Saturday, August 12, 2017

Action! Civil War mill ruins near Atlanta will resume tours, filming inside after stabilization

Don Scarbrough surveys portions of New Manchester mill 
Work along one of factory walls

As he has for the better part of 20 years, Don Scarbrough trudged with a visitor along Sweetwater Creek State Park’s Red Trail. Our objective on this muggy summer afternoon was a towering piece of Georgia’s Civil War history that’s long been in ruin.

“I never get tired of it,” Scarbrough said of the walk. He used a trekking pole to reach the fenced site of a creek-powered mill that produced cloth and other textiles for the Confederacy.

The interpretive ranger loves the natural beauty and creatures that reside in this park in Douglas County, just west of Atlanta. What about the humans who lived here?

“I talk about a lot of sad history,” Scarbrough said of his guided tours. There were the Native Americans who had to sell their land so that whites could scour Sweetwater Creek and environs for gold. There were the slaves who were loaned out by white citizens to do much of the hard work.

Graffiti believed left by Federal soldiers

The remains of the brick mill tell another disturbing story.

After it was torched by Union cavalry in July 1864, nearly 100 New Manchester residents, mostly female workers and their children, were sent north by train -- under protest -- to spend the rest of the war. Many took an oath of allegiance to the United States. Some never came back to Georgia. You can read details of that sorrowful story here.

Scarbrough and other staff members are looking forward to the day they can unlock the gate and again take park visitors inside the ruins, where they can gaze upon graffiti left by Federal soldiers, bricks damaged by the fire and the impressive wheel room.

They have not been able to do so for nearly three years because of worries about the ruins’ stability and safety.

Wooden arch will be removed after stabilization

Since early July, workers for Aegis Restauro LLC have been toiling on a $375,000 stabilization of remains of the New Manchester Manufacturing Co., which at five stories was the tallest building in North Georgia. Thread, yarn and cloth were initially produced when the factory began operations in 1849.

Workers are installing steel rods, new mortar and concrete caps on pillars. The project is expected to be completed by the end of September.

Once the project is complete, the picturesque mill interior will be available again for tours, weddings, photo sessions and filmmakers – all a source of revenue for the state.

The 2014 movie “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, was shot at the mill. “Killing Season” (2013), with John Travolta and Robert DeNiro, included Sweetwater scenes, and another movie crew recently used the park.

While the interior will be available to only those with a guide, you can get impressive views of the mill from several angles outside the fence.

Mill was built to last, but didn't

It’s easy to see why investors chose the site for what was then called Sweetwater Factory. The creek bed drops in elevation, speeding the flow of water. A 1,400-foot millrace -- a channel into which water was funneled to the factory -- was built by slaves.

Today, when the water is high, kayakers scoot past the ruins. When the creek flow is lower, visitors “rock hop” through Sweetwater Creek.

Volunteer noticed middle column was leaning.

A few years ago, Scarbrough said, a group was paddling near the rapids and took a closer look. A member of the Friends of Sweetwater Creek State Park “thought a column was leaning slightly.”

Engineers visited the interior in late 2014 and it has been closed since. This summer’s work is the most significant since about 1990.

Slaves made the bricks and cut the lumber for construction of the mill and performed much of the labor. Stones quarried a mile or two below the site were carried by oxen-led wagons over Jack’s Hill to the site.

Courtesy D. Scarbrough
“This mill has an awesome foundation (left),” said Scarbrough, adding the builders’ skills and talents are evident today. Besides the structure, the millrace stones have largely stayed in position for nearly 170 years.

While fire was the chief danger for New Manchester in the mid-19th century, today it’s water. Rainfall and other moisture cause damage to seams in the brick, especially when they freeze and expand. The facelift is addressing that and other issues. The mill is fragile in places and there are loose bricks.

Officials hope the stabilization will preserve the historic site for at least several more decades.

Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, said New Manchester “helps people understand both Civil War and industrial history, including the use of water power. It fits in well with Atlanta's origin story as a transportation, manufacturing and distribution center.”

'Operatives' marched off from ruins

The community that supported the mill – a store, post office, a leather goods shop, homes and a lumber mill – are long gone, making New Manchester a ghost town. When the mill was burned all of the metal machinery tumbled to the foundation. Much of that was removed in 1942 during a World War II scrap drive, the park learned.

(Picket photo)
Machinery remnants found after 2009 flood (Don Scarbrough)

If the ghosts are talking, they are likely the spirits of women who worked in the mill during the Civil War while their menfolk were at the front. They produced fabrics, including osnaburg, for assembly elsewhere. 

“A lot of cloth was made into Confederate uniforms in Atlanta,” said Scarbrough.

Bill Cahill, former president of the park friends group, said, “It was such a high-quality material, after they finished making a wagon load it was sent to Marietta or Atlanta.” 

Mary Deborah Petite’s book, “The Women Will Howl,” tells of the forced relocation of workers at New Manchester and a much larger group of 500 people at profitable mills in Roswell, a suburb just north of Atlanta.

Rendering of mill at visitor center

About the same time Federal cavalry was burning sites in Roswell, troopers with the 1st and 11th Kentucky Cavalry and 14th Illinois Cavalry – among other units -- occupied the town of New Manchester without firing a shot. They were surprised to see that of the 120 workers, all but 15 or 20 were women and children, Scarbrough said.

“Detachments from Stoneman's cavalry went to the mill twice,” said Crawford. "On 2 July they pulled out the belts that powered the machinery, and on 9 July they broke and burned the (mill).”

Torched were the factory and the company store, along with other buildings. From the Northern perspective, the workers were American citizens in open rebellion – a policy that outraged Southerners.

The so-called “operatives” were marched to Marietta for shipment north. They were placed in the Georgia Military Institute while they awaited trains.

There would be no trials at which they could defend themselves.

The 600 were shipped out July 10 and 11, with stops in Chattanooga and Nashville. Many were sent to Ohio and Indiana after they arrived in Louisville, Ky., where they were initially imprisoned in a hospital. A few died of typhoid, measles and other diseases.

“First housed and fed in a Louisville refugee hospital, the women later took what menial jobs and living arrangements could be found. Those in Indiana struggled to survive, many settling near the river, where eventually mills provided employment,” the New Georgia Encyclopedia says. “Unless husbands had been transported with the women or had been imprisoned nearby, there was little probability of a return to Roswell, so the remaining women began to marry and bear children.”

Very few ever made it back to Georgia. Mills were reopened in Roswell, but not at New Manchester. “They didn’t stay here. There was no way to make a living,” said Scarbrough.

From a preservation perspective, the discernible nature of the mill ruins help people understand what it did, said Crawford.

By comparison, Roswell is also a neat site, but only the drawings give one an idea of what was once there, whereas New Manchester Mill provides a more tangible example.”

Lives touched by war

Synthia Stewart
Scarbrough and I continued talking about New Manchester’s history as we walked back up to the park office.

Once inside, I revisited exhibits associated with the mill and props left after the production of “Killing Season.” Visitors can read the transcript of a recording by Synthia Stewart, who was a girl when the Yankees came to town. Her father served in the Confederate army. Stewart, among those transported north, was about 92 when the recording was made.

Many of those who worked at the mill for $1 day were fixtures in nearby Lithia Springs and other communities. The park hosted a reunion of descendants in 2004, the 140th anniversary of the mill's turning

Cahill said about 60 people from all over the country attended and swapped stories about their relatives. "It was awesome."

“We had one lady who came up here from Florida who was related to one of the mill workers, but had no idea of anything about him. She had only the name, he said. “We showed her all kinds of photographs of the guy she was related to.” 

At the park office, Scarbrough thumbed through files about the mill. One binder contained a census of New Manchester from 1860 to 1864. When known, the workers’ duties and whether they were in the Georgia militia are noted.

The remarks sections perhaps are the most interesting. “Andy’s father”; “town drunk”; “manufactured shoes with brothers”; “17 year old Confed. Soldier Captured at Factory.”

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