By Amanda Woods
Nicole Callihan, a Brooklyn resident and essay-writing professor at NYU, co-authored a book that transports readers to Henry River, North Carolina, a small abandoned cotton-manufacturing village that recently became the set for District 12 in this year’s popular film, The Hunger Games. Callihan spoke to The New York Press about her newly released book, Images of America: Henry River Mill Village, her discoveries about village life, the stories she heard about her grandmother, who lived a tragically short life in Henry River, and the impact the Hunger Games had on the now-eerily quiet village.
New York Press: What got you interested in writing this book about Henry River Mill Village?
Nicole Callihan: My grandmother was raised in the village, and she died when she was a very young woman. She died when she was 30 in an automobile train collision, and I was always interested in the way she lived and died.
NYP: What stories have you heard about your grandmother’s life?
NC: She had always wanted to get out of the village – she had actually moved up north to Paterson, New Jersey for better-paying mill work because Henry River, even then, had no running water [and] had its own currency. The wages were very low, so it was called hoboing out of town to find better work.
NYP: What was the experience like for you to research for this book?
NC: I traveled down to North Carolina several times. It was unearthing. I had started a related project about seven years ago – more of a creative project with poems and pictures – and I started doing interviews back then, and then this particular book, we started working on it in the past year. There was a lot of renewed interest in the village because of The Hunger Games. We just ate pie and sat around and talked about way things used to be.
NYP: How would you describe life at Henry River Mill Village?
NC: It was a very close-knit community. People sat on the porch reading and making music. In the families, one person worked the first eight-hour shift and another parent worked the next, so someone would always be watching the children. The people helped each other out during hard times – they give tomatoes and potatoes to each other. They shared a lot of blackberries, and [there was] a lot of eating blackberries and drawing of vegetables. When it’s too cold to get out to the outhouse, you just use the slop jar.
People had pretty complicated feelings toward the village. In some ways, I think people get overly nostalgic about it. One thing I keep getting reminded of is how people really wanted to get out of there. A lot of people wanted to get out, but very few did. Many people who grew up still live within five miles of the village.
NYP: As you were researching what life was like at Henry River Mill Village, what surprised you most?
NC: It was just a totally different way of life. My co-author [Ruby Young Keller] who is 79 years old now, her mom sowed dresses to pay for the midwife for her to be born – 25 cents per dress. She had to make 25 dresses to pay for her delivery.
After the animals ate their feed, [women] would make dresses out of feed sacks. There was a lot of moonshine being run, which I guess didn’t surprise me, but I did like that it was confirmed.
NYP: What did you think when you heard that Henry River Mill Village would be the set for District 12 in The Hunger Games? Do you find that the book has attracted more people to visit the village?
NC: When I first saw the village, it looked like no one had touched it in a century – it was so abandoned, and there was little life there. No one had lived in the village in 20 years. On Saturday, we had our big book launch and there were 1,000 people there, and there were people on porches playing music and there were families and face painting and ice cream trucks and hot dog stands. This place that had been completely neglected is now getting a lot of attention. The Sci-Fi channel is auctioning it off on the show Hollywood Treasure – they are looking to auction the town off for someone who wanted to preserve it.
We really hope that [The Hunger Games] will draw attention to Henry River to help with preservation, and the North Carolina textile industry. It’s just a thing to see. It looks exactly like District 12 – they used it exactly as it is.
NYP: When you first visited the abandoned village, did you at all imagine people there, living and working at the mill years ago?
NC: I really do – it’s the kind of place that’s so quiet that you can sense the many voices that have populated it at other times. The air feels very rich even among all the abandonment.
NYP: What do you hope that readers gain from reading your Henry River Mill Village book?
NC: I just hope that it transports them to another time and another place, a place that’s both less complicated and more complicated, and that they can feel that energy.
NYP: Besides this Henry River Mill Village book, what other books have you worked on, or are you working on?
NC: This was my labor of love – I have a lot of other more creative projects that I’ve been working on. I have a bunch of poems, and I have a number of short stories. I have a young adult novel, and I’m working on a book of essays.
NYP: Is there anything else that you would like to share?
NC: I was pregnant when I wrote this book. I have a four-month-old now. That connection between thinking of my grandmother and my new daughter – someone that was really important to me – helped to propel me forward. The first poem I ever had published when I was 18 was about my grandmother. That mystery [about how she died] has always sent me looking for more about her.
The New York City book launch for Images of America: Henry River Mill Village will be held on Sept. 29 at Swift’s Hibernian Lounge – 34 East Fourth Street.
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