Were Smoky Mountain Grist Mills a Tech Thing?

Making the Most of the Daily Grind

by Ria Nicholas

We were surprised to learn that Ephraim and Minerva Bales
raised NINE children in this tiny cabin!

In the late 1800s, scattered Appalachian [apple-AT-ch’n] farm communities consisted of independent, resourceful, God-fearing people, scrappy enough to wrest a living from the hardscrabble soil under their feet. If the Church acted as the spiritual head of the community, and the family epitomized its heart, then the grist mill constituted its secular stomach. Not much of anything could happen without a grist mill, but engineering one from scant frontier resources often meant having to ‘MacGyver‘ the technology on the spot.

“You didn’t make it without corn. Wheat bread may have been for special occasions, but everyone ate cornmeal, sometimes two and three times a day.”

— George Moore, Smoky Mountain resident

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This area of the country was less about amber waves of grain and more about sturdy stalks of corn. Although mountain farms produced wheat, rye, barley, and oats, it was corn that grew here in abundance and supplied the staff of life. It provided grits, spoonbread, hoecakes, mush, cornbread and more – often several times a day – but only if you had access to a mill.

The Reagan Mill sits beside a stream, with its flume to the right; photo by Ria Nicholas

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We discovered that Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves four historic grist mills. Two of them, the Ogle Mill and the Reagan Mill, sit along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, just outside Gatlinburg in Tennessee.

In Cades Cove, toward the western end of the park, the Cable Mill, with its iconic mill wheel, churns away.

And on U.S. Highway 441, about a mile from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, not far from Cherokee and Bryson City, in North Carolina, Mingus Mill, the grandest of the grist mills, runs an efficient turbine. All four mills are easily accessible.

Map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (Ogle & Reagan Mills),
Cades Cove (Cable Mill) and Mingus Mill (near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center) shown with red circles.

Outside of the Park, two further mills, The Old Mill and the Dollywood Mill, both in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (near Sevierville), invite further exploration.

Simply put, water and gravity power grist mills. But the technology harnessing that energy actually varies a good bit. In any case, the force of moving water, through a series of mechanisms, turns the “runner stone” against a stationary mill stone, called the “bed.”

Mill stones -they cut rather than grind the grain. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The miller loaded dried grain into a hopper, which fed the grain into the space between the mill stones. The size of that space could be adjusted by the miller and determined the coarseness of the flour or cornmeal.

Grist Mill 1G – Basic Service

Tub mills, which originated in ancient times, were fitted with small, horizontal wooden wheels with angled paddles – a primitive kind of turbine. (These originally sat in a wooden frame or ‘tub,’ though these ‘tubs’ have since fallen out of use.) Sometimes these simple wooden turbines were placed directly on the edge of a stream to capture the power of the passing water.

Similarly, some mills with classic vertical water wheels were “undershot,” meaning the wheel sat directly in the creek, taking advantage of the flowing water to turn it.

Water falling from flume onto ‘turbine’ at the Reagan Mill

Grist Mill 2GAn Upgrade: The Ogle and Reagan Mills

Both the Ogle Mill and the Reagan Mill were tub mills, but they both made use of flumes, a kind of wooden ‘aqueduct’ that carried the water from a creek downstream to the mill.

These flumes permitted the miller greater control over the flow of water reaching the mill. Additionally, flumes were elevated. Tub mills that used a flume, increased the force on the ‘turbine’ by dropping water from a height at the end of the flume onto the angled paddles.

Note: The flume at the Ogle Mill (above, right) consisted of just a hollowed-out log.

Jim Zura and Ria Nicholas at Le Conte Creek

The Noah “Bud” Ogle Place, an excellent example of a mountain farmstead, lies on Cherokee Orchard Road, just outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, near the entrance to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. After touring the homestead, we took the short, wooded walk from the main cabin to Le Conte Creek to see the primitive 1885 tub mill. Its flume consists of a simple hollowed-out log.

The Reagan Mill, built in 1895 by the multi-talented Alfred Reagan, is crafted from sawn lumber with a hand-split oak shingle roof. It sits directly on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, across the road from his homestead. Like the Ogle Mill, it was able to produce enough meal for his family and a few neighbors.

We grabbed one of the parking spots on the left side of the little one-lane road. From there we toured the Reagan home and the Reagan Mill just across the street.
Notice the flume carrying water to the mill.
Photo by Ria Nicholas

Grist Mill 3G – A Refresh: The Cable Mill

The Cable Mill sits alongside the Cades Cove loop in the western part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Built by John Cable in 1867, it made use of dams and millraces to channel water from Mill Creek and Forge Creek to the flume serving the mill. Watergates along the flume regulated the amount of water channeled to the mill, and a chunk rack (a giant wooden ‘comb’) filtered out debris.

Water from the flume is dropped at the top of the wheel. Cable Mill is an example of an “overshot” waterwheel. Photo by Ria Nicholas

Cable Mill is an “overshot” mill. That means its flume directs water to the top of the water wheel, rather than the bottom of the wheel sitting in moving water. The heavy mill wheel, mounted vertically to the side of the building, lends a ‘gravity assist’ to the falling water, acting like a flywheel. The whole process produces substantially more power than that achieved with an undershot wheel. This energy, passing through a series of gears, turns the runner stone. Cable Mill is capable of producing roughly 150 pounds of meal per hour.

Grist Mill 4G – State of the Art: Mingus Mill

The flume carries water from the mill race
downhill toward Mingus Mill. Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1886, the Mingus family contracted Sion Thomas Early to build this top-of-the-line grist mill for $600. As with the Cable Mill, a millrace and flume direct water from a nearby creek toward the mill, and a chunk rack filters out debris. But whereas the flume at Cable Mill dumps water at the top of a vertical waterwheel, the flume at Mingus Mill dumps the water into a 22-foot high, four-foot-square wooden tower, called a ‘penstock.’

Water weighs a lot! One cubic foot of water weighs in excess of 60 lbs. As you can imagine, this ‘tower’ of water is extremely heavy. Twelve thousand pounds of accumulated water weight pushes the water down through a 15” pipe at the bottom of the tower with tremendous force.

Diagram by Ria Nicholas

The principle behind building up pressure in the penstock resembles the use of a boiler in a steam engine. The miller at Mingus Mill explained it to us by using the example of turning on your garden hose and holding your thumb over the opening. The gushing water from the 15″ pipe spins a relatively small iron turbine with many times the energy of water running over a mill wheel. Mingus Mill is capable of grinding in excess of 300 lbs. of meal per hour – double that of the Cable Mill.

We can see the penstock, which holds the “tower” of water, between
the flume cribbing, on the left, and the mill building, on the right. The turbine sits underneath the mill building.

Mingus Mill is located in the southern portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a short, easy walk from the parking lot off U.S. Highway 441, just north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and near the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

Competing Technologies: Mill Wheel vs. Turbine

Rebecca Cable (“Aunt Becky”) –
daughter of John Cable; image courtesy the National Park Service.

Of course upgraded technology has its price. A mill wheel could be built by local blacksmiths and carpenters for a reasonable sum. But it had to be replaced relatively often. The heavy wheel had to be mounted vertically to the side of the mill building, and it turned in one direction, while the runner stone, sitting horizontally, turned in another. In the process, the mill building itself suffered from continuous jostling.

Water pressure shooting from the bottom of a penstock was strong enough to require an iron turbine. And an iron turbine had to be fabricated at a foundry or machine shop. The one at Mingus Mill was imported all the way from Ohio – at much greater expense. However, the turbine lasted a long time; the original one at Mingus Mill is still in use to this day. Additionally, since the turbine and the runner stone turn in the same direction, the stress produced on the mill building is negligible.

For families who didn’t own their own tub mill, grist mills served as gathering places – usually on Saturdays – where folks could exchange their latest gossip and barter for other commodities. They brought their grain, and for a “miller’s portion,” a fee of one-eighth of what they brought (approximately one gallon per bushel), the miller would grind and sift it, and they would leave with cornmeal or flour – and the stories shared by their neighbors.

The mills and other projects in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are generously supported by Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies.

The Old Mill In Pigeon Forge – A Restaurant ‘Plug-In’

Another grist mill in the area (but outside of the Park) worthy of mention, the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has served as the town’s premier landmark since 1830. It was built by Isaac Love, who also built the forge that lent the community its name.

The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge is lighted at night. We try to make a point of dining at the restaurant here (building to right of mill) at least once every time we visit the area. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The mill, which has operated as a grist mill from the beginning, has simultaneously served in other capacities. Subsequent owner and Union sympathizer*, John Sevier Trotter, also utilized The Old Mill to power looms to produce cloth for the uniforms of the Army of the Potomac. After the Civil War, Trotter further employed the building as a sawmill, before ownership passed to A.T. Householder. Householder added the mill dam we see today and installed a generator to bring electric lights to the town. All the while, the mill continued to function as a grist mill.

Old Mill historian, Jimmy Proffitt, shared the following information with us:

Historic photo courtesy The Old Mill
Photo courtesy The Old Mill

“[The grist mill] is still in full operation. The Old Mill Restaurant is located next to the mill and was built in 1995. The Mill still grinds primarily corn, and we grind over 400,000 pounds of it each year. We also grind wheat in-house, and [we] mix and bag a total of 700,000 pounds of mill product a year. We grind both white and yellow corn into corn meals and grits. We also provide the grains needed for our two restaurants for freshly baked bread at our Pottery House Café and for breading and recipes at both restaurants. We sell it online and in 2 locations on [our] property. . . Ours started out as a tub, then added a turbine in the late 1880’s when the mill was expanded and the large breast wheel (midway between undershot & overshot) was added. In 1920/21 a 2nd turbine was installed in the [penstock], which is the one we continue to use today. Our stones are still completely water powered and are the 2nd set of stones to be used in the mill; the first set is on display in our General Store. Not only did the water power the stones and the knitting mills on the 2nd floor during the Civil War, it also powered the saw mill, all the while the grist mill was still operating. It has been in continual operation since being built in 1830, with the exception of transfer of ownership a couple of times (It’s only changed hands 7 times), and for a few months during the depression. The previous owners had it for 67 years, converting the grain room and storage addition to the General Store in the 1950’s.”

*Even though Tennessee and North Carolina seceded from the Union, the majority of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina mountain folk weren’t slave holders, were rugged individualists and were distrustful of wealthy secessionist landowners. Most were loyal to the Union – so much so, that some communities made serious proposals to secede from the Confederacy and rejoin the Union. They viewed the conflict as a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” Redford Gatlin, for whom Gatlinburg was named, was the town’s only Confederate sympathizer. He was run out of town!

The Grist Mill at Dollywood – The Next Generation

Dollywood, nestled into a valley of the foothills at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, serves as the premier theme park in the region and draws visitors from all over the country. Owned by music icon, Dolly Parton, it offers many unique thrill rides and attractions and is built on the values and heritage of the Smoky Mountains.

One of the many sights, sounds – and aromas – of the Park, the Dollywood Grist Mill is located in a section called Craftsman’s Valley. The mill was constructed in 1982, but is patterned after the historical mills of the area and utilizes traditional crafts and crafts people. It is the first fully functioning grist mill built in over 100 years.

The Dollywood Grist Mill is very photogenic. We loved Dollywood, not only for its various rides, shops and shows, but also for its Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the country’s largest population of non-releasable Bald Eagles. These and other birds of prey are housed in a 30,000 square-foot aviary under the care of the American Eagle Foundation and with permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The scent of freshly baked cinnamon bread, made from flour milled right on the premises, emanates from the mill and lures tourists from every direction. They are encouraged to explore the mill, and a miller stands ready to answer questions.

Today, if we want bread, we just run to the nearest grocery store. We don’t give much thought to where our bread comes from, how it was made, or the history behind bread-making. But maybe we should. I know the next time I pop a slice in the toaster, I’ll pause for a moment of appreciation.

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Travel Tips:
Two Feathers Cabin in Pigeon Forge, TN is located just 1 mile behind Dollywood. The cabin features 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, jetted tub, hot tub, and air hockey table. Book your stay with us!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a leisurely 5.5 mile one-way driving loop accessible from Cherokee Orchard Road in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Please note that RFMNT closes during the winter months. Aside from the historical buildings mentioned in this article, you can experience babbling brooks, rushing streams and a number of waterfalls, as well as excellent hiking trails there.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a leisurely, scenic, 11 mile, one-way driving loop that can experience heavy traffic during peak tourist times: in summer, during autumn (the colors are spectacular) and on weekends. Allow for at least two hours to drive the loop, more if you stop to walk the trails. Note that the loop is closed to motor vehicles but accessible by bike or on foot each Wednesday, from June 17th through September 30th. The loop can close at times due to heavy snowfall.

Mingus Mill

Mingus Mill is located one-half mile north of the Oconaluftee Visitors Center in Cherokee, North Carolina on US 441. A miller is on site to demonstrate from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm daily mid-March through mid-November and on Thanksgiving weekend.

Weather and Clothing

Although the climate in eastern Tennessee is mild, the area does experience four seasons (an occasional blizzard is possible), so be sure to dress accordingly. We also recommend comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots. Temperatures always run colder at higher elevations, and U.S. Highway 441 between Tennessee and North Carolina can close due to inclement weather during the winter.

Animal Encounters

Wildlife experts estimate that about 1,500 black bears inhabit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Additionally, elk (which grow to 650 pounds and sprout impressive racks!) have been reintroduced into the Park. That means that an animal encounter is a real possibility. Both black bears and elk can inflict serious, possibly fatal, injuries and should be viewed from a respectful distance of at least 50 yards (150 feet)!

And, of course, never feed a bear! Feeding bears is not only illegal, it causes them to lose their fear of humans and to associate people with food. This can lead to aggressive behavior toward humans, which means that Rangers have no choice but to euthanize them. Ergo the saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

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