By Judy Garrison
In 2012, the world was introduced to Henry River Mill Village in North Carolina, a debut that lasted only nine minutes; however, in those nine minutes, the apocalyptic world of District 12 transformed an abandoned cotton mill into the poorest district in the fictional nation of Panem; consequently, it became one of the most iconic film sets in the United States. The Hunger Games crew descended into the small community of Hildebrand, created a blockbuster film, departed, and left what remained positioned for a rebirth.
When Calvin Reyes purchased the 72-acre property in 2017 for $1.4 million, it was not the hovering Hollywood cloud that convinced him that the real estate needed saving. Of course, he knew the film’s success would be a draw for The Hunger Games fanatics. His purpose ran deeper, and today, he invites everyone to drop by for a history lesson.
From 1905 when the mill opened until the early 1970s when the last worker moved out, the Henry River Mill Village — now listed on the National Register of Historic Places — was a thriving spindle mill, spinning cotton yarn into thread for fine lace and garments. The workers who lived in the village worked 10-to-14-hour shifts, and then, would walk home through the village, often stopping at the Company Store housing the post office, bank and grocery. Wages were issued in company script, the doogaloo, which was only valid in the store on site. Life was hard, yet everything the families needed was within the village. Few traveled far from their close-knit community.
And it is these stories of the workers that inspired Reyes to make these 20 dilapidated houses and company store his “personal projects until the day he dies.”
“The importance here is the story,” Reyes states. “We want everything to be living museums.” As he researched stories and watched recordings of mill villages in the Carolinas, he realized “the stories are the same from mill village to another; you can just change the names. That’s why these are so important to keep around and repurpose. If it simply turns into private housing, no one can connect to the story.”
Today, Reyes has restored House #12. Located at the bottom of the hill from the entrance, he knew “I wanted to do this house first when I bought the property.”
With the story of the house fueling his inspiration, a metal vulture sculpture greets visitors on the porch. Reyes, his wife and mother — designers, researchers, and builders—found the vulture family living upstairs in the attic space. The exterior doors are new, but the original front doors are used upstairs. The house is the story of Many Lynn, a winder in the mill and dressmaker. Old photographs provided the color scheme. Her granddaughters remembered playing with buttons and visitors will find a button checker table, button clocks and button trays within the house. Every detail is pulled from the story of who lived here.
All elements within every house speak to the life of the mill village family. Original wallpaper. Cotton bags. A headboard built from the owner’s privacy fence. Gears repurposed from the store.
“The house is beautiful,” states Reyes, “but it’s just a bunch of wood stacked together with nails. What inspires me is watching the families who stop in their tracks at the front, before they even walk in the house, and they have an emotional response when they remember something from their childhood. That is what inspires me to do more. Anyone can renovate anything.”
Reyes’ voice radiates his excitement of what is to come for the village. With plans to renovate the remaining 19 houses, he realizes it will take time, and if money were no object, it wouldn’t be as fun. Plans include renovation of the Company Store, which is the largest building on property and the structure used as the bakery in The Hunger Games, into a restaurant/event space called the Doogaloo. The food will be inspired by the history and culture of the Henry River community. “That’s our Mount Everest,” he concedes. “That’s what we’re working for.”
Tours of the property are provided daily; a quick overview of the village’s history, and visitors are released to roam the property. Admission and all purchases go into the non-profit to fund restoration. Fall tends to be the busiest time for the village with After Dark tours and its yearly Boos & Brews. What better place to spend the Halloween season than in an abandoned village in the middle of nowhere where pitch-black is the primary color.
House #12 (two units) is available for rent and can be booked on the Henry River website (henryrivermillvillage.com).
Next house for renovation, House #13. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. “I’ve got time.”
For more information on tours, rental of House #12 and upcoming events, visit henryrivermillvillage.com.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive, Oct. 2021)
(Photos: Judy Garrison)