Stoneground History: the Gristmills of the Smoky Mountains

While you are relaxing in your Smoky mountains cabin rental, make plans to absorb a small bit of history while exploring our area on vacation.

Historically, a gristmill was the central gathering place for most communities. Along with the service of grinding grain into meal or flour between grooved millstones, trade bartering for goods and services took place onsite. Social news and storytelling made the local grist mill the most interesting place to be on mill day, usually Saturdays.

There are four mills in the National Park that are easily accessed:

The John P. Cable Mill is powered by a wooden flume, ending in a classic overshot waterwheel at the millsite. Overshot wheels have spill over the top, suited for fast-flowing downhill mountain water. It is located in the picturesque Cades Cove community near Townsend, about 5.5 miles from the Cove area entrance. Cornmeal ground onsite is available for purchase in the visitor center.

The largest mill in the National Park is the Mingus Mill, located 3 miles outside of Cherokee, NC on 441/Newfound Gap Road, or approximately 30 miles from Gatlinburg, TN. This mill is unique as it is water-powered by a cast iron turbine, instead of a traditional waterwheel. Both of these mills have farm homestead museums created around them, from historic structures that were moved from various locations throughout the park area. Spending time here makes one realize how stalwart and strong-willed the mountain folk were to sustain themselves in their rugged home envrionment.

There are also two smaller, tub mills for viewing along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which begins at the end of Gatlinburg’s Airport Road/Historic Nature Trail, about 2 miles from the main Parkway, turning at the downtown Convention Center. These mini mills were small, but effective, for use by families and neighbors’ homestead needs. The Noah “Bud” Ogle Homestead is the the first major stop on the trail, and the Ogle mill is about a quarter-mile woodland trek from the cabin. The Alfred Reagan mill is also located on this trail, with its shed-sized building and flume at the Reagan homestead toward the end of the trail. There are multiple interesting historic sites and some scenic overlooks along this trail in addition to the mill locations.

If venturing into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is outside of your goals for this trip, there are two mills in Pigeon Forge:

The Old Mill Complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a destination location for visiting with surrounding restaurants and shops to explore.  It is located one block off the main Parkway in the heart of Pigeon Forge. The 3-story mill structure was built in 1830, and its waterwheel and adjacent milldam are one of the most photographed mills in the nation. There is a guided milling operations tour available 9:30-1:30 Monday through Friday (except for lunch break). Tour fee is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children 6-12, and free for under 6 yrs. Milled items are available for purchase in the general store located here, and are also used for the menus in the complex’s restaurants, should you need immediate gratification.

The newest mill in our area is at the Dollywood theme park. The Dollywood Working Gristmill was built in 1982, the first of its kind built in over 100 years in the area, and created with the original construction techniques of its predecessors. So, not historic, but certainly authentic. The delicious cinnamon bread baked onsite here is well-known, and well worth the purchase price. Don’t plan on buying this as a gift, I promise you it won’t last, and you will wish you purchased more. One of the best treats to sample in the theme park, in my humble opinion.

Take in a little history of one of these interesting milling sites, and then take home as gifts some of the products created on location.  A simple, timeworn, authentic piece of Sevier County history that’s  good enough to eat!

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