Former workers revisit mill

Harold Stewart Jr. smiled last week in the old Burlington Industries building where he'd labored for 16 years.

"I love it," he said, looking around the refurbished 230,000-square-foot space at 500 S. Main St. "I'm glad somebody is finally in here. It's been so long."

Stewart and other former mill workers were invited to celebrate developer Michael Bay's conversion of the space into one of his three Merinos Home Furnishings Warehouse stores in the Southeast. The store was scheduled to open to the public on Saturday.

Bay had 51 container loads of furniture on display at Monday's open house and said another 161 uncrated containers will arrive by the store's grand opening event this summer. Merinos also sells rugs from Europe and Asia, including Tibet.

His Mooresville furniture and rug showroom will encompass a whopping 3 acres, making it one of the largest in the Southeast, Bay said. He operates two similar stores in refurbished mill buildings in Georgia and South Carolina.

Bay said his plans for the 27-acre Burlington Industries complex focus on making it another tourist destination for Mooresville, with furniture designer-crafters and other artisans eventually making and selling their wares there as well.

The building he finished renovating also features a Mooresville Mills museum with fabrics and numerous photographs, including a set of 300 original pictures from the mill and a complete set of 1935 mill department photos, local historian Cindy Jacobs said.

Mooresville Mills operated the complex before Burlington Industries. Burlington made denim at the plant before closing it in 1999, putting 640 people out of work and ending the textile industry's long dominance in town.

Former mill workers at Monday's gathering said they hadn't been inside the building since it closed and were pleasantly surprised by its look, especially the finish on the original hardwood floors.

"I noticed the floors first thing and thought they looked nice," said Phyllis Greenhill Brown, 76, who worked at the mill for 40 years and lived in the mill village. Her mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles all worked there, too. Like others at the gathering, Brown said she never thought the mill building would open again.

Also on hand were such longtime workers as Hazel Basinger, 92, who administered the mill's benefits packages and worked there 48 years, and Stewart's dad, 78, who stopped over from his mill village home on East Lowrance Avenue.

He'd worked at the mill for 42 years, since returning to Mooresville after three years in the Korean War. He returned from the war about midnight one night, applied at the mill later that morning and was at work in the twister room at 4:30 p.m.

Monday, he chatted with such familiar faces as "Dandy Don" Parker, who knew countless mill village workers from selling to them at Sears and later at the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse store.

"It was the backbone of Mooresville," Parker said of the plant.

Harold Stewart Jr., 44, said it was hard work operating 30 card machines in the mill. He recalled the sadness he and others felt at a worker's job-related death elsewhere in the building.

"There were a lot of good memories here, too, a lot of friends," he said. "It was like your second family here."