By restoring a Lincoln County mill, John and Cyndi Dellinger of Lincolnton have taken their place in the region’s once-thriving textile industry and created a new industry.
It took more than six years to restore Laboratory Mill, also known as the D.E. Rhyne Cotton Mill, south of town. In 1818, the site was the centerpiece of the community that depended on work at the mill for income. Today the building is a popular venue for weddings and special events, something new for Lincoln County.
Descendents of industrialist Daniel Efird Rhyne, a named benefactor of Lenoir-Rhyne University, donated the building and site on the South Fork River to Preservation North Carolina. The Dellingers purchased the site from Preservation North Carolina at the end of 2007.
It has been a long journey and learning experience for the Dellingers. The three-story brick building had been unused since 1994.
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“The site was completely covered in brush,” said John Dellinger. “We had to climb in through a window to get into the basement.”
It took six months just to clear away the overgrowth. “It’s a good thing I’m not allergic to poison ivy,” he said.
The basement was used by Confederates to manufacture drugs from indigenous plants and, some historians speculate, to manufacture gunpowder. That brief span gave the area the name Laboratory. For most of its long life, however, the building has been used to produce wool and cotton products.
“From the beginning, we learned that our biggest challenge was going to be that we were out here on our own,” Dellinger said. “Mills at the time were their own entity and produced their own power and pumped water from the river. We may as well have been on top of a mountain. We had no sewer, no power, and no telephone.
“Usually these types of properties are purchased by large developers and rarely individuals. We had no one to ask.”
Besides those major and expensive issues, some of the building had been vandalized, the ancient hardwood floor was rotten in places, and during years of re-roofing the shingle layers equaled a sagging thickness of 4 1/2 inches. The tall windows had been bricked up.
“One blessing was that we did it during a recession,” he said. “We were able to get bricklayers, and, at one time toward the end, had 50 or 60 contractors working.” They were also thankful that the roof was intact and found no asbestos.
Dellinger, who has his own electrical consultant business, cut back on his work to spend 12 and 13-hour days to oversee the work and set his hand to just about every task.
“People come in and see a nice-looking building, but don’t realize what goes into it,” he said.
The Dellingers used wood recovered from the abandoned Lineberger Cotton Mill, the slate from a house in Matthews, and scoured Craigslist for antique fixtures at a bargain. The red paint on the outside isn’t paint at all, but a not-so-fragrant wash made of iron oxide, alum and hide glue, cooked six gallons at a time in the Dellinger’s kitchen.
The Dellingers opened the bricked-in windows, tapping away at 18-inch thick walls by hand to prevent damage to the original brick.
“It’s a tedious job, but you wouldn’t believe what we found. As we were cleaning the columns, we came across the carved initials of the workers,” Dellinger said. “Some were down low – the youngest workers – while others were high. You just can’t sandblast something like that. You have to save it.” He also found initials etched into the bricks in the basement, perhaps by the bricklayers and carpenters who were also Confederate soldiers.
One of their biggest surprises has been the community interest, and the Dellingers have become even more aware of the historical significance of their endeavor.
“We’ve had a lot of people drop by to see what we’ve done, and they have stories about their parents who worked in the mill,” said John Dellinger. “One story that particularly touched my heart was the woman in her 90s who counted three windows down and said, ‘That’s the window where I used to sleep.’ ” With no day care and no one at home to care for them, children often accompanied their parents to work.
Others have presented gifts of photos and other memorabilia. One included a dollar coin that was used for the company store where workers purchased what they couldn’t raise on the farm.
With the building and grounds upgraded, the work includes less hammering and more event planning. Yet, improvement projects are ongoing.
“There’s always a to-do list,” said J Dellinger, their son, who manages the day-to-day operations.
Future projects include a catering kitchen, space for smaller events such as class reunions and parties, and a deck with a view of the river and dam. Cyndi Dellinger is an electrical engineer at McGuire Nuclear Station by day, and a hostess, webmaster and decorator on nights and weekends. John Dellinger continues to put in the hours overseeing just about every aspect of the building and grounds as well as acting as an on-site host and tour guide.
The Dellingers are all smiles as they remember the time, expense and lack of sleep it has taken to get them to this point.
“You can’t build anything today with this much character,” said Cyndi Dellinger. “It’s a piece of history.”
For information and before-and-after photos, visit www.thelaboratorymill.com.