By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
On our photography trip to North Carolina in the spring of 2010, Joann and I had one long day of travel to get out of the mountains and to the Piedmont area of the state. Towards the end of that day, we were passing close to the restored Murray’s Mill Historic District. Luckily we had time to stop and spend quite a bit of time there.
In 1883, William Murray built the first mill on the banks of Balls Creek, the site of the present day Murray’s Mill. In 1906, William deeded the property to his sons, John and Oley. In 1907, John acquired more than an 80% interest in the mill from his brother Oley, who took over operation of the general store.
In 1913, John replaced his father’s mill with the current two-story mill and added a 22-foot overshot waterwheel. He kept his father’s one-ton French buhr millstones for grinding corn. In the expansion of the mill, the general store was moved to its current location.
In July of 1916, two hurricanes swept across North Carolina in the space of two weeks. On July 8-10, the first hurricane came out of the Gulf of Mexico and over the Blue Ridge Mountains. It saturated the soil in the Catawba Valley. The second storm moved in off the Atlantic on July 14-16 and stalled when it hit a cold front over Tennessee. This resulted in the highest rainfall ever recorded in the United States up to that time, a total of 22.22 inches in a 24-hour period. The Catawba River crested at 47 feet above low water level on July 15, 1916, sweeping away every bridge on the river except one. Most of the water-powered mills on the river were also casualties of the flooding. Murray’s Mill was one of the few surviving mills in the area.
In 1938, John’s son Lloyd raised the dam six feet and installed the current 28-foot waterwheel. The original dam was wooden and may still be beneath the surface of the present-day millpond.
The 1880’s wheat house is just up the hill from the mill and was originally used to store unprocessed grain which was conveyed to the mill through chutes. The chutes to the mill are gone, but one can imagine how the mill might have looked when it was in operation.
Across Balls Creek is the John Murray House, a large bungalow-style house which was the former residence of the miller. The house was built in 1912 and has period furniture displayed inside. There is another family house located nearby on the banks of Balls Creek.
Lloyd closed the doors of the mill in 1967 due to bureaucratic red tape and increasing taxes. The site was acquired by the Catawba County Historical Association, which began restoration in 1980. In 1986, restoration was complete and an opening ceremony was held.
Across the road from the mill is the Murray and Minges General Store. The store is a two-story, gable-front building and was originally called the O.D. Murray and Company Store. The name was later changed to Murray & Minges through a marriage.
Inside the store that day, we met Jennifer Marquardt-Leach, Catawba County Historical Association’s Registrar of the Murray’s Mill Historic District. While we enjoyed the old time ambience of the store, she gave us some of the history of the mill and the other buildings. She was also kind enough to tell us where to go for the best photo opportunities. The store still has the old bulk bins and shelves full of old-fashioned merchandise. A pot-bellied stove sits in the center with an old Coca Cola cooler along the back wall.
We finished our visit to the mill with a quiet lunch at a small picnic table near the general store. From there we could see the mill and the miller’s house, and look over at the wheat house across the road. We love it when we can enjoy our meals in some historic or picturesque spot. It’s one of the reasons we rarely visit restaurants on our trips. The first reason is that it takes away too much of our shunpiking time, but more importantly, we want to be out in the countryside where the real history is.
When you’re in the vicinity of a historic district or site, take the time to stop and learn about our country’s heritage.