Part One of a two part series highlighting the Town of Pelzer
Photo – Historic Building – This historic building once housed the Pelzer Hospital and before that the Pelzer Lyceum. Plans are to one day renovate it to house a new Pelzer Town Hall.
Textiles, technology and tennis to recreation and residential development
By: Gail Jeter/ Pelzer Heritage
Twelve miles southeast of the City of Greenville’s bustling downtown, and just across the Saluda River’s border into neighboring Anderson County, lies the quiet town of Pelzer, South Carolina. This small, yet closely-knit community is deeply rooted in the textile industry. Drawn to the banks of the Saluda River as a power source during the South’s Reconstruction period, the Pelzer Manufacturing Company’s four mills were constructed in the late 1800s, rapidly growing to become the largest mill community in the South and one of the largest in the world.
The mills were not only significant in terms of size and production capability, but also because of the technology employed at the time. Pelzer Mill No. 1 was the first cotton mill to have an incandescent lighting system as well as the first electric generators. Pelzer Mill No. 4 was the first textile mill to be powered solely by electricity, and even more impressively, via overhead cables from a power plant located four miles away. Eventually Mill No. 4 came to be known as the Upper Mill due to its location further upstream from Pelzer Mills Nos. 1-3 which were collectively grouped together and subsequently named the Lower Mill. Consequently, the area that had once been a simple ferry crossing-turn-bridge spanning the river rapidly evolved into a mill town. This sudden migration of thousands of workers and their families was supported entirely by the Pelzer Manufacturing Company. A close knit community grew around the mill, which became the heart of the Town. Homes, stores, community buildings, and a livery stable were constructed. Many of these homes are still standing and lived in today. Recreation was important. Tennis courts, a golf course, baseball fields, horseracing track, skating rink, and a grandstand were built. There was a lyceum for lectures and discussions, and the library contained 3,000 volumes with 25 newspaper and periodical subscriptions. The Town thrived! According to the 1890 census, 4,181 people lived in Pelzer.
Pelzer Manufacturing Company was sold to Lockwood-Greene in 1923, then to the Kendall Company in 1936. Subsequently, the mills were sold to the Gerber Company (Gerber) in 1986. Gerber ceased operation in the late 1990s. The textile mill decline in Pelzer was compounded by the introduction of synthetic fibers and then the foreign outsourcing of textile work. With the decline and closing of Gerber, the Town of Pelzer struggled.
In 2003, the shuttered mill was sold to Greenlight Enterprises, LLC (Greenlight) and Brickyard Trucking, Inc., a subsidiary of Greenlight. Unfortunately, this owner removed salvageable materials, ceased work, and leased the Lower Mill site to a pallet recycling company. With residential properties surrounding the lower mill on all sides except the east side along the Saluda River, and residential properties bordering the upper mill on all sides except the south, the Town was concerned about health, environmental, and safety hazards that the mill sites posed. In addition, trespassers and vandals could access the sites. Drug use was suspected, and several fires have occurred on the Lower Mill site. Pelzer had relied on the mills, and the Town tried to provide the same services after the mills left which included going from artesian wells to supply cheap water to connecting with Greenville Water, and attempting to keep recreation as a priority, including keeping a costly public swimming pool open. This work is not easy for a Town that had dwindled to less than 100 people.
A New Beginning
It was easy for the Town, its residents, its former residents, and Anderson County to see exceeding potential in Pelzer– the Saluda River access, its history, and the number of people traveling through Pelzer on Highway 8, and its close proximity to the City of Greenville. The difficulty arose in determining where to start. In 2008, Harry Marchant, Executive Director of a non-profit, Friends of Pelzer, had a vision of what Pelzer could be if the old mill sites were cleaned up and redeveloped. He researched brownfields grant opportunities and suggested to the Town that it apply. The Town of Pelzer was awarded a $200,000 EPA Brownfields Assessment Grant in 2010 with which it assessed the Upper and Lower Pelzer Mills. Phase I and II Environmental Site Assessments as well as asbestos surveys were performed on the Upper and Lower Mills. Anderson County also had a brownfields assessment grant and assisted the Town by having a Phase I ESA done of the Pelzer mill disposal areas. EPA contributed more assistance and conducted a Phase II ESA of these disposal areas and prepared an Analysis of Brownfields Cleanup Alternatives (cleanup plan for the disposal areas) through its Targeted Brownfields Assessment Program. Also, a visioning session was conducted during the grant process which was well attended by the community. Twenty-four people attended from a population of less than 100. The people wanted to see revitalization of Pelzer – maybe a community center on the Upper Mill, some means of providing recreational opportunities on the Saluda River bordering the Lower Mill site with a strong desire to preserve Pelzer’s history. The question remained – Now what? – how do we accomplish our goals?
Pelzer Heritage Commision sets out to revive Pelzer Spirit
Fortunate would have it that in 2010, the “mill hill’ kids who now lived in Pelzer, West Pelzer, Williamston, and beyond united to form The Pelzer Heritage Commission (PHC), a non-profit organization. This group of people, born and raised in Pelzer, came together with a vision to save and preserve the rich heritage that belongs to the town. With few assets but plenty of Pelzer Pride, this group set about to revive the old Pelzer Spirit and its special memories. Two reunions held at the historical Pelzer gym brought scattered residents back to town. Two festivals held in the old Monkey Park displayed Pelzer crafts and local merchants. Events held at the school auditorium brought back memories of plays and musicals enjoyed by grandparents. Two books were published to help preserve Town memories and veterans’ service records.
PHC recognized that the 72 acres of mill properties were the key to revitalization and that the only way to get the mill properties cleaned up was for PHC to acquire all of the former mill properties. The Town did not have the resources, but the PHC could do fund raising, so in late 2013, PHC acquired all 72 acres, in accordance with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC)’s Voluntary Cleanup Program. This huge step by a small non-profit led by volunteers was instrumental in building momentum for the Town.
Many other exciting occurrences have transpired. A gentleman who was raised in Pelzer has returned to live, teach school, and open a community theatre which holds sell-out performances. PHC and the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation (PTHP) are working together to establish a historical district in Pelzer. PHC and Anderson County are partnering to demolish condemned homes throughout the County. The Town of Pelzer annexed approximately 300 acres which included four churches, 531 homes, one shopping center, six other commercial properties, and all of the Pelzer Mill properties in 2015. It should be noted that Pelzer is one of the few towns in South Carolina that have used the 25 percent annexation by petition method and that the annexation tripled the town limits and will increase the number of properties in the new town limits by several hundred. PHC received $400,000 in EPA Brownfields Cleanup funds to cap the old Pelzer Mill disposal areas with plans to convert them into a park. PHC received a $48,000 grant from SCDHEC to perform asbestos and lead paint abatement at the Lower Pelzer Mill administration building. Anderson County borrowed $250,000 from the SCDHEC Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund to perform cleanup activities on the Lower Pelzer Mill. In addition, Anderson County appropriated $50,000 to remove and properly dispose of all of the pallets left by the pallet recycler at the Lower Pelzer Mill.
Most recently, the Town of Pelzer and West Pelzer received a Municipal Association of South Carolina grant for $25,000 for a Community Master Plan Charrette focusing on the Highway 8 corridor that runs through Pelzer and West Pelzer. This work will include a look at retail and housing opportunities in the West Pelzer/Pelzer area and a three day visit to gain community input. The deliverables will include a one page strategy board, a summary poster, and an annotated presentation. We plan to use this work as an aid to developing a full Master Plan for our Town.
Cleanup efforts begin
The Saluda River is being used for fishing and kayaking regularly, so many more people from the area come to launch their kayaks and fish. The PHC received two EPA Brownfield Cleanup grants and have installed engineered caps on the dump parcels in order to transform the properties into a riverside park.
Of the 13 mill parcels, four had environmental concerns, including two parcels that were used as a disposal area for the mills, were located on the Saluda River. People from Pelzer and its neighboring towns, West Pelzer and Williamston, were coming to these dump parcels to launch their kayaks and fish. In fact, a makeshift kayak launch had been established there.
Environmental assessment had been performed on these dump areas, and the soils were found to be contaminated by arsenic, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels that exceeded the EPA Regional Screening Levels for industrial and residential use. PHC decided to first focus on these disposal areas located on the Saluda River. Anderson and Greenville Counties are developing greenways and blueways along the Saluda River, so cleanup of these two parcels and the creation of a park here would greatly benefit and improve this portion of the Town and would fit nicely with work already occurring on the river. The disposal areas needed to be capped to prevent exposure. PHC, with assistance from Cardno, applied for two EPA Brownfield Cleanup Grants (one for each parcel) to make this area safe for the community. At that time, EPA Brownfield Cleanup Grants were for $200,000 maximum per site and required a 20% match. PHC, with no financial resources other than through fundraising at local events and some donations, had no money for a match, so PHC requested a waiver to the match. It took two tries, but the grants were approved in 2015, so $400,000 was awarded. (Please note that Cardno does not perform cleanup work/capping.) Bids were solicited for the capping work, and the lowest bid came in almost $200,000 over the $400,000 budget. What now? PHC went to DHEC, accompanied by EPA and Cardno, to beg for a grant from DHEC’s Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund. PHC was not eligible for a loan because they did not have financial resources to pay back a loan. DHEC awarded the grant, and the capping work was completed on September 30, 2018.
Since 2018, PHC has applied successfully for another EPA Brownfield Cleanup Grant for the Upper Mill site. Backed by Anderson County, PHC received a loan/grant to cleanup the asbestos and lead paint at the Lower Mill site and has recently signed a contract with a developer for a portion of both the Upper and Lower Mill for redevelopment. Also, as living expenses in nearby Greenville continue to increase, people who work in Greenville are looking beyond the City for residences. Pelzer, only 20 minutes away, is becoming more attractive, and a developer is considering acquiring some property near the disposal area site for construction of new homes. Improvements, visually and environmentally, seem to be coming to Pelzer, largely through the effort of the PHC in cleaning up the mill properties. Redevelopment of brownfields often occur in stages/portions of the property. It is likely that PHC will have the financial resources in the future to make a match to add to and complete a full high quality park on the disposal area site.
PART 2 – Building on Pelzer History will be published the October 5 print edition of The Journal. Part 2 will focus on Pelzer History, the Saluda River Greenway plan, hiking and biking trails as part of the Palmetto Area Master Plan for Anderson County and an update on the Pelzer Mill Property Development.