In the summer of 2016, before we had ever visited High Cove, my wife, Catheryn, and I, after a morning hike on Roan Mountain, stopped in the tiny town of Bakersville, NC for lunch at Helen’s Restaurant. A fellow came in with an armful of corn meal sacks, and left them on the counter. I asked the server where the sacks came from, and she said there’s an old mill down the road. She said the delivery man, Jack, actually ran the mill, and we’d catch him there if we wanted a tour.
We drove through a beautiful valley, alongside Cane Creek, where the mill got its power, but it was closed. The phone number was on the gate, so I called Jack about a tour. He said “meet me at the mill at 1pm tomorrow. “
We spent several hours listening to Jack’s stories, about his great granddaddy who built the first mill around 1847, about his plowing steep and stony fields behind a pair of horses as a teenager, about how he ran away at age 17 to join the Air Force, was trained as a bomber mechanic, spent 4 years in the Korean War, got an engineering degree at NC State, worked for Werner von Braun writing software for the first moon launch, and finally on IBM’s first PCs. Quite a life for a country boy.
When Jack retired from IBM in 1997, he returned to the mill he hadn’t seen in 44 years. It had been neglected since his daddy died in 1955, and was in ruins from floods, snow storms, hurricanes, and could barely be seen through decades of untrimmed trees and undergrowth. But something got to him, and he dedicated the rest of his life to bringing the mill back to the way it was in 1867.
Jack is now 86 years old, and grinds corn 2-3 days a week in warmer months. It is the last water-powered grist mill, of the hundreds that dotted creeks across North Carolina in the 19th century. I asked if I could make a documentary film about the mill. He answered, “Why not?”
I’ve traveled many places, working on documentary films. Jack’s was as wonderful a story as any—and it was nearly in my back yard. I returned a few weeks later to begin filming, and hear how his family scraped a living off the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for five generations. It was not unlike Medieval times, where everyone had to make or trade everything, and cash money didn’t exist. Summer quickly turned to fall. Jack shut down the mill in late October, and drove to Florida, to join his family. He’d return in April, when the mountains became more hospitable to 86 year old men.
Due to work and family commitments, I couldn’t return to filming until mid-August, 2017. I spent a few days every week filming, and living the adventures of a grist mill, while spending nights in the High Cove Community, which was just a few miles and 2-3 ridges away.
The documentary film has become a larger story than expected. The mill is an amazing machine, needing constant attention. Though driven by a little water brook, it is immensely powerful, and can kill you in an instant. Many times I put down the camera to help Jack maintain the mill, oil the gears and flywheels, and axels, push the 4-ton water wheel to give it a jump start, and adjust the various water gates. I joined the pace of the mill. It tells you what to do, and you go along with this ancient, creaking, groaning monster.
When a 40 ft. belt on the mill broke, we traveled up and down a dozen ridges, across two counties to find an old-timer—someone Jack had grown up with back in the 1930s. He operated sawmills a long time ago, but might have a big belt, stored in a barn filled with dusty doo-dads from a hundred years ago. Mountain people never throw anything away.
Each short trip became an extended visit. When Jack met a friend (and he always did), I was in a foreign country, in another time, listening to another language. I felt privileged for such a first-hand view into Blue Ridge mountain culture.
Between the breakdowns, the visits, and storms that clogged the water works, there were many days I didn’t feel I was making progress. But as I met Jack’s numerous friends, neighbors, distant cousins, local characters, and casual tourists, the story became so much richer, and I thought, what the heck have I gotten into? Where is this film going? How do I manage such a rich culture? It started to become much more than a film about a mill.
Since the mill has now closed for the winter, I can explore the many hours of video, and make plans to fill in the gaps. I’ll drive down to Pensacola and film extended interviews with Jack—so all his stories get recorded. I want to interview others involved with the mill and other parts of Jack’s life, while the mill is closed. This includes Kate, his new 23 year-old miller apprentice, who is fast becoming an important character in the mill’s preservation (it is on the list of National Historic Sites) .
In the spring, I’ll return to the mill with my list of ‘must-have’ shots. I have been playing around with some shots set to music, which is the video attached here.
–Robert Maier 12/11/17