A Mitchell County gristmill sifts through 150 years
by Rob Neufeld
In 1861, when Bakersville got a post office, locals changed the town name from Bakersville to Davis, after Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
In 1868, a Republican state government restored Bakersville’s local name. David Baker, a first settler, had established his home and plantation there around 1790. His son, David D. Baker, ran the prosperous Baker business for over 20 years. He was, the Genealogy.com David Baker page states, “a large land owner, innkeeper, merchant and political leader until about 1859, when he and his family migrated to the far west.
The Civil War had given Bakersville a double identity, Union and Confederate. It had also impoverished people. There were murders.
Yet, there was a constant hum of good living permeating the area. It was the sound of grinding corn, which took place at Dellinger’s Grist Mill from 1867, when Reuben Dellinger had established it, to 1955, when his grandson, Marvel, died.
In 1997, Jack Dellinger, Marvel’s son, restored the mill. It survives as the only functioning, old-fashioned, water-powered mill in North Carolina. (Note: I'm looking into Guilford mill's status, https://oldmillofguilford.com/)
Reuben’s grandfather, John Dellinger, had been a German immigrant; and his father, Henry, a Revolutionary War captain who, as a westward-moving piedmont farmer, ended up, in 1840, on Three Mile Creek, a northeast tributary of the North Toe River.
Henry built a sawmill and grist mill on Camp Creek, near his Three Mile place. His sons, including Reuben, learned the trade. When Henry died, and then when Reuben’s mom, Katherine, followed four years later, Reuben assumed operation of the mills.
In 1859, the year that Baker had gone west, there had been a lot of shouting about John Brown’s slave revolt. Reuben and his wife, Mary Jane Coffey Dellinger, had gone about their duties, serving as the bedrock of their community at Three Mile.
One day, Reuben went away for a day. Mary Jane took over grist mill tasks.
A belt came loose. Mary Jane went to re-attach it while the wheel was running, which is a less strenuous way to do it than turning the wheel off.
We get this account from “Dellinger Grist Mill on Cane Creek” by Jack David Dellinger, Reuben’s great-grandson. A neighbor’s diary entry told him what happened next.
“Mary Diling age 49 was cilde in mill her tress was cot round shaf (shaft) and (she was) mashed flat (in the) gin trane (engine drain) she lay 3 ours in mill for was found Jun 11 I holp pol (her) out.”
In his departure from that site, Reuben, according to a recent study of mill parts, had taken “the waterwheel, pulleys, lineshafts, cogwheels and millstones with him when he moved to Mitchell County,” Dellinger reports.
Civil War times
In 1861, after Lincoln had called for troops, and after North Carolina had seceded from the Union, Reuben moved one day west with his second wife, Nancy Pitman, and built a home and mill on Cane Creek in Hawk.
Reuben had served, for a while, as a 2d Lieutenant in Company D of the Cane Creek Militia, Jack Dellinger tells us. This may mean that he guarded against Indians before the war or that he served as a home guard during it.
He was 41 when the war broke out. His children also escaped the war, though his eldest, James, would have been 17 in 1864. Through it all, Reuben held onto his property.
By 1865, he was building a dam at the perfect damming place, “the most narrow gap of Cane Creek where a rock cliff buttresses the south side of the dam and huge boulders buttress the north side,” Jack Dellinger says.
Then the county came knocking and Reuben was appointed overseer of a crew to fix the road that ran past his mill site.
1868, the new government took power. 1870, mica companies started coming in. Right near Reuben, the Hawk Mica Mine company dug tunnels and prospered for several years.
Reuben’s farm grew to outdo Old McDonald’s nursery rhyme inventory. Reuben had, on his farm, a grist mill, sawmill, apple house, molasses furnace, and cane mill in addition to chicken, sheep, goats, and most importantly, cattle, whom he fed asparagus hay in the German fashion.
The contrast between the Dellinger way of life and the post-Civil War feuding in the backwoods was harsh.
In 1883, Gen. Robert Vance was sent to investigate the outlaw problem in Mitchell County. On June 28, he reported to Gov. Thomas Jarvis: “I find that there are eleven murderers from two counties at large. It will be necessary, in order to carry out the plan (of stealthy raids), to have arms of the very best quality, such as repeating rifles & navy pistols.”
Vance also wanted permission to pursue fugitives into Tennessee.
In this climate of police hunts, on the dark side; and corn crops, on the bright, another factor entered: outlanders building dream homes on mountaintops.
John T. Wilder, a Union general in the Civil War, purchased Roan Mountain and, in 1885, built Cloudland Hotel on top. It rocked in the wind. A line down the middle of the dining room marked the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, where it was legal to serve drinks.
J.M. Gere, a Union colonel, assumed a mountain throne the hard way.
After being captured at the Battle of the Wilderness and spending a year-and-a-half in prisons, Gere escaped Camp Sorghum, a hastily constructed place with no barracks and poor fences in West Columbia, S.C., Elizabeth Hunter relates in her Mitchell County history, “Voices of the Valley,”
“Most of these escapees were recaptured before they were able to reach Union-controlled territory,” Chester B. DePratter and others write in their article, “Columbia’s Two Civil War Prison Camps—Camp Asylum and Camp Sorghum” (“Legacy” Magazine, March 2011).
Gere negotiated a 400-mile journey via a kind of underground railroad to the farm of Isaac English, a Union sympathizer in Spruce Pine. A decade later, Gere returned, and partnered with English to create a huge, pioneering mica company.
The need for mica insulators in electric motors had caused an economic boom.
“Lawsuits about titles and claims have multiplied and quarrels ending in murder have been frequent in the last few years,” Charles Dudley Warner wrote about his 1885 tour of Mitchell County. “The mica and the illicit whiskey have worked together to make this region one of lawlessness and violence.”
And now another sound comes to us, the tolling of a church bell.
In 1877, Reuben deeded land to Cane Creek Baptist Church (of which his son David was a trustee) for a new building across Cane Creek Rd. from the mill. Hawk Baptists had previously met in a small structure in Dellinger’s apple orchard.
The bell from that orchard chapel had been moved to the new church, and survives today in the current church’s bell tower.
A third sound—running water.
Behind David’s and his wife Rachel’s house, according to Jack Dellinger, is “the coldest spring in Mitchell County…still lined with rocks which were laid in place by Grandpa Dave. I keep the spring cleaned out with a shovel, when needed, and a tin cup used to dip the clear cold water hangs from a spicewood bush beside the spring.”
On May 21, 1901, during Dave’s tenure, a 500-year flood, called the “May freshet,” swept away the Dellinger mill. Dave and his son, Marve, retrieved the machinery and rebuilt the mill.
Marve continued to run the mill until his death, three days before Christmas, 1955. His son, Jack, had come back from the Korean War and had started his second year of engineering study at N.C. State University when he’d gotten the news.
Dellinger’s Mill ceased operation for 42 years. Jack went to work at IBM, learned computer programming, and helped write the program that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.
In retirement, Jack began restoring the Dellinger grist mill.
In 1997, he got a new dam built on old piers and got his antique site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Corn meal began sifting again at the mill’s grand opening, June 10, 2000. Its current operation (visit www.dellingermill.com to learn more) dovetails, economically as well as culturally, with a craft revival in the region.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.
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