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Mill idea not so bad after all

We were in at the Sawgrass Resort, south of Jacksonville, and Florida had just beaten Georgia for about the umpteenth time in a row. My lovely wife, Lisa, and I decided to soothe our aching bodies in the hot tub and were joined there by a couple from Gainesville, Ga.

We began making small talk, as folks generally do in those situations. Once we got past the "Where are you from's?" we got to the "What do you do's?" and the guy told me that he was a structural engineer and had spent the past few weeks doing an appraisal on a job in Porterdale. It seems that someone had gotten a wild hair and decided that they could turn the old Porterdale Mill into upscale loft apartments.

I didn't even bother to tell the guy that I had been raised in Porterdale, much less that my spirit still resided there, and to be brutally honest, I was extremely skeptical of the whole idea of creating loft apartments from an old run-down mill which sits in the middle of an old run-down mill village - no disrespect intended.

No one has ever heard me utter a disparaging word about my hometown and nobody ever will. It was the best place in the world for a boy like me to be brought up, and the memories of my childhood and youth in that little mill village are precious indeed. And I will always appreciate The Bibb Co. and the food it put on my family's table.

But in the late '60s, as most of you already know, the cotton textile industry fell on hard times. Cheap foreign labor and the emergence of new synthetic fibers led to a drastic reduction in profitability for cotton textiles. The Bibb Co. began to divest itself of its holdings in Porterdale and other places and pretty soon, well, pretty soon things just weren't the same and my hometown fell on hard times.

For years, people have been talking about and working toward creating a resurgence in Porterdale, and I have always appreciated their ambition and their efforts. I still didn't think enough folks would come to Porterdale and live in a loft to provide the kind of money it would take to make such a project profitable.

Nonetheless, I watched with interest as the work began, in earnest, down by the riverside. Every few weeks for the past year or so I have made it a point to drive through Porterdale. I saw the new roof being put into place and new windows and then finally I saw signs advertising retail space and, yes, loft rentals. I admired the person who was bold enough to undertake such a daunting task but still feared that he - whomever he might be - was doomed to lose his shirt, figuratively if not literally.

And then last week I got a call from my friend Wes Sarginson, of 11 Alive News.

Wes is a curiosity among television news anchors. He would much rather report good news than bad and, nowadays, spends most of his time seeking out positive stories around our region and reporting them each evening at six o'clock in a feature called Wes Side Stories.

Wes had found out, somehow, about the project at the old Porterdale Mill and invited me to join him there to talk about the town and my past life as a linthead.

I would never pass up an opportunity to spend time with Wes, who is one of the most interesting people I have ever known. After an enjoyable and entertaining lunch at Jim Stalvey's in Covington, we finally made our way out to Porterdale. Honesty compels me to admit that I felt a bit tingly as we drove through the mud toward the front entrance of what had once been my place of employment and memories came flooding back as we walked through the front door and right into my past.

The first thing that struck me was how little had changed in the 30 some-odd years since I last reported for work on the first shift in that very building. The solid wood floor and the brick and mortar walls; the giant beams and even the hardware surrounding the old elevator shafts were all the same. I could almost see the old twisters and hear the old spinning frames. The only thing missing was the cotton lint permeating the air.

And then I walked through the building and into what will soon be luxury apartments, overlooking the shoals behind the Yellow River dam and I was a skeptic no more.

What an ingenious idea Walter Davis came up with! What a beautiful setting for a home! The Porterdale Mill was a great place to work, back in the day, and the Porterdale Mill lofts are going to be a wonderful place to live in the very near future. I wish I could afford one.

Wes and I spent a couple of hours roaming through the project - he seeing the future while I recounted the past - and, in the end, both of us had a much clearer picture of Walter Davis' vision. I advise you to check it out, too. It is really quite amazing.

And by the way. I saw the feature that Wes put together and, while he did a wonderful job, I immediately realized that I have the perfect face and voice for the newspaper.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and high school history teacher who lives in Rockdale County. Visit his Web site at www.darrellhuckaby.net.