Henry River Mill Village is a historic cotton mill company town built in the early 1900s about an hour outside of Charlotte. Historians have hailed it as one of Burke County’s most historically intact examples of a small company village that fueled the Industrial Revolution. But a new generation is becoming fascinated with the village for another reason: its role as District 12 in the 2012 blockbuster film, the Hunger Games.
Today, tourists are flocking to see a piece of film history, and while it’s given a boost to the county’s tourism industry, not everyone is happy with all the attention.
Wade Shepard is 85 years old. His fine white hair is neatly combed to the side, his striped polo evenly tucked into his slacks.
“This whole area was designated a national historic site about in the ‘40s or ‘50s,” he says, overlooking the small, empty town. “I don’t remember which year.”
Shepard is the sole owner and groundskeeper of Henry River Mill Village. To give an idea of what that entails, Shepard mows the grass for most of the 600-acre village, which works out to about two to three hours of mowing, six days a week. He rests on Sunday.
Shepard bought the village on a whim in 1975 a few years after the mill shut down and after Shepard lost his land to an incoming highway. Shepard’s always had a thing for real estate, and, boy, is this a piece of real estate.
A twisty, sloping road snakes its way through the tiny town, made up of about 20 one-and-a-half story wooden shacks. The houses are in deep decay. Gray paint is flaking off the outer walls, splotches of rust have settled into the tin roofs, and thick vines curl around smashed window panes. It’s weathered, but picturesquely weathered.
The town’s centerpiece is a graying company store. A two-story brick building that served as the village’s grocery store, general store, school, and church. Though it may be more recognizable from its role in the Hunger Games:
“That was the Bakery,” Wade says. He points to the first floor display windows. “They had wire shelves sitting in front of these windows, and those windows. And on this side they had long loaves that looked like they’d melt in your mouth. And on this side it was big rolls. And every one of them was fake. And that’s where Peeta thow’d his bread to the girl who stood behind the tree back here.”
Shepard says it was fun to watch the filming, but now he’s dealing with the after-effects. Namely, visitors. Hundreds of them. Some of are friendly. Others, not so much. Shepard points to the house directly next to the company store as an example.
“This house, all the windows were in,” he says, “Everything in good shape. About six weeks ago, on Friday night, they throw’d a beer party there. The cans was inside, outside. There were four posts that supported that porch there. They took the posts and took ‘em with them.”
At one point, every door in the village was screwed shut and all the windows boarded. That’s not the case today. People have forced the doors open and completely smashed out the windows. Shepard hasn’t had the time or the strength to repair them. He tried installing a camera.
“But they stole the camera!”
In fact, just as we were conducting the interview while in Shepard’s car, I spotted a small group of teen girls walking out of one of the houses up the street.
“Nobody’s supposed to be inside of a house,” Shepard tells me, “I allow them to come stay on the pavement, take pictures, do whatever they want to do.”
Just not go into the old houses. Shepard, who recently had heart surgery and has trouble walking, asks me to exit the car and bring to teen girls over to him.
As I approach them, it’s clear one of the girls has cut herself on some glass. The girl has a bloody ankle, likely ruining her white Chuck Taylors forever. They ask if we have any napkins in the car. Shepard hands them some fast food napkins and gently tells them stay out of the houses. There’s broken glass, rusty nails, unreliable wood floors. The teens sheepishly nod and head to their car.
I ask Shepard if it’s common for visitors to ignore the “Do Not Enter” signs posted outside the buildings.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he says, “When I’m here I stop and tell everybody: do not enter buildings. Do not be on the grounds. The grounds have holes. Groundhog holes, rock holes, and all kind of holes.”
Even as he tells me this, we spot another car parked behind one of the houses that isn’t supposed to be on the grounds, and over the course of an hour, we run into half a dozen more people wandering the village.
Being in his 80s, Shepard says he’s starting to do estate planning. He doesn’t expect to be around in the next decade or two. And as such, he’s trying to get the property off his hands. For a cool $1.4 million, he says, you can buy your own town, a piece of film history!
He’s had a few potential buyers, but they’ve all backed out at the last minute.
And as more and more people flood the old village, Shepard has a harder and harder time keeping up. Almost every day he finds a new broken window, or a missing antique, or a vandalized wall.
So if you know anyone with a briefcase of money, he says, call today. In the meantime, he’ll most likely still be mowing the grass, three hours a day, six days a week.