(Photo credit: Mingus Grist Mill, courtesy Ed Selby, Flickr Creative Commons)
It’s all very well visiting grand historic homes and great museums, but sometimes a very ordinary-looking old structure can grab the imagination and unexpectedly suck you in. That was my experience with the Mingus Grist Mill at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Now gristmills, cornmills, watermills and the like were not really part of my childhood experience. I don’t think I’d ever actually heard the term “gristmill” back home; it sounds very American to my ears. I knew about water mills and had some idea of how this form of pre-industrial technology operated. But that knowledge was from picture books, or from seeing one across a picturesque river or whatever. I’d never got up close and personal with one. I guess I’d missed that field trip at school. I finally got my chance at Great Smoky Mountains.
The Mingus Mill is on the North Carolina side of the park, near the Oconoluftee Visitor Center. It’s an original Appalachian gristmill, built in 1886. The mill is named after the water source from where it gets its power, Mingus Creek (which in turn is named after an early European settler, John Jacob Mingus).
My wife and I visited the gristmill on our last morning at the park, right after we’d been horseback riding. (On a side-note: I’ve always thought Stetsons look pretty dumb on a guy sitting in a bar, but on someone riding a horse, they do look awesome—if you can carry it off, which I, as a pasty-faced Scot, most definitely cannot!) We were getting ready to head back to our campsite to pack up and leave, and I wondered if we still had enough time to check out this odd sort of park attraction, off on a side road. I almost decided not to bother. I’m glad I did, though. The Mingus Grist Mill was way more interesting than I’d bargained for.
The interior includes artifacts and interpretive displays on two floors. The gristmill is still a working operation today, thanks to park service support. A volunteer “miller” is on hand on the first floor to demonstrate the process of grinding corn into cornmeal and to answer questions. There are also on sale bags of cornmeal produced by the gristmill. (Proceeds go toward repair and maintenance operations.)
There are no volunteers on the second floor, however. When we were up there I noticed a slightly depressing sign at the top of the stairs stating that the park service had only recently opened that floor up to visitors but would close it again if there were any new incidences of graffiti, vandalism or defacement. I’d previously noticed a similar sort of sign at the nearby Mountain Farm Museum, warning visitors that anyone defacing the wooden structures there ran the risk of being tracked down and charged with an offense. These are sobering reminders that, in this seemingly bucolic scene, there are still stupid people willing to do stupid things to historic structures and memorials.
Fortunately, at the time there were no gangs of miscreants upstairs spray-painting walls or carving initials into historic beams, so with relief I made my way downstairs to chat with the volunteer.
While the interior of the gristmill was interesting it was the outside that I found really cool. Mingus Mill actually differs from the more traditional type of water mill, with its large outdoor waterwheel being fed directly from a stream. Here the mill is set a short way away and slightly downhill from the stream that feeds it, so the water has to be brought from the stream to the mill by means of a millrace, a sort of aqueduct-like channel.
To see how this works you can take a short path that leads from the gristmill up to Mingus Creek, where part of the water flow has been diverted to the millrace. The diverted water flows down this artificial stream, with wooden boards on the base and sides to constrain and contain the water as it speeds down toward the mill. As you follow the millrace back to the mill the ground falls away, at first gradually and then more sharply. In order to keep the water flowing on a more gentle downhill slope, the millrace starts to rise relative to the more rapidly sloping ground, set on wooden pylons of greater and greater heights, until by the time it reaches the mill the water course is close to 20 feet off the ground.
At that point the fast-flowing water drops into a square shaft, where it drives a turbine that powers the milling wheels. The shaft itself is constructed of wood—wood that is completely waterlogged. The shaft is surprisingly watertight, save for small amounts of water squeezing and pulsing through the individual pieces of wood. This effect gives the whole structure a dark sheen, making it seem almost alive. The volunteer inside has explained that the wood won’t quickly rot as long as it remains wet. As long as the whole thing is not allowed to dry out, it will last for years.
I was tremendously impressed by seeing how this old technology worked, and worked so well. Although I’d previously missed out on the water mill experience, I have been to power stations and hydro-electric pumping stations where millions of gallons of water are pumped through massive steel pipes. But these sort of 20th and 21st century concrete and steel behemoths are white and clean and on such a grand scale that it’s impossible to take it all in. And you don’t get to see or hear all these millions of gallons of rushing water; all you hear is a steady, satisfying hum. At Mingus Grist Mill, the scale is smaller, but the effect on the senses is greater. Standing only feet away, you can actually see and hear all that water rushing toward the mill, with the excess splashing over the sides of the millrace and falling in waterfalls toward the ground. It’s not steady and satisfying. It’s wild and raucous. It’s also quite moving. I left that mill with a much greater appreciation for human ingenuity, because it was on a scale that I could take in with my senses.
The gristmill is also a reminder of the fact that real people once lived and worked within the boundaries of the national park long before there was a national park. As the new park took shape in the 1930s, there were many mountain homesteaders, native Cherokees and others living within the newly protected areas of the park. National parks were not supposed to contain permanent residents so these people—some of whom had lived there for generations—had to leave. Many went willingly but some had to be evicted. These people fought their evictions in court but they all eventually lost. As with Shenandoah, another national park where the same thing happened, Great Smoky Mountains became a controlled space set aside for the nation, but in the process lost its organic connection with the inhabitants that had brought the area to life.
Another memorial to the park’s former occupants can be found half a mile away, at the Mountain Farm Museum, right next to the visitor center. Various original farm buildings were rescued from different parts of the park and reconstructed at this one location, so they could be viewed by visitors who could wonder what kind of hard lives these people had to lead.
All in all, the Mingus Grist Mill was a surprisingly cool experience that also helped bring home to me some important facets of the park’s complex history. In that sense it was a really effective memorial to something that has been lost but should not be forgotten.
Daniel Pierce (2000). The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The National Parks: A Film by Ken Burns. PBS. Available at http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/parks/great-smoky-mountains/
Great Smoky Mountain NP. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/grsm/