ONE PHOTOGRAPH changed Allen Millican’s life. In it, the 1951 Belmont Christmas parade marches down Main Street. It’s one of those pictures with endless details for a history buff to appreciate: the letter girls leading the parade, wearing shirts spelling B-E-L-M-O-N-T, if not the cheeriest expressions; late 1940s model Fords and Chevys lining the street; old signs promoting Belk and Stowe Mercantile; the candid expressions of people frozen in ordinary moments. “It reached out and grabbed me,” Millican says now.
Millican couldn’t bear to see the photo stuffed back into a drawer and forgotten. So he restored it, fixing the edges and the blemishes. That one photo turned into a hobby, and that hobby turned into the opening of the Millican Pictorial History Museum, dedicated to photos of Belmont and the surrounding area. The museum is in Belmont’s oldest home, built in 1868, and the place barely contains the nearly 16,000 photographs inside. Millican joked to a friend a few years ago that his wall space was so limited that he’d display photos on the ceiling one day. Then, the joke became reality, and up to the ceiling photos went …
“I’ve had people come in here and start screaming, jumping up and down,” he says. “Sometimes people start crying. People find their family in these photos.” The work has made him an enthusiastic historian of Belmont. “When people want to know about history, I go bananas,” he says.
For many old North Carolina textile towns, their best days are behind them, preserved through black and white pictures like the ones on Millican’s walls. Belmont, though, is more than just the old photos. It’s an exception. It boomed during its mill years a century ago, and now, it’s experiencing a boom of another kind.