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Development project giving old mill town of Stonewall new life

To say that the tiny East Mississippi community of Stonewall was once a mill town is understatement. At one point, 850 of Stonewall’s 1,200 residents worked at the cotton mill, which offered everything — housing, company store, school, even a jail.

And the workers turned out a tremendous amount of product. Odds are if one has ever worn a pair of jeans, the material came from Stonewall Manufacturing Company Inc.

When the mill shut down in 2002 after nearly 135 years of continual operation, it appeared to be the death of the town. However, the community is getting a fresh start as two men are converting the old mill site into a commercial development and tourist destination.

Uncovering the past

Riding through Stonewall in 2004, Meridian businessman Gil Carmichael spotted a bankruptcy sign on the former home of the mill’s manager. Carmichael is experienced in restorations, loves the work and saw potential in the property.

Calling the number on the sign, Carmichael negotiated a deal and took out an option on the former home. But he soon realized that he would also like to buy a former park adjacent to the house. Making another phone call, Carmichael was told that the park could not be purchased by itself, but had to be included in a package that included all of the former cotton mill site.

This made the proposed transaction significant, indeed. The old cotton mill site encompasses approximately 75 acres, and at that time counted a total of 11 buildings. But Carmichael was still interested.

“I’m an old horse trader, so we started talking,” he says. “I ended up taking an option on the entire site.”

Carmichael pulled in a partner, Tom Sebring of Langsdale, and the two went to work on turning the former cotton mill into a job-creating and money-making enterprise. (Looking further to preserve the site’s long history, the two men incorporated under the operation’s former name, Stonewall Manufacturing Company Inc.) That would take capital, and, fortunately, the partners found a ready source of that onsite.

The materials used to construct the buildings, many of which were built in 1868, proved to be quite valuable. The bricks are handmade, perhaps manufactured there at the old mill. The flooring was 3 1/2 inches thick, 4 3/4 inches thick in some places, and the beams were 17”x15”x25’. Both the flooring and the beams were of antique heart pine, and this wood and the bricks found eager buyers. Thus, Carmichael and Sebring deconstructed structures that they did not want to keep and used the sale of the building materials to refurbish those that did want to retain.

The men’s first effort was to develop an RV park. In the process, a piece of the past was uncovered.

In a weedy field, concrete was discovered sticking from the ground. It proved to be a swimming pool. Doing some research, the men found the pool was once a popular spot for the local kids. But when integration came along, the powers that were filled in the pool rather than open it to swimmers of all colors.

Now, the swimming pool has been unearthed and workers were hard at restoring it the day of the interview for this story. Carmichael and Sebring plan to open the pool at the end of this month or the first of September to the public.

The men have also purchased the Robinson buildings, which once housed the bank, company store and pharmacy. After months of cleaning and removing years’ of trash, these facilities are now entertaining tenants.

Attracting visitors

Another major project nearing completion is the restoration of the former manager’s home. The two-story structure had stood vacant for years. The four-bedroom, four-bath house offers two sun porches, and is ideally suited for its new life as a bed and breakfast. Stonewall Manufacturing anticipates taking in its first borders in October.

And then there is the former warehouse. Carmichael and Sebring have converted it into a unique, 14,000-square-foot indoor flea market. It is open and drawing approximately 150 people on average each Saturday.

The RV park, bed and breakfast and flea market point to the two men’s other goal for the development — to serve as a tourist magnet. And the community already has a good base on which to build.

The Stonewall Historical Society is very active, and, in fact, may be one of the refurbished building’s tenants. The community’s annual homecoming event, slated this year for September 13, draws approximately 3,000 people.

Then there is Nashelle’s. The restaurant is run by Nashelle Sebring, Tom’s wife, and has won a steady stream of loyal patrons from Meridian and as far away as Laurel and Hattiesburg.

Carmichael said the surrounding communities of Enterprise and Quitman have equally active historical societies, and restoration and development work there should add more to the area as a tourist destination.

All of this work has not been easy for the men. In addition to all their other challenges, Hurricane Katrina caused a major interruption in their development plans. But they have persevered, and they both said the excitement the work has brought to the locals and the jobs created is reward enough for them.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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