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Millpond Visitor Center now open

GATESVILLE – Gates County’s Merchants Millpond is steeped in history.

So why not add to that history by constructing a unique facility that adds to the natural beauty of this state park.

A ribbon cutting will be held at 10 a.m. on Oct. 24 to formally christen the new Visitor Center at Merchants Millpond State Park. The 6500-square-foot Visitor Center is the state’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rated facility.

The North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation invested $3.6 million into building the Center, which is now open to the public.

According to Jay Greenwood, Superintendent of Merchants Millpond State Park, the Visitor Center boasts of exhibit space, an auditorium, classrooms, workspace and administrative offices, plus a 600-square-foot outdoor classroom. A trail leads from to the outdoor classroom at the edge of the pond.

Additionally, park officials have moved the canoe rental area to the Visitor Center. The old canoe rental space now serves as a boating access area for the millpond.

“We’re very pleased with the new Visitor Center,” Greenwood said. “We think it adds to the beauty of the millpond and will serve us and the public well as we tell the story of Merchants Millpond.”

The Center’s main exhibit hall brings the public up close to the local environment. Greenwood said every display within the exhibit hall is indigenous to northeastern North Carolina.

Those displays highlight the four types of local habitat – Pine Woodland, Hardwood Forest, Swamp Forest and Coastal Pond. Each features the species of animals, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds that live within those four habitats.

One display reveals how Merchants Millpond is maintained while another shows how the millpond fits into the respective routes of migratory birds.

There is a walk-in display of a hollow tree, complete with replicas of big-eared bats and large Dolomedes spiders.

A three-dimensional display along one wall of the main exhibit hall reveals the footprints and other signs left behind by all sorts of critters that call Merchants Millpond as home.

Just outside the main exhibit hall is a display dedicated to the millpond’s history, including a mock-up of an old millstone. A line of telephones will link a visitor to pre-recordings made by Gates County residents who will share their memories of the old mill and the millpond.

A stroll down an adjacent hallway will further link a visitor to the past. There, visitors can see a slice of a 200-year-old oak tree that fell at the millpond during Hurricane Isabel. Another display traces the millpond timeline, one dating back to 1811. There are receipts from transactions conducted at the old mill as well as a old corn sheller (circa 1900).

Further down the hall is a display dedicated to the LEED construction process.

Included within the Center is a spacious auditorium, complete with a beautiful view of the millpond. Greenwood said that outside the normal activities that take place in the auditorium, it can be rented for non-millpond related events (i.e. meetings, weddings, reunions, etc.).

The Center also features a working classroom used for environmental education. Greenwood said students and teachers from throughout North Carolina and Virginia are invited to use the classroom. There is no fee for this service (call 252-357-1191 or toll-free, 1-877-722-6762 or visit www.ncparks.gov to make reservations).

Completing the Center is a huge, covered porch that offers a breathtaking view of the millpond. Greenwood said this area can also be used for those looking to relax or enjoy a leisurely lunch break.

A short walk from the Center is an outdoor classroom/picnic shelter, which is open to the public. There are other short trails leading from the Center to the millpond, including one that is handicap-accessible.

Merchants Millpond, which attracts over 220,000 visitors a year, is open daily (except Christmas Day). Park hours are 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Fall and Spring); 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Winter) and 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Summer).

Other environmentally-friendly aspects of the LEED system used to construct the Center include an efficient geothermal heat pump system to protect the surroundings from the noise of the mechanical equipment and to reduce energy use as well as dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals. Collection cisterns will provide rainwater for irrigation and hosing down canoes at the Outdoor Classroom. Locally available materials, such as Atlantic White Cedar wood siding, were used on the interior and exterior of the building. At least 95 percent of the lumber came from trees in the Dismal Swamp that were felled during Hurricane Fran.

Every main space in the building benefits from natural light through at least two sides of the room, thus reducing the need for artificial illumination. Merchants Millpond is a Registered Natural Heritage Area that covers 1900 acres and includes the millpond and part of Lassiter Swamp. It was established as a state park so that its diverse biological, scenic, archaeological, geological and recreational values could be protected.