitors in the past few months – sometimes more than a dozen a day.
“The Hunger Games” is based on Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young-adult dystopian novel. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic nation where children are selected by lottery each year to fight to the death.
The story’s heroine is Katniss, a 16-year-old who becomes District 12’s representative in the annual Hunger Games. District 12 is an impoverished region once known as Appalachia.
The mill town
Before the Burke County site became a movie set, it was a mill town. The village’s history dates to 1905. For nearly 50 years, the cotton mill, powered by the Henry River, spun fine cotton yarn.
Most of its 100 residents worked at the mill, lived rent-free in mill houses and shopped at the company store. The village even used its own currency and generated its own electricity.
None of the buildings had indoor plumbing, and several still have outhouses. About 20 buildings remain intact today.
Attracted by bigger cities and better wages, residents began leaving the village by the mid-20th century. By the 1960s, it was mostly abandoned. In 1977, the mill burned down.
The last resident left in 2000, Phillips says.
But “Hunger Games” filmmakers brought the place to life again. One mill house became Katniss’ home. The company store became Mellark Bakery. And a trip to the site became a must for diehard fans.
Cousins Elena Vories, 15, and Katie Frame, 16, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., searched for Katniss’ house when they visited this week with grandparents. The two wandered through the village looking for familiar scenes, snapping pictures with their phones and peering in windows of the abandoned buildings.
Another visitor, Kathryn Arthur, 24, a University of Seattle student, said moviemakers did a good job bringing District 12 to life. Like many fans, she knows District 12 from the novel.
Unfortunately, some fans aren’t leaving empty-handed. The village’s newfound popularity has also brought vandals and litter, Shepherd says.
In the movie, Mellark Bakery advertised “pastries” and “cakes” on its exterior. The letter “p” and part of an “a” are now missing from the painted signs on the building, leaving an 18-inch hole in the storefront.
A steel bar securing another building and a board on Katniss’ house also recently went missing. And food and drink wrappers are scattered on the 72-acre property.
Shepherd, who lives across the river from the village, is growing tired of the mess.
“Originally I did not have a problem with them just wandering, going here and there,” he says. “Now there are gobs of people, and they carry food, beer bottles, all kind of food containers.”
But he hesitates to ban visitors. “I’d hate to deprive the kids of it,” he said. “They’re so ecstatic.”
Private property signs are posted on a few buildings. Shepherd doesn’t want people to go inside because of safety hazards, though some doors were unlocked or open during a visit this week.
Movie producers have the option to film a few scenes of “The Hunger Games” sequel, “Catching Fire,” at the village, Shepherd said, but no plans have been made. Movie scouts have visited recently, Phillips said. Filming is expected to start in the fall.
But by then, the property may have a new owner. Shepherd, 83, has agreed to allow the Syfy Channel’s “Hollywood Treasure” reality show to auction it off July 31. Shepherd bought the village in 1975 and he’s been trying to sell the property for years.
He wants a minimum of $1.4 million.