Meet the 4th generation miller of a historic mill
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: Triptych of Dellinger Mill and Jack Dellinger in his mill, showing the hopper, the 1859 waterwheel, bags of cornmeal, and the National Historic Place plaque. Photos and composition by Henry Neufeld.
I had written about Dellinger’s Mill in Hawk, near Bakersville, in April, when it had been closed for the season.
Two Saturdays ago, I went back, while the water-powered grist mill was in operation; and its fourth family miller, octogenarian Jack Dellinger, was grinding corn.
To open the sluice gate in the flume that fed the wheel, Jack lifted and repositioned 50-pound fieldstones and waterlogged wool shirts.
Water spilled into a metal wheel that had been designed by Hanover, Pa. fabricator John Fitz for Jack’s great-grandfather, Reuben Dellinger, in 1859.
“Mr. Fitz made wood waterwheels up to 1855,” Jack said. “One day, one of his friends asked him, ‘John, I understand they’re making steel waterwheels over in England. When are you going to make one?’
“And he scratched his head and he says, ‘I really don’t know, but if I do, I’m going to make one that lasts forever.’”
“Well, it ain’t forever, but it’s 168 years old,” Jack said, referring to the one Fitz had made for Reuben.
When Jack took on the restoration project—the mill was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1998—he called in a lot of experts, including a metallurgist. The mill had become a mission.
Jack had just retired from IBM, where in the late 1960s he’d been a computer programmer for Apollo 11.
His father, who’d died in 1955, had left him the mill and farm property, and it had sat idle a long time.
“You couldn’t even see it from the road,” Jack recounted. “I crawled down through the brush, and I went out there and looked at that water wheel. (It) was leaning on a 45° angle, and was three feet down in the ground.” The foundation had foundered, the sluice was sunk, and the mill dam had washed away.
“Son of a gun,” Jack had said to himself. “I’d like to see that thing turn again.”
Next thing, there’s the metallurgist. “Let me take a look at this metal and see what you got,” he told Jack.
“He climbed up there with his pocket knife,” Jack related, “took some scrapings, and he says, ‘Wow, you got real high-carbon steel, mixed with manganese, nickel and zinc, and two other metals I can’t identify without a microscope.’
“With that combination of metal, you get the initial coating of rust on there, and it quits.”
“Now,” Jack noted, “they have brought that back, and call it Corten.”
A line of millwrights
Reuben Dellinger had moved with his father, Georg Heinrich “Henry” Dellinger, a first generation German-American, from Lincoln County to Three Mile, one mountain ridge east of Hawk, in 1840.
Henry built a sawmill and a grist mill on Camp Creek, near his Three Mile place. His sons learned the trade. When Henry died, and then when Reuben’s mom, Katherine, followed four years later, Reuben and his wife, Mary Jane Coffey Dellinger, assumed operation of the mills.
One day, when Reuben was away, Mary Jane went to reattach a belt while the wheel was running because it takes less muscle to do it that way.
A neighbor’s diary entry told what happened next. Mary’s dress got caught around the shaft and she was mashed to death.
Two years later, Reuben remarried, left that place of horror and moved to present-day Mitchell County, taking his Fitz waterwheel, pulleys, line shafts, cogwheels and millstones with him.
He found a site where the river was right and the land was ripe for community. He’d had to sled stone, metal, and wood, by winch or by cinch, over Cane Creek Mountain in a way not unlike the Fitz Company’s transportation of the equipment from Pennsylvania.
“Mr. Fitz, knowing that the waterwheel weighs four tons” Jack related, “also knew he wouldn’t be able to ship it on a railroad car. But it comes apart in eight 500-pound chunks,” and, in 1855, he sent it in segments to the railroad depot in Morganton, which was still 38 miles from Hawk as the crow flies.”
Going down a hill on a mountain road, Jack explained, “you don’t use a wagon. You use a sled. In some real steep places, you route a logging chain around the sled to keep it from sliding.” On such a trip, “you also have to carry feed for the animals.”
I can’t pinpoint the year of Reuben’s relocation of the Three Mile mill. Upon arriving in Hawk in 1861, he served in the militia guarding against Indians. Neither he nor any of his children fought in the Civil War.
But Reuben became a prominent citizen, serving on various committees, and beginning to develop his community’s first productive grist mill.
There is a preponderance of German-Americans among early mill owners in Western North Carolina; and that is because they had come from families of millwrights and mill managers.
The literature of millers in Germany is long and deep. In the famous fool stories, the fool is the miller’s idle third son, who turns out to be the cleverest of all. You can see his kinship with Jack of Appalachian fame.
The Dutch also produced millers. One descendant, Oliver Evans, modified mill technology and earned America’s third patent through Thomas Jefferson’s support.
Evans also wrote the authoritative book, “The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide,” which Reuben probably had used; and a copy of which Jack Dellinger attained.
When Reuben built his mill dam in 1865, he would have read: “There are several things to be considered, and dangers to be guarded against, in building mill-dams.”
The advice related to various materials; obstruction on top and erosion at the bottom; allowance for freshets; distance from the mill; and making sure that “the pressure or force of the current will press (the dam’s) parts more firmly together.”
For his dam location, Jack related, Reuben selected “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.”
Then the county came knocking and Reuben was appointed overseer of a crew to fix the road that ran past his mill site. It was a historic road. A century before, Daniel Boone had used it to take parties of settlers to new properties.
Jack Dellinger had once asked his now departed neighbor, Jack English, “Who first settled Cane Creek?”
Right off the top of his head, English replied, “Aaron Burleson. He bought 600 acres, sight unseen, and guess who brought him up here in 1763? Daniel Boone.”
Burleson and Boone came from Bakersville to look at Burleson’s newly acquired land. Boone stopped by a sycamore tree to relieve himself and, according to lore, that tree survives on the mill property.
“I told that to a group of people,” Jack reported, “and one of them said he was a sign maker and said, ‘I’m going to make you a sign that says ‘Daniel Boone Peed Here.’’”
By 1870, Dellinger’s Mill was humming with the boom in mica mining. The Hawk Mica Mine company dug tunnels nearby, 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.
Dellinger’s Mill connects not only to water power and mountain community life, but also to an age of farm prosperity and mechanical genius.
“At the end of every part (in Evans’ book) that’s describing how to make something,” Jack noted, Evans would say, “‘Any local blacksmith can fix this.’”
Jack didn’t have a blacksmith. He had to get help refashioning everything from a damsel (a handle that connects to the corn-feeding mechanism) to a Babbitt bearing (which supplies oil to a turning shaft).
Today, he continues to run the grist mill and give tours; and he’s considering building a museum in the old apple house. He has in three triplet grandchildren—Jack, Sabine and Milly Peta—believers in old world charm.
For more information, visit www.dellingermill.com.
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.