By Coulter Fussell
Hello, from Columbus, Georgia! “Why would you be in Columbus, Georgia?” you ask. “There’s nothing there but Victory Drive strip clubs, yellow BBQ sauce, and a brown river filled with alligators, snakebirds, and the occasional dead body.” Well, true, it’s an old river town that comes with its own set of problems, but I’m here helping my parents move into their new living quarters: Weave Room #2 of an old cotton mill. Sounds fancy, right?
Well, let me describe for you the room I’m sitting in right now: 16 feet above my head are the exposed, repainted I-beams that crisscross under a wooden ceiling. Around me are vast walls that run the length of a 150′ by 15′ wide hallway. A couple of bedrooms are carved out of this 2900 square foot space. Behind me is a group of 12′ by 6′ metal-framed windows set in the exposed brick wall. There are five sets of these windows, side by side. Through this 365 square foot wall of glass, I’m looking out over the muddy Chattahoo-chee River, where I grew up. I’m looking over its alligators and its snakebirds and its occasional dead body, and I watch the day break over Alabama.
This “new” place makes the river-side shotgun house my parents were living in a week ago look like a shoe box. Granted, a shoe box with nice gingerbread trim, but there’s something really wonderful about living in an old restored cotton mill circa 1882.
Here is the wonderful thing: my hometown was built on the backs of cotton mill workers, some of them very young and all of them a hard-working, mistreated lot. There is not a native person in this town who isn’t somehow tied to the mills, most of us many times over. Many of these mills functioned well in to the 1990s, when I was in high school. One by one they closed, leaving behind gigantic, epic buildings. The mills take up an entire section of town stretching miles down the river. Some even had their own city-within-a-city, complete with their own mayor, city council, schools, and even their own currency.
Yet, the mill buildings, with their histories as tremendous as their structures, were eventually either bulldozed or left to rot, taking with them the most important historical structures of our town and changing the landscape of Columbus. And I mean that literally, as these mills created a skyline of big brick boxes peppered with elegant smoke stacks, around which hundreds of swifts would swirl and nest in the evening.
That is, until a few years ago. Someone had the idea that instead of bulldozing a mill they might just leave it. Clean it out, clean it up. Throw up some interior drywalling, put in some bathrooms and light fixtures and call it a loft. And, man, Columbus was saved.
Which brings me to this this: Big Yank. The same thing could happen. Living quarters, office/studio space, and possible retail space. I know there are a million ideas about this space from tearing it down to making it the next Louvre. Whatever is done to it, it needs to be preserved, as too many people fought too hard for their jobs and families there to let it rot away. It will also take the right person to tackle it. And that is not me as I don’t have a million dollars and until, like, a week ago, I thought Rice-Stix was some sort of cereal.
I look out of this wall of windows and think of my grandmother. She would leave school everyday, walk over the river from Phenix City, Alabama to deliver her brothers lunch at the mills in Columbus, Georgia. The many little girls that did this were collectively called “Dinner Toters.”
I think about that often, her seven-year-old self walking barefoot from Alabama to Georgia everyday, crossing the muddy Chattahoochee, over the alligators, the snakebirds and the occasional dead bodies. And I am so thankful that someone thought to preserve that history for our town. Because it’s my history, too.