Buffalo Mill Historic District, Union County’s Forgotten Gem

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Named after the hordes of buffalos that formerly flocked the area in search of its mineral-rich rocks, Buffalo SC is a remote and unassuming town that barely gets any attention nowadays. Contrary to its somewhat dull present, Buffalo's recent past as a mill town still echoes all over, with lavish remnants of its once thriving textile industry dominating much of the local landscape.

The Mill and Bell Towers

Nestled in the heart of town, the two quaint 7 story towers are all that remains of Buffalo’s cotton mill as of today. Built in 1901 at the center of Buffalo, roughly 3 miles from the nearby Union City, the textile factory was one of 6 mills that were constructed across the county in an era where the local production of cloth played a major economic role.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Designed by W.B. Smith Whaley, whose company was one of South Carolina’s most prominent engineering firms in 1890’s-1900’s, the mill soon became the town’s main source of income, employing over 900 workers at its heyday.

 

Besides the mill’s extant bell-towers, the mill district also includes the power house, mill warehouse, mill office building, ice factory, general store, and the drugstore.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Additionally, as the town of Buffalo rapidly grew due to the increased demand of labor, the mill’s employees were offered a subsidized rental of a mind-bogglingly 55 cents in designated housing, which even when adjusted for inflation accounts for a measly 15 USD.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The town’s booming economy was unfortunately short lived, as the 1930’s great depression coupled with the overall technological advancement ultimately sealed the mill’s fate, which saw its profitability nosediving.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Following its decommission, the mill as well as many of its auxiliary buildings were abandoned and fallen into a state of disrepair, while the town struggled to reinvent itself economically.

photography by: Omri Westmark


After many years of neglect, the mill turned into a hazard that burdened on the local community, and so, the mill’s main building that once served as Buffalo’s beating heart was demolished, leaving a giant void of land in the middle of town.

 

Interestingly, salvaged bricks from the original mill structure were incorporated in some of buildings that were reconstructed in the aftermath of the 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The 4-story cloth mill at its glory days, with its red-brick façade ornamented with a series of arched elements, designed according to the late Victorian-Romanesque Revival style.

photography by: Jack Boucher


If you wonder about the function of the lavish belfries, the mill’s sole extant parts, then this pair of clock towers served as a staircase, linking the main building’s three floors. Unusually marvelous for their simple task of vertically moving workers between the different levels, the towers turned into the factory’s icon and thus managed to dodge their doomsday.

Architecturally renowned for their Romanesque Revival style façade, the towers feature a pyramid-shaped pinnacle, beige-hued arches and pilasters as well as a mixture of red and yellow brick corbellings. Each of the towers’ four sides is adorned with a clock, which suffice to say, is no longer working.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The towers’ rear side bears the scars of where the mill’s main building once stood, providing a fossilized glimpse of the mega structure.

 

In 1990, the towers along with other 188 buildings all across Buffalo were listed by the US federal government as part of the National Register of Historic Places, and thereby the complex is officially known today as the Buffalo Mill Historic District.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Groups of curious urban explorers used to frequent those abandoned bell-towers, and so, the local authority decided to hermitically seal the buildings, welding the door to its jamb.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Nevertheless, a small and slender window provides a glance into the interior part of the towers’ ground floor, which as of today is completely littered with debris, whereas the mill’s former staircase is clearly visible and relatively intact.

 

While there is a plan to revive the complex by renovating the towers and transform the nearby empty land plot into a public garden, none of which has come to fruition yet.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Mill Office

Standing out amid the otherwise solely industrial-style complex is the office building of the Union-Buffalo Mill Company. The overhang brackets combined with its pyramidal upper part make the house an outlier when compared to any of the mill’s other buildings, which are almost always orthogonal along their entire façade.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Surprisingly, its ritzy interior, inspired by the American Renaissance style, is very much preserved, albeit its moldering walls do require a thorough whitewashing.

photography by: Omri Westmark


While acting as a unicorn, the mill office still shares much in common with the neighboring buildings, particularly the red bricks which are incorporated into its exterior walls and happen to be the dominant feature across all the mill district.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Its majestic overhang brackets resonate with its rural context, and most importantly provide a much-needed respite from the exceedingly excruciating South Carolinian sun.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Perhaps the building’s most iconic feature is its partly open belvedere that protrudes from the roof. Topped by yet another pyramidal roof, the belvedere has a shaded porch, where once the office staff hanged out during breaks, enjoying both a cool breeze and a panoramic view of Buffalo’s townscape.

photography by: Omri Westmark


General Store and Drugstore

Just 300 meters from the former mill site, along Flat Dr, is another significant cluster of Buffalo’s industrial architecture, the town’s historic general store and drugstore, the latter of which is currently occupied by a local sports team.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Formerly Buffalo’s main store, the building was home to a general shop that offered practically every bit of everything, sort of 1910’s version of modern-day convenience stores.

 

Even if you aren’t an architecture expert, it is utterly difficult to ignore this lavish edifice, whose façade features a double arched opening, partially covered with glass wall which might be reminiscent by some of NYC Union station’s monumental glass arch.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Despite not being renovated for the past couple of decades, the seemingly abandoned building is actually doing just fine, in fact, its current owner operates a successful signage business and zealously proud of his architectural gem.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Formerly the town’s drugstore, the building is now dedicated to I.G. Vanderford, a war veteran who served in Korea, Japan and Europe, and later became a member of the Union County Council as well as the captain of Buffalo Post 87, an amateur baseball team that has been taking part in the American Legion league.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Facing the marvelous former stores is a rather nondescript brick house, a vestige of Buffalo’s Mill Village, whose buildings were mostly simpler and non-extravagant.

photography by: Omri Westmark