By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Two years ago, on the last day of April, Ruth and I wrapped up our photographing in North Carolina in the early dawn. Then we crossed into Virginia and enjoyed our breakfast around 6:45 a.m. while sitting in front of Sheppard’s Mill. From there, we spent an hour with Clayton and the Moonshine Girl and then headed towards Mabry Mill.
I’m sure you’ve seen some wonderful photos taken along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs more than 450 miles between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. On this trip, however, we were only on the Blue Ridge Parkway long enough to get ourselves to Mabry Mill, which is one of the most photographed subjects on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I know Ruth was trying to get us to Mabry Mill in the early morning before the sun was too high in the sky but I delayed us with the time we spent with Clayton and Pauline. It was about 10:30 a.m. by the time we reached the mill, so the lighting was far from ideal.
Edwin Boston Mabry was born in Patrick County, Virginia in 1867. In 1891, he married Mintoria Lizzie Dehart (who was known as Lizzie) in Floyd County, Virginia. For a few years, Ed worked as a blacksmith in the coal fields of West Virginia. Around 1903, he and Lizzie returned to Floyd County and bought some land with Ed’s earnings from the coal fields. There he built a blacksmith and wheelwright shop. It later became a sawmill and, finally, a gristmill.
With the help of his friend, Newton Hylton, who was also a blacksmith, he built and balanced the wooden overshot waterwheel. Then he bought some millstones from a rock quarry on Brush Mountain, cutting furrows in the surface of each stone for grinding. Because the land surrounding the mill was fairly level, Ed dammed the creek above the mill, bought more acreage, and built a series of connected races to bring enough water power to the mill.
If you search for information about Mabry Mill, you will find that most sources only mention Ed Mabry. However, his wife Lizzie was his partner in the operation of the mill and she worked long, hard hours, too. They started their day at 4 a.m. with a hearty breakfast, skipped lunch, and worked until 4:00 – 5:30 p.m. when they had their dinner. When Ed did his blacksmith work, Lizzie pumped the bellows. When he was sawing timber for the neighbors, she removed the boards from the saw blade. And if Ed was busy shoeing a horse or fixing someone’s tools, Lizzie ground the corn into cornmeal.
In addition to working alongside her husband, Lizzie tended to a garden, picked and dried berries and beans, canned sausage, made butter, and took care of chickens, two cows, and a hog. Around 1930, for reasons unknown, Ed lost the use of his legs. In the years that followed, the mill, waterwheel, and wooden flume fell into disrepair. In the mid-1930s, the park service acquired the mill and Lizzie was thrilled that the park service intended to restore it to be enjoyed by future generations.
Edwin Boston Mabry passed away in 1936 and Mintoria Lizzie DeHart Mabry followed him in 1940. They are both buried within a few miles of their now famous mill in DeHart-Mabry-Richardson Cemetery (officially called the Caney-Richardson Cemetery).
Before we left on this trip, my friend Erin told me to find a beautiful mountain stream and to take off my shoes and socks and put my feet in the ice cold water. Throughout our travels in North Carolina the previous week, the opportunity had never presented itself. As I walked around the grounds of Mabry Mill, there were many places where you could access the mill races.
Not wanting to admit that I never got around to doing what Erin had told me to do, I returned to the car, put most of my equipment away, and told Ruth I had one more thing I needed to do. I then grabbed my camera, headed back to the mill race, sat on the footbridge, took off my shoes and socks, and plunged my feet into the icy water as it rushed toward the mill.
As Jacobean playwright John Fletcher advised in the early 1600s in his play entitled Faithful Shepherdess:
Do not fear to put thy feet
Naked in the river sweet.