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Historic cotton mill toured
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Gov. Bill Lee takes in the beauty of Rock Island State Park while local resident and architect Todd Robinson points out a landmark on Friday afternoon.

Efforts to restore the old cotton mill at Rock Island State Park have attracted the attention of the governor.

Gov. Bill Lee was in Warren County on Friday afternoon to take a look at the nearly 130-year-old structure that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building needs extensive repairs. Adding another layer of work to the project is that plans also involve relocating the road, Highway 287, which runs precariously close to the structure.

Gov. Lee stopped short of promising funding but he did say he’s encouraged by the amount of local support surrounding restoration of the mill, which was built by Asa Faulkner in 1892.

“What’s exciting about this is the community is so engaged in this project,” said Gov. Lee. “People are the answer to our greatest challenges. It’s not the government.”

Park manager Damon Graham provided historical information about the old mill and the economic activity that surrounded it.

“A whole village developed around the mill,” said Graham. With some 300 workers, the mill created a need for a post office, church, and nearby stores.

“The mill was a big driver for the economy,” said Graham. “It produced 4,000 yards of cotton sheets per day. I looked back and found an old article in the Southern Standard that said the mill was started with a capital investment of $30,000.”

The Industrial Development Board obtained a grant to conduct a feasibility study on what would be the best uses for the 20,000-square-foot old mill should restoration efforts take place. Different ideas have been floated about what would work – a visitor center for the state park, a museum, restaurant, conference center with meeting rooms, and lodging have been recurring themes.

Initial cost estimates have ranged from $2 million to $6 million depending on use.

“It’s a focal point of the state park and part of the visitor experience here,” said Graham. “We want to protect it and make it part of the community in a more interactive way.”

A new roof was installed about 10 years ago, Graham noted, thanks to funding from the Tennessee Historical Commission. The walls appear sturdy enough and are six bricks thick at some points, Graham said.

The wooden floors are mostly rotten and would need to be entirely replaced. The old mill also doesn’t have running water or electricity, another major hurdle.

“What we need is the state to save this,” state Sen. Janice Bowling said. “If it’s restored properly, it can be something that sustains itself.”

Gov. Lee was amazed at how close the old mill is located to the road.

“It’s a wonder it hasn’t been hit,” said Lee.

Responded Graham, “Well, actually it has once.”

TVA representative Gary Harris was in attendance and said the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are in the process of relocating the road but said, “We have more work to do.”

TVA owns the old mill and leases it to the state park. Harris also revealed plans are underway to reopen the bridge over Great Falls Dam, but it would only be for pedestrian traffic, not motor vehicles.

“We have to make sure pedestrians are protected from the equipment so no one gets hurt,” said Harris.

During his visit, Gov. Lee did take a moment to admire Rock Island State Park from one of the overlooks.

“We have one of the best state park systems in America,” said Lee. “We are committed to preserving this incredible resource.”