By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
Every year on our photography trips, we try to hunt up as many mills as we can. In the spring of 2010, we took our trip to North Carolina. In my research, I had found that this was a land of many mills. And many of the mills had been or are still water-powered (our favorite).
Some of the mills are still open and grinding flour, or have become historic sites and are deserving of a story all their own. Others are forgotten little mills sitting along lonely back roads, sometimes on a road appropriately named “something” Mill Road.
Maybe you remember our post about the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis. That same morning, after leaving the store, we started to drive some backroads in search of our favorite subjects. The descriptions I had for our first mill said the mill was a few miles down a back road. We started down the road following close to the river. When we had driven more than twice what my directions had said, we started to wonder if we were following the wrong road or if maybe the mill was gone. Finally we found a man outside his house, and we pulled in to ask him if he knew of the mill. He told us it was just down the road.
For our first North Carolina mill, it was amazing. It stretched out along the river and we drove to the end of it to find a small farm driveway to park in. The mill was built in 1890 by Bill Ward, and washed away in a 1901 flood. It was rebuilt as a grist and saw mill. After Bill’s death, his son took over the mill. While Bill’s interest had mainly been the grist mill, his son Ben’s main interest was the saw mill. In 1940 another flood damaged the mill, and in 1947, the grist mill was shut down.
The next day, as we drove some state highways to leave the mountains, I had to take us off of the main route to drive Stepp Mill Road. Our goal was to find an old mill with a 34 foot waterwheel that may be the biggest remaining in North Carolina. As we passed the mill at the bridge, we could see the huge waterwheel looming out over the hillside. The present day mill evolved over 100 years. It was progressively built higher and higher on the hillside with the dam being raised each time. The original level of milling sometimes flooded, but the milling operations stayed dry two stories above.
After this mill, we went back to the main highway to continue to the Piedmont area which is more flat and easier to navigate. We enjoyed our time in the mountains, but it is much harder to get around, and there are few places to pull off for photos. I noticed a road on the map called McKinney Mill Road. I didn’t find a mill on that road during my research for the trip, but since the road headed in the general direction of our current path, I couldn’t resist having Joann turn off.
As we got away from the noise of the highway, we came upon the old mill sitting silently along the West Fork of Sandy Run Creek. A small sign in front of the mill told us that this was indeed McKinney Mill, erected in 1860 and that William M. Packard was the millwright. So far, that is our only information about this old mill.
It was still early, and we hadn’t had breakfast yet. Since it was our first quiet road of the morning, we decided this was a good place to eat our picnic breakfast. As Joann made her way around the mill photographing it, I opened the back hatch and took strawberries and yogurt from the cooler and some granola from the pantry bag and made us each a fruit and yogurt parfait. Then, when she finished her photos, we stood in the quiet, listening to the sound of the water and the birds in the trees around the mill.
The next day we visited several well-known mills including The Old Mill of Guilford. The rest of the day had us finding many old tobacco barns and old general stores. At the end of the day, on the way to our motel, we drove one more mill road. This one was Dickey Mill Road, and we found the old boarded up mill sitting along Quaker Creek.
Normally I have a plan for our first morning photos, but the next night when we were too tired to go on, we found the closest motel. As I checked the maps and my research that night, I couldn’t find a plan for what to do the next morning. We decided to head in the direction of some old mills I had marked and see what we could hunt up.
Our first mill of the day was Blackman’s Mill, and even as we were photographing it, I couldn’t figure out if this was really the mill. Oh, it was a mill all right, but the road it was supposed to be on was Maple Grove Church Road. The road sign and my gazetteer said we were on Oak Grove Church Road. As Joann was processing the photos for this story, she called me and, after looking at our information and the gazetteer, we decided that this was indeed Blackman’s Mill.
Our next stop was Warren Mills. This was a location with an old and newer mill. The newer mill was a feed mill and not very picturesque, but as we drove a little further and saw the old mill, we were amazed. This was one of those mills that was built right over the water.
The only problem with this mill was that there were not many angles Joann could photograph from, since she couldn’t walk up to and around it. Nonetheless, it was a very interesting mill.
Later that day, we drove a loose gravel road called Water Mill Road. My only information was that there was a small frame mill on this road. Again it was a mill built over the water, with a lot of vegetation, so Joann couldn’t walk up to it. The gazetteer shows that the mill sits on Walters millpond, so perhaps this mill was called Walters Mill. Since we have no other information, we may never know.
That’s the way it is with some of these forgotten mills. They aren’t in a populated area, and the miller who cared about the mill has passed on. Sometimes family cares enough to keep them standing, and sometimes they slowly fall into ruins. We are always thrilled to find an old mill in any condition, since we know how much it costs to keep the mills standing, and how much more it costs to keep them functioning.
So here’s to everyone who cares about an old mill. Even though you may not know it, there are a lot of people like us, driving the backroads, and appreciating your hard work and determination in keeping your mill standing.