…And at the End of the Grist Mill Stream

by CeliaM on May 19, 2022

As a child, daily I walked past Pounding Mill Branch and years later, I learned that my great grandfather owned a mill (as many farmers did) in western North Carolina.

I was an adult before I ever saw or stepped inside a water-powered grist mill. And my husband and I never owned a mill. So geography and genetics can’t explain my enthusiasm for these structures.

I credit two men. In the 1970s, Dr. Harley Jolley, professor at Mars Hill College, taught a local history course requiring a project. I created a slide program on old mills/sites in nearby Haywood County.

It helped that I had an excellent camera and had already seen a couple of mills. Then when I interviewed mill owner, Dewey Francis, and saw his 1887 mill next to his house, I was hooked.

That course was the beginning; meeting and hearing the old timers’ stories of growing up around a mill kept me intrigued.

The tipping point, however, was the SPOOM conference in Canada. Being warmly welcomed into the Spoomers’ fold and visiting Canadian mills pushed us right over in semi-obsession.

After that, any road sign with the word “Mill” in it set us off in pursuit. We climbed, clambered, questioned, stood in awe and stood in dismay at structures that had survived flood, fire, centuries, scavengers, and creatures—and too many that hadn’t.

Whether marveling at a tiny tub mill in the Great Smoky Mountains or the horizontal “click”/Norse mills in the Outer Hebrides and Shetland  or staring at wheels taller than three stories, whether in log, frame, or stone buildings, I am always impressed.

The sheer ingenuity of converting the power of water through the use of paddles, wheels, canvas fabric into energy to drive sawmills, windmills, waterwheels…I never get over it. Nor can I easily explain all those ratios and math maneuvers.

Over the next three-into-four decades at conferences, photographing and researching an astounding variety of water and wind-powered mills here and abroad, we talked “milling-ese” (my word for the special vocabulary of mill enthusiasts).

But I confess the technology still baffles me, gears confuse me, and rushing waters and rodents scare me.

Nearing retirement, when I started writing fiction, in my second “sweet romance,” ThymeTable Mill, my heroine wants a grist mill on their herb farm. I naively thought once a suitable mill was found, it could be put on a truck and transported to the farm.

That’s when I learned that the mill had to be taken apart and painstakingly reassembled!  Fiction had to be supported by facts.  I keep reading, finding, learning (and forgetting), re-learning.

In the historical Appalachian trilogy (Sarranda, Sarranda’s Heart, Sarranda’s Legacy), a grist mill is almost a “character” in itself.

When I tried my hand at mysteries, I had the heroine quit teaching and become a mill consultant.

And, naturally, given my interest and the nature of mysteries, she finds a body at the first consulting job.

Thus, The Body at Wrapp’s Mill and then The Body at StarShine Mill. And next, maybe, The Skeleton at the Old Painted Mill.

It’s fun to find a body, to have no idea of who, why, when, or how—but I always know the where: an old grist mill.

PS: Dewey Francis’s mill survives, restored, under the care of his granddaughter, Tanna Timbes and the Francis Mill Preservation Society.

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