Crews in north Georgia are deconstructing a century-old, 750,000 sq. ft. (69,677 sq m) textile mill that defined a community for generations. Inside the 34 buildings, specialized teams are harvesting items that include antique pine, aged maple and close to six million handmade bricks.
Built in 1907, the Crystal Springs Print Works mill in Chickamauga specialized in the bleaching, dying, printing and finishing of textiles, including linens, clothing, scarfs and Defender M Protective military apparel. President and CEO Steve Tarvin, who began working in the mill in 1970, closed the deteriorating structure in July 2013 and sold the mill and all of its contents.
“When you’ve walked through the gate of a plant for 44 years and have literally spent more time with those you work with than your family, an already difficult decision becomes much more difficult,” said Tarvin. “The plant closing literally affected thousands of people. We had put some $20 million annually into the surrounding economy.
Tarvin said a slow economy, coupled with the fact the textile industry has all but vanished domestically, played the largest role for closing the plant.
“It had become increasingly difficult to collect receivables on a timely basis due to increased regulation on industry, the effect the Affordable Health Care Act would have on the down line of our customer base, the unilateral decisions that were being made by the current administration through the EPA, along with a non-business friendly Senate invoking the ’Nuclear Option’. We saw no future in a business whose profits had continued to decrease. The rewards no longer outweighed the risks.”
In April 2014, a team of architects from Atlanta and Florida purchased the mill for an undisclosed sum. Crews assembled by the recently formed Crystal Springs Recovery Group are currently in the process of reclaiming as much of the mill as possible. The plan is to salvage the maple flooring, heart pine beams and brick from the structures and sell the machinery for scrap. The main buildings feature antique flooring, comprised of more than 200,000 sq. ft. (18,508 sq m) of maple, all hand inlaid and nailed to the subflooring. The walls are 15 in. (38.1 cm) thick and made entirely of brick.
Longtime architect Win Zeliff, whose company designed the master plan for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, serves as business operations and financial manager for Chickamauga Wood. He is overseeing the project, while his younger brother, Glenn Zeliff, serves as LEED project coordinator.
“Demolition is basically tearing down a building,” Glenn Zeliff said. “Most of these old textile mills will meet that fate. Only 10 percent of the candidates we select end up being financially feasible for deconstruction. We take the buildings down exactly the reverse of how they went up. The flooring is 3 and-a-half inches thick by 10 and-a-half inches wide, and the boards are 26 feet long. The beams are 18 to 20 feet high and 16 inches square, all solid wood.”
Various pieces of equipment are being used on the project, which will keep crews busy for quite some time.
“Our completion date is a 36-month program,” said Zeliff. “We are handing one of the world’s finest woods. Every nail must be removed so it doesn’t ruin the saw blade when we send them to be milled. Almost every foot of the milled wood is longleaf heart pine. Every unbroken brick is an antique handmade brick. These are products that are rare and of the highest standard. We are environmentalists who are trying to reclaim the highest percentage of all the materials, instead of sending them to waste. This job alone allows us to recycle 6,000 tons of U.S. steel, which goes right to the steel mills for use. We try to sell or recycle everything.”
Different metals in the mill’s nearly three dozen buildings will be recycled. Large pieces of old machinery were first on the list to be removed, making it possible to work freely in the facility. Dollies and forklifts have been used to avoid damaging the floors. Pieces are then sent on a flatbed to a local recycling plant. The mill is close to the interstate and a major railroad depot, allowing for an easy delivery to various markets.
Workers of the Fayetteville-based Steel Stallion Express have the daunting task of making sure items are carefully handled and taken apart. Teams are well aware of the sensitive inventory, including the mill’s bricks, which were made by forcing local clay into forms and then baking them in ovens. The outside skins are very hard, while the interiors are softer than bricks made today. They have 110 years of weathering, which gives them a patina.
“It’s important to realize that longleaf heart pine has been a premiere lumber for centuries,” said Zeliff. “A longleaf heart pine takes 200 to 500 years to mature. It’s flame resistant and water resistant, because of all the sap that’s in the tree. It’s very hard because it takes so long to grow and the rings are so close together.
“Once you cut down the longleaf heart pine, it was a done deal. It’s not a renewable product. After 1850 through 1900, 97 percent of all the longleaf heart pine forests had been cut down. Then the government came in and ’red-listed’ the remaining stands and put them on the endangered species list. So you won’t get any new growth trees, you can only get it from disassembling old buildings made with it, or from river bottom recovery.
According to Zeliff, the mill wood was examined by a third party to verify it is genuine longleaf heart pine.
“We took one the beams, sawed the end off and sent it off for authenticity testing. The beam is 16 inches square. By the naked eye, we counted 450 rings. There’s one light ring and one dark ring for each year of growth. When we say we counted the rings we mean the dark rings. On the corners, the wood gets really dark. We had to get magnification to count those rings, and there were 60 more. So this tree was at least 510 years old.”
To understand the mill’s significance, one must take note of the area’s history. Located in the northwest corner of Georgia just 18 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn., the City of Chickamauga was incorporated in 1891. The Chickamauga Battlefield, located just north of the city, is the oldest and largest Civil War battlefield in the country. In the early-to-mid-19th century, the present town of Chickamauga was a large plantation in the hills of Georgia. By the early 20th century, Chickamauga had become a textile-mill town that, at one time, supplied jobs to 72 percent of its residents. The operation that ultimately became Crystal Springs Mill Works was a major employer in the area.
“Seeing that every tree used to build that mill was harvested right off the Civil War battlefield at Chickamauga, which was done in 1907, we can expect that most of the wood is about the same age,” Zeliff said. “A 500-year-old tree has sap that’s 500 years old and is just one step away from becoming amber. That’s why there’s that red-orange color to the wood. Then dry that same wood for another 107 years, and it’s really hard.”
For the Zeliffs, being good stewards of the land is crucial in tackling any recovery project.
“It’s not just this mill, it’s the mentality of the people in this country — use it, and then throw it away. That generally equates to a hole in the ground at a landfill,” said Zeliff. “Landfills mean methane gas. They mean chemicals leeching down into existing aquifers. They mean rats and seagulls. Meantime, there is new technology called plasma arc gasification that is being spearheaded by General Electric. You can put one of these plants next to a landfill, siphon off the methane gas and use it as a fuel, and take all the trash on a truck, back it up and dump it in one of the plants hoppers.
“The trash is ground up into pieces and runs by conveyor belt to the plasma chamber, where it’s subjected to temperatures that equal the surface of the sun. Everything gets gasified. All that’s left is a black obsidian material that’s inert. Nothing escapes into the air but steam. And it generates electricity, which is sold back onto the grid, clean and cost-efficient. We have to think like this. So, rather then fill up a landfill, we’ll recycle, which means reuse. Any building parts that have been destroyed, we’ll use as clean fill for some of the holes we have on the site that need filling.”
As for the mill’s 74 acres and nearby land, they could be developed into a gated community with high-end homes, once the area is cleared. There are no set plans for the use of the property, which might remain business-related. It’s simply too soon for Tarvin to plan for the future, as he reflects on the shutdown.
“The loss of the plant will be felt for months to come. The decision to close was a very tough one; however, it was the correct one.”
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