Conestee mill, dam and park added to National Register of Historic Places
Published March 19, 2014 in The Greenville News
By Nathaniel Cary, Staff Writer
Cane in hand, Hy Brand strolled across the creaking, sagging wood floors and through the drafty warehouse rooms that make up the Conestee Mill.
Brand, 83, has owned the mill for 36 years and in the theme of its textile heritage, he uses it to store rugs.
For nearly the entire span of his ownership he has sought to put the mill on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now the mill, the hand-hewn stone dam along the Reedy River and 140 acres of Lake Conestee Nature Park all have been added to the National Register.
To the best of Brad Sauls’ knowledge — and he runs the state’s National Register program — the site is the only former Environmental Protection Agency superfund site listed on South Carolina’s National Register.
The addition of the state’s former textile mills to the register isn’t an uncommon occurrence. At least four mills or mill properties in Greenville County are listed on the register. What stands out is the inclusion of the entire site — mill, dam and park — on the register, Sauls said.
He knew of just one other site — Vaucluse Mill in Aiken — where a dam and pond also were included in the registry.
The site’s inclusion as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program didn’t add to or diminish its case to be listed on the register, Sauls said.
“That’s part of the history of it and doesn’t contribute to its significance,” Sauls said. “It’s just kind of part of the later story.”
The “later story” includes the Greenville legacy of industrial waste that washed downstream along the Reedy River and built up in Lake Conestee.
In a way, the toxins that remain in the lake beneath layers of clean sediment and are monitored by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, give their own glimpse into Greenville’s industrial past.
Park trails are open for walking and mountain biking, but the water is off limits.
Now that the lake has been transformed into a natural preserve filled with more than 12 miles of trails popular with school groups and bird watchers, the site’s inclusion on the register could mean much more, said Dave Hargett, executive director of the Conestee Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and manages the Lake Conestee Nature Park.
“It’s pretty extraordinary for us and I think will help us with funding and support and notoriety of the park,” Hargett said.
Brand believes that Conestee — both the mill and the park — could become a Central Park of sorts in Greenville County.
He’s spent his days sitting in the front office of the aging mill for decades. He’s drawn plans and then redrawn plans to renovate the mill into apartments, or condominiums with a restaurant or amphitheater or playgrounds overlooking the water that pours over the dam.
Those plans faded with the recession, and Brand says he’s in no hurry to sell now and doesn’t have the $15 million he says would be needed to do the project himself.
But Brand loves to talk about the mill’s history, which pre-dates the Civil War.
Vardry McBee built a mill at Conestee sometime before 1837, which included a paper mill, woolen and cotton operations, according to the site’s National Register application. Parts of the original mill are still standing in the 100,000-square-foot complex of brick buildings.
It became known as the Reedy River Factory until it was renamed Conestee Mill in 1909. The mill’s store, office and post office were added in 1919.
The mill continued its operations until the early 1970s but sat empty when Brand purchased it in 1978.
Dams existed along the Reedy River as early as the 1790s, but it was in the 1840s that McBee’s millwright, John Adams, rebuilt theexisting dam to increase power to McBee’s factory.
The dam was rebuilt in 1892 and repaired after a severe flood damaged it in 1908.
The lake originally stretched 130 acres above the dam, but construction upstream, including Donaldson Air Force Base and Interstate 85, caused the lake to fill in with silt, Hargett said.
Brand likes to point out that the dam provided electricity to the community of Conestee before Greenville ever had electricity.
Life shifted away from the mill toward the city, but now, as Brand shuffles past row after row of rolled-up carpets in the darkened warehouse, he said the mill’s place in history is secure.
“That’s why I feel a rebirth of Conestee shall come about,” he said.
Contact reporter Nathaniel Cary at 864-298-4272, connect with @nathanielcary on Twitter or follow on Facebook.