Gastonia’s historic Loray Mill’s renovation brings secrets, memories

A locked safe with no combination; a long, dark tunnel; an even more forbidding basement.

These are a few of the discoveries made during the phase-one renovation of Gastonia’s landmark Loray Mill, a $39 million residential/commercial project that began in April 2013 and is nearing completion.

But developer Billy Hughes thinks the most fascinating revelations come from folks taking the weekly tours that he conducts along with Lucy Penegar, vice chairwoman of the Gaston County Historic Preservation Commission.

People who worked in the 600,000-square-foot, 110-year-old building at some point or had relatives who were employees there often share memories.

“They have all sorts of insights,” said Hughes, a partner in Loray Redevelopment LLC. “The nuggets of information are enlightening. I learn as much as they do.”

The Loray, also known as Firestone Mill, once had more than 3,500 employees and was the site of Gastonia’s bloody 1929 labor strike. The strike made international headlines as violence claimed the lives of Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt and union activist Ella May Wiggins.

Firestone Textile and Fibers bought the building in the 1930s and stayed until construction of a new tire cord manufacturing plant in 1993.

The Raleigh-based nonprofit Preservation North Carolina got the old mill building in 1998 as a donation from Firestone and tried to find a developer for what was considered one of North Carolina’s most important historic properties.

At a construction kickoff in April, a North Carolina historical marker identifying the location of the 1929 strike was dedicated on West Franklin Boulevard.

So far, Hughes hasn’t come across anything relating to the strike, but there have been interesting finds. A locked safe turned up in the mill office and Hughes learned it will cost $1,000 to open – an expense he’s still considering.

Meanwhile, he and his son have explored the narrow, 600-foot-long, underground tunnel that was used to feed cool air into the six-level building.

And the basement – once a place so dark and gloomy Hughes wouldn’t enter even with a flashlight – has been transformed by removing bricks that blocked the 12-foot-tall windows.

“It’s more inviting now that we’ve opened it up,” Hughes said.

Originally, he’d hoped the first residents would begin moving into the 190 loft-style apartments this April. But bad weather caused delays, and Hughes said it will probably be the end of May before residents start calling the Loray home. Monthly rent for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments with 20-foot ceilings will range from $850 to $1,600.

Hughes has seen considerable interest in the units, especially from Charlotte. Callers included a couple relocating from Chicago “who want an historic building,” he said.

Historic textile artifacts will be on display throughout the Loray. A history gallery, which includes a digital archive, will be located in a prominent spot open to the public.

UNC Chapel Hill professor Robert Allen, who heads the university’s Digital Innovation Lab, is helping develop the gallery in partnership with the Gaston County Museum of Art & History and the Gaston County Public Library.

The project is being funded by a grant retired businessman Rick Kessle of Lake Wylie made to Preservation North Carolina.

Materials in the gallery will come from several sources.

Allen, who is a Gastonia native, said oral histories at UNC include interviews with participants in the 1929 strike. Another collection has a complete run of the company’s newspaper, “Firestone News,” which was produced from 1952-1972. Already digitized, the newspapers are available at the N.C. Digital Heritage Center.

A special collection at Duke University has footage amateur photographer H.L. Waters took during a shift change at the Loray in 1939.

During spring break, one of Allen’s students is going to the Harvard Business School to examine papers from a machine company that made spindles at the Loray. And Allen will study the original 1901-02 plans of the mill, now part of a collection at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

The archive will be open-ended with additional oral histories and artifacts being collected in the local community.

Allen has followed the progress of the renovation project and said “it’s going to be an amazing place.”

On a recent visit to the Loray, Gastonia Mayor Pro Tem Brenda Craig, 71, remembered going there as a child on a Brownie Scout field trip. The size of the place, the noise of machinery and a small army of workers almost overwhelmed her.

She thinks the transformed Loray “is looking fantastic.”

“It’s taking on an entirely different life of its own,” Craig said. “I don’t think anybody’s got a good feel for the economic impact this is going to have. It will be tremendous. But how big? I don’t think we have a full understanding.”