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The decades-long struggle to restore and repurpose the iconic 113-year-old Loray/Firestone Mill in Gastonia, NC, was celebrated at a grand “re-opening” on March 26.

The more than 400 business, civic, and non-profit leaders attending – including Gov. Pat McCrory and Dept. of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz – recognized the contributions made by Preservation North Carolina, community advocates, and developer Billy Hughes and his partners, Loray Redevelopment LLC, to save the mill.  Named for the two local families who founded the mill in 1902, Love and Gray, it was operated by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company from 1935 until its closure in 1993.  Both families participated in the celebration.

Digital Loray also made its premier at the event. This digital and site-based public history project documents, interprets, and shares the long, complex history of Gastonia’s Loray/Firestone Mill and mill village, from the Loray Mill’s construction to the present day.

Digital Loray is a hallmark project of the Digital Innovation Lab (DIL).  Administered through the Department of American Studies since 2011, the DIL extends the work of the department by developing public-facing digital humanities projects in collaboration with other UNC units, other universities, and cultural heritage organizations across North Carolina.

American Studies major Karen Sieber; graduate students Charlotte Fryar, Elijah Gaddis and Mattea Sanders; faculty member Robert Allen; and postdoctoral fellow Julie Davis; along with Digital Innovation Lab General Manager Will Bosley guided the attendees through the digital tools and technologies that tell the human stories of this place, from multiple perspectives.

Elijah Gaddis demonstrates the digital archive, a part of Digital Loray.
Elijah Gaddis demonstrates the digital archive, a part of Digital Loray.

Digital Loray includes an online archive of digital materials (1,500-plus and growing) related to the Loray/Firestone mill and village.  It also interprets the history of the mill and village through interactive maps, multimedia timelines, individual and family stories, and scholarly essays.  Digital Loray’s goal is to engage members of the Loray, Firestone, and mill village communities — past and present, local and distant — as active participants at all stages of the project.

In January, developer Billy Hughes asked Digital Loray project director Julie Davis to make the history of the mill and surrounding village a key part of the festivities.  Davis mobilized the Digital Loray team and local community partners to produce content for six interactive history stations that were placed throughout the event space.  They showcased some of the extraordinary documentary material now organized and made accessible through Digital Loray as well as interactive exhibits based on the collection.  Davis and DIL General Manager Will Bosley also facilitated installation of a 22’x7’ wall graphic from the mill’s original 1900 architectural drawings, shared by the National Museum of American History.

Karen Sieber demonstrates the digital “reconstruction” of the huge Loray Mill Village as it was a century ago
Karen Sieber demonstrates the digital “reconstruction” of the huge Loray Mill Village as it was a century ago

American Studies major Karen Sieber demonstrated the digital “reconstruction” of the huge Loray Mill Village as it was a century ago–a mapping project on which she has worked for the past year.  American Studies Ph.D. student and DIL graduate assistant Elijah Gaddis showed off some of the thousands of images in the Loray Digital Archive, which he has helped to preserve and make publicly accessible for the first time.  The map and archive were built using the most recent version of DH Press, the digital humanities toolkit developed in the DIL by technical lead Michael Newton.

At the March 26 event, the Gastonia community also had the opportunity to meet Digital Loray project director Julie Davis, the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow in the DIL.  Davis now lives in the renovated mill as UNC’s public historian in residence.  There she is developing exhibits and public programming in collaboration with the Gaston County Museum of Art and History and the Gaston County Public Library.  The hub of these activities will be the Alfred C. Kessell History Center, an 1,100-square-foot space at the center of the renovated mill, made possible by UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Rick Kessell (’70).

Dr. Davis also teaches in the American Studies Department.  Her students both learn from and contribute to the development of Digital Loray and the history center.  She will teach a UNC Summer School “field course” on the practice of community-engaged, digital public history, based at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, from May 13-June 15, 2015.

Directed by American Studies Professor Robert Allen, the Digital Innnovation Lab develops tools, approaches, and work processes that make it easier, cheaper, and faster to produce immediately useful digital projects by scholars, students, and cultural organizations.

Supported by a gift from Preservation North Carolina, Digital Loray is the most ambitious public project the lab has undertaken.  Through it, the DIL is developing new models for connecting UNC with local communities, linking graduate training and undergraduate learning with engaged scholarship, and refining digital tools that will help transform public history and public humanities.

The future Alfred C. Kessell History Center.
The future Alfred C. Kessell History Center.

Both the mill and its preservation have great historical significance.  When it opened in 1902, the Loray Mill was the largest textile mill under one roof in the South.  Over the first two decades of the huge mill’s operation, thousands of families moved to Gastonia to work there–some from as far away as Tennessee.

Whole families worked in the mill.  Documentary photographer Lewis Hine photographed children as young as ten among them in 1908.  In 1929 a strike resulted in international press attention, two murders, sensational trials, and deep and lasting scars within the community.  For most of its history, however–from 1935 to 1993–the mill was operated by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.  Thousands of families in Gaston County worked at “the Firestone” and lived in the neighborhoods around it in West Gastonia.  The mill’s rich social and cultural life during the Firestone era is chronicled in the mill newspaper, The Firestone News. At the request of the DIL, UNC Library’s North Carolina Digital Heritage Center digitized and published online the complete run of the paper from 1952 to 1993.  Both the mill and the mill village are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The mill was closed in 1993 when operations moved to a new plant in King’s Mountain, N.C.  Redevelopment of the mill as a mixed use site–189 apartments, 80,000 square-feet of commercial and retail space, restaurants and event space, and a neighborhood police station–has taken more than a decade.  Dedicated community archivists, chief among them Bill Passmore, Lucy Penegar, and Tim Ellis, helped to preserve thousands of irreplaceable photographs and artifacts documenting mill and community history and have worked with the DIL to make them available to the public for the first time.
With more than $45 million invested in the 630,000 square-foot facility, the Loray Mill is the largest structure under one roof in the history of North Carolina to be restored and repurposed in this way.  Local officials hope that the reopening of the mill will help to spur economic development in West Gastonia.  The launch of Digital Loray and the programs and activities that will make use of it in the history center over the coming months are an important part of the “restoration” of this iconic site and the revitalization of this community.

To learn more about Digital Loray; use the interactive archive, map, and timelines; and explore the history of the Loray/Firestone mill and village, visit the project’s website at

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