Millpond Visitor Center dedicated

Published 5:54 pm Sunday, November 1, 2009

GATESVILLE – With historic Merchants Millpond, bathe in the rich colors of fall foliage, providing a scenic backdrop, hundreds of individuals made their way to Gates County on Saturday to celebrate the formal opening of the millpond’s new Visitor Center.

Following a short ceremony, which included a ribbon-cutting performed by the children in attendance, the new facility received plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” by those touring the 9,575-square foot building. Many of those in attendance also made their way, along a newly constructed walkway, to the edge of the millpond. There they were greeted by breathtaking scenery as the trees are in the midst of their annual color-splashed changeover.

“This park and its spectacular resources has led to the development and construction of this new facility,” said Jay Greenwood, Superintendent of Merchants Millpond State Park.

Greenwood went on to thank the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund for their $3.6 million investment into the new Visitor Center.

“We also owe a big debt of gratitude to the Merchants Millpond State Park Advisory Committee for their input on this new facility,” Greenwood noted. “Additionally we need to thank two groups who helped us financially – the Albemarle Environmental Association and the Friends of Merchants Millpond.”

Frank Rountree, a member of the park’s Advisory Committee, marveled at a place that he roamed as a child.

“We’re standing today on land formerly owned by my family,” said Rountree, adding that he now lives less than a half-mile away from the state park. “I’m proud to say this land is preserved for the enjoyment of those who visit it today and for the future generations to come.”

Rountree called the millpond, “a precious jewel.”

“We should applaud the park officials for the job they are doing here,” he stressed. “They are providing a safe environment for the plants, animals and mammals, some of them listed as extinct, that call this place as home. We must continue in an effort to protect this special place, its land and its inhabitants, especially protecting it from the OLF (Outlying Landing Field proposed by the US Navy in Gates County).”

Also making remarks at Saturday’s event was Lewis R. Ledford, Director of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

“Merchants Millpond is a special and unique place, one with a rich cultural history,” Lewis noted.

He touched upon the environmental education impact the new Visitor Center will have on schoolchildren and adults.

“That’s what it’s all about…giving young students a place to come and learn about the importance of protecting our natural resources,” Lewis said.

Lewis added that the Merchants Millpond facility was the 19th Visitor Center now in operation statewide. He said three more are currently in the works.

“State parks are economic engines,” Lewis said. “Every one dollar invested turns into two and one-half dollars for the local economy.”

Lewis also praised the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) effort that was used to construct the Millpond’s Visitor Center. He stressed that following this plan resulted in an environmentally-friendly facility.

Following the ribbon-cutting, one hosted by the Gates County Chamber of Commerce, those in attendance begin to tour the new Visitor Center and its grounds.

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.

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 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).