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A LANDMARK IN PERIL

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
The Halifax Roller Mill, undergoing repair work and in its heyday as a vibrant feed and flour mill in the Town of Halifax. The three-story wood and brick structure, owned by Bill and Darnell Abbott of Halifax, has made this year’s list of Most Endangered Historic Places in the Commonwealth, as chosen by Preservation Virginia. It (Contributed photos)
SoVaNow.com / May 28, 2020
A fraying symbol of Halifax’s agricultural heritage now holds the distinction of being one of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historical Places, a statewide designation that puts the Town of Halifax in select company.

Town leaders hope the attention given to the historic Halifax Roller Mill by Preservation Virginia will be a catalyst for the structure’s salvation, not a harbinger of its demise.

The towering roller mill, built in 1915 next to the train tracks in downtown Halifax, at one time served growers in Virginia and North Carolina and functioned as a business and social center of Halifax County. Operating under several owners until 1996, the three-story, brick and wood frame building was saved from certain collapse by its current owners, Bill and Darnell Abbott of Abbott’s Farm Garden and Gun, when they worked to stabilize the structure some years ago.

Since then, however, the building has been worn down by the elements and battered by storms, notably Tropical Storm Michael in 2018. In critical need of restoration and adaptive reuse, the roller mill’s future is very much in doubt.

The nomination to place Halifax Roller Mill on Preservation Virginia’s list of Most Endangered Historic Places was submitted by the Halifax County Historical Society and the Town of Halifax. Barbara Bass, president of the historic society, said the group is excited about the Preservation Virginia announcement and “hopeful this will encourage others who have historic properties to preserve them.

“Part of the Society’s mission is to support owners of properties to recognize how important historic properties are to the community,” said Bass, who further noted Halifax Roller Mill was a prominent part of the society’s book, An Architectural History of Halifax County, Virginia.

Town Manager Carl Espy said the Virginia Department of Historic Resources has been working with local stakeholders to identify grant funding sources to pay for shoring up the structure, which is exposed to the elements due to ongoing decay of its roof and wood frame exterior.

Grant money also is being sought to pay for an updated feasibility study, building on the work of a 2005 Hill Studio plan for the structure’s adaptive reuse. The Abbotts, said Espy, envision a multi-use facility that would take up all three floors of the structure and surrounding property, dubbed the “Community Mill Works.”

The first floor would be dubbed “The Mill,” the second floor “The Works,” and the third floor “The Roost” — potentially all part of a mixed use residential-commercial redevelopment of the historic mill, which long ago was marketed as “The Pride of Halifax Flour and Feed.”

“These are not hard and fast visions, but a natural extension of what we do and are interested in,” said Darnell Abbott, co-owner of the farm and garden supply store next door. “However, if the universe imagines other uses for the building, and it is in the best interest of all affected parties, we would not be opposed to alternative iterations.

“I especially appreciate Barbara Bass for her efforts on behalf of the Halifax County Historical Society in being a co-nominator with the Town of Halifax, putting the time and effort into the application to create such a compelling nomination,” said Abbott.

The structure has a rich history. Robert S. Hupp, a miller and master mechanic, constructed the roller mill for R. Holt Easley around 1915. Hupp had never built a mill before, but “his precise calculations drew rave reviews from others in the milling business,” as recounted in the 2005 Hill Studio adaptive re-use plan and report on the mill’s future prospects.

“According to his grandson, Hupp worked for Easley as miller at a mill on the Banister River. The new mill at Halifax was planned to take advantage of electric power so that they weren’t so dependent on the river. The mill took 3-4 years to build and began operations just prior to World War I. The mill consisted of five-stand roller mills with each stand holding four steel grinders.”

At the time Halifax County was a leading producer of corn, oats and wheat in Virginia, and the roller mill boosted the local economy by processing the agricultural output of local farmers. During World War I, the business supplied flour to the federal government and to the war effort. Almost two decades after the end of World War I, in 1936, the electric-power mill was sold to Carl E. Payne, whose family owned a water-powered mill in the Saxe area.

The business grew under the ownership of the Payne family, which opened exchanges in Wilson and Roxboro, N.C. to sell Halifax Roller Mill products and buy grains direct from area producers. According to Carl Payne’s grandson, Charles Payne, ‘In its heyday (1950s and 1960s) I can remember trucks with wheat lining up all the way to Halifax, to Cleve Wilborne’s [gas] station. They would run the mill 24 hours a day during the busy season of June and July.”

The mill also ran trucks throughout the county and into North Carolina to pick up loads of grain and deliver flour and other mill products to country stores.

In 1951, C.E. Payne died and his three sons — Elmo, Sturgis and Welford — continued to operate the mill through the 1960s. As regulations increased and the American tradition of homemade biscuits and breads declined, milling operations fell off. The mill was later revamped to produce glue for area furniture factories.

It was last operated by the Reese family of Halifax County, who used it to produce feed and sell vegetables before the operation closed for good in 1996.

Halifax Roller Mill is one of seven historic places recognized this year by Preservation Virginia, which has compiled its list of the commonwealth’s most endangered historic places since 2005. Other choices include Rassawek, the historic capital and sacred site of the Monacan Indian Nation, located in Fluvanna County; James Street Holiness Church, founded in 1891 in north Danville by African American preacher Bettie Thompson; western Loudoun County’s Rural Road Network, described by Preservation Virginia as “a living museum of 300 miles of gravel roadways that traverse the Loudoun Valley”; and Alexandria Elks Lodge #48, a community hub for African American Elks and residents in the Northern Virginia city for over 115 years.

One of this year’s choices is not a place, but a thing — historic metal truss bridges statewide. In 1975, Virginia had some 620 metal truss bridges, of which only about five percent still stand. Among the truss bridges that have come down are Clarkton Bridge at the Halifax-Charlotte county border, which was demolished in 2018.

“Over the next few years, as we adapt to the challenges of living in a post-pandemic world, Preservation Virginia will help to counter the specific threats identified in this year’s Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places list,” said Preservation Virginia CEO Elizabeth S. Kostelny in announcing this year’s endangered places. “In addition, we will demonstrate how — using proven tools of historic preservation as well as innovative new models and collaborations — Virginia’s historic places help recharge our spirits and restore local communities.

“Now more than ever, we can look to our past for renewal and strength.”

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