For about 40 years, the Christmas decorations at the historic Drayton Mill in Spartanburg County were an annual tradition that brought joy to many.
But when the mill went dark in 1994 after 92 years of continual operation, so to did the holiday lights.
That was nothing, however, compared with the devastating effect the mill’s closure had on the community surrounding the once-prosperous economic engine.
Former Milliken & Co. employees dislocated by cheaper labor overseas, international trade agreements and other factors of globalization moved away with their families to seek out new opportunities.
Much of the mill’s machinery and equipment was removed, leaving its vast halls empty and cold.
The Christmas decorations also vanished like a lost memory.
That is until 2009, when Drayton Mill’s founder’s great-great grandson took a trip from Spartanburg to Milliken’s New Holland plant in Gainesville, Ga., and made a fortuitous discovery in the back of one of its warehouses.
“They caught my eye,” said Spartanburg developer John Montgomery. “I went to the old [Spartanburg Day] school across the street [from Drayton]. I grew up looking at these decorations.”
At the time, Montgomery was working for Pacolet Milliken Enterprises, a private investment firm founded in Spartanburg by Milliken shareholders to preserve and grow the textile giant’s real estate and energy assets.
He and former co-worker Stewart Winslow were sent down to the New Holland mill for work.
Montgomery’s great-great grandfather and Drayton Mills founder, John H. Montgomery, was killed at the New Holland mill in 1902 when he fell from scaffolding during its construction.
“It’s really a miracle that the decorations survived,” Montgomery said. “We told the plant manager that if they ever were going to get rid of them to let me know.”
A few months later, Montgomery said he received a call from the plant manager. He had the decorations brought back to Spartanburg and stored them in a warehouse across town.
In 2013, Pacolet Milliken reopened Drayton’s spinning and weaving plants to be redeveloped into luxury apartments.
Montgomery decided to have the decorations, which he said were in “pretty bad shape,” restored by historic preservationist Megan Brown.
Brown brought them back to their original glory. She also researched their history and found out they were built at the mill by the late Charles Tucker in the 1950s out of scraps from around the mill.
Pieces of old textile machinery and wood panels painted with the same mint green that brightened the mill are visible on the pieces, which include a train engine, church, nativity scene, wooden snowman a lighted “Merry Christmas” sign, Christmas trees and a Santa Claus, sleigh and reindeer formed from metal.
Winslow towed the train behind his truck during the Spartanburg Jaycees Christmas Parade two years ago.
“A lot of craftsmanship went into these things,” Montgomery said. “There was a lot of pride in this community. I think it was the mill’s way of showing their Christmas spirit.”
Montgomery and his business partner, Tara Sherbert, managing partner of Charlotte, N.C.-based TMS Development, which was over the loft apartment project at Drayton, purchased the mill’s warehouses from Pacolet Milliken in 2015.
They are in the process of redeveloping that space into the Drayton Mills Marketplace featuring space for restaurants, retail and offices.
The space has already attracted a new dining concept by Greenville restaurateur Rick Erwin called The Standard: A Refined Kitchen, offices for Agracel, the corporate offices for Melotte Enterprises and its coffee venture Mozza Roasters.
Montgomery said he has placed the decorations out for the past two years, but this year they were given more prominent space in front of the Marketplace and in an adjacent parking lot where passersby on Drayton Avenue can see them.
Drayton Fire Department Chief Mike Comer said the community is glad to have the decorations back and is very excited about the new energy the redevelopment of the mill has brought back to Drayton.
“It’s so nice to see some of the older stuff that was there come back and brighten up the community again,” he said.
Montgomery said he plans to continue putting the decorations on display every year.
For more information, visit: www.draytonmarketplace.com.