Saturday, March 29, 2014

Renewing a Southern Appalachian icon, Chapter 3: The wood

All photos by Jack Betts, Rocky Knob Writery LLC

When you're rebuilding what may the most famous mill in the National Park Service system, you don't just run down to Lowe's or Home Depot to get some 1x12s and 6x6s and a box of galvanized nails.  For one thing, the kinds of wood you need and the dimensions you need them in won't be found even in most specialty lumberyards, where custom cuts can be arranged at a price that would raise the remaining hair on the frazzled heads of accountants at government agencies such as the U.S. Department of the Interior or development officers at private, non-profit groups dedicated to taking up the slack in parks across the country.  Fortunately for this project, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (, which provides a broad array of services, programs, funding and other support for the Parkway, committed to raising $65,000 to pay for the restoration project. The job includes dredging the millpond, reconstructing the waterwheel and repairing the damaged and clogged log flumes that collect the water to turn the wheel.

And one of the things that is particularly hard to find is the expertise to do this sort of historic preservation work.  True, there are amazing craftsmen and women across the country with phenomenal skills in the workshop and in the field. But how often do you need to restore a waterwheel with complicated cast iron parts attached to custom-cut wooden pieces, first designed more than a century ago, remade during World War II, and occasionally redone in the decades since then?  The last time the waterwheel at Mabry Mill was rebuilt was nearly two decades ago -- 1995.  Back then, the Historic Preservation Shop at Sandy Flats near the Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, N.C.  had six people working there, including Larry Hampton, now retired from the Park Service, who did the dredging work a couple weeks ago at Mabry Millpond.

These days, due to budget cuts imposed by Washington, the staff of the Historic Preservation Shop is down to two: Steve Marmie and Jack Trivett. When they began planning how they would restore the waterwheel, they knew finding the right woods in the sizes they needed would be a big problem. At Mabry Mill, they knew they would need hemlock in certain dimensions to repair the log flumes that bring water to the wheel.  But only one thing would do for the buckets and backing boards and face boards and other components of the wheel: "White oak -- that's all we use," Marmie said one cold winter morning earlier this year as he showed me around the shop. Other kinds of oak are tough, but none is as weather resistent and none is as close-grained, and as watertight, as white oak.

Nor as hard to find.  Trivett called all the lumberyards he knew about in search of white oak 15 inches wide.  None had exactly what he needed, but he found a supplier in Spartanburg, S.C. that could supply some of the oak for the buckets on the waterwheel -- basically two pieces in different dimensions, with differing angles of joints, that would be set into grooves on the basic structure of the existing waterwheel.
Jack Trivett, left, and Steve Marmie show hoe two bucket components will fit together

Over the winter they fabricated the new bucket parts at the Sandy Flats shop, and sawed out new curved facing pieces.  To get the width of those curves just right, they fashioned two different woodworking jigs to cut the inner and outer curves on bandsaws.
Jack Trivett demonstrates sawing out an inner curve on a waterwheel facing board

They caught one break: the main axle, the spokes and the outer band of the wheel were in good shape. All were of white oak, and the Parkway workers would not have to replace those. But some of the heavy blocks holding up the wheel on the pond side of the mill were clearly deteriorating and would have to be replaced.  Somehow Marmie and Trivett would have to find huge blocks of white oak, but that was another problem.

Where in the world do you find huge dimensions of white oak to hold the massive weight of a waterwheel that will be under stress, pressure and weight from hundreds of pounds of water cascading over the wheel while driving wide belts and iron gears and huge grinding stones and circular saw blades and lumber carriages?  And how do you move it, shape it and deliver it?

Next on Rocky Knob Blog: Chapter 4, The Tree 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Restoring a Southern Appalachian icon, Chapter 2: The Dredging

Photos by Jack Betts, Rocky Knob Writery LLC

If you passed by Mabry Mill in the past couple of weeks, you might have noticed a curious run of big black pipe around the shoreline.  It was the first lick at solving a problem of a badly-silted millpond at one of the most photographed sites along the Parkway -- maybe one of the most photographed in the East.

Mabry Mill's unique site is a marvel of engineering -- but it's susceptible to weather. It sits, just a few feet off the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the perfect spot to collect the accumulated weight of water seeping out of the earth, of springs that flow out of little folds in the terrain and of happily running creeks throughout the woods covering the slopes of this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Ed Mabry used these waters to power the big waterwheel on his mill, first built in 1910, and the National Park Service has used his mill to illustrate how there was plenty of power to manufacture things in the days long before power was defined as electrical.

But one of water power's disadvantages is that along with the water that comes flowing down watersheds and hills and stone-lined drains and wooden flumes is that there's a lot of silt, a lot of leaves, a lot of sticks and other natural things that can clog up a millpond and even, eventually, the flumes themselves.

That's just one of the problems the Blue Ridge Parkway encountered in its plans to rebuild part of this attraction on the scenic roadway.  It is one of the most popular sites to visit -- there's a terrific seasonal restaurant run by Parkway concessionaires, as well as fascinating glimpses of 18th and 19th century life when the mill's waterwheel is rumbling away, the blacksmith shop rings with the songs of the smith's hammers and tongs, and the paddles in the apple-sauce and molasses cookers are working their magic.

But the mill hasn't run much in awhile because the wheel is in bad shape and the flumes have been clogged and even the pond didn't look as good as it usually does.  Thanks to weeks of effort by Parkway employees and the dredging skills of Larry Hampton, a Blue Ridge Parkway retiree who has his own excavating business (and who worked on the last waterwheel reconstruction two decades ago), the millpond is  back to its 8 1/2 feet depth again, and crews are digging out nearly two-foot depths of muddy compacted leaves from the flumes near the mill. 

The much bigger job was removing tons of silt from the pond -- and doing so in a way that didn't cause damage to habitat or to the inhabitants of the productive creeks downstream, including trout and bog turtles.  The big black pipe was put in to divert a creek that feeds the millpond, so that the creek below the pond would continue to run clean and free.  The Parkway, with the financial support of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, rented a big powerful Diesel pump to siphon off the millpond's water after the creek water was diverted through the pipe, under the Parkway and down into the creek flowing westward.

That pump would shoot a cannonstream of water downhill -- and workers had to be careful to contain it within a haybale-lined silt fence to avoid putting clouds of silt into the water.

The pumping job was complicated by the fact that it's been wet lately, and water would trickle back into the pond overnight. And then there was the problem of how to get a huge excavator into the pond, keep it from sinking with a 21st century version of the old "corduroy roads" paved with tree trunks, and how to keep big dump trucks that would haul off the silt from sinking axle-deep into the soft banks of  the millpond. Here are a few photos that demonstrate how it was done -- including in the cold and ice from the St. Patrick's Day storm last week:

And this:

And this:  

The muck from the pond was trucked a couple of thousand feet away to an open field above where Mabry Mill workers park. Allen Lawson, the Blue Ridge Parkway Facility Manager and supervisor of the project, says workers in the past have found plenty of pocket change that visitors have thrown into the pond after making a wish. Every time it rained on a pile of the silt, it revealed a few more quarters and dimes -- not enough to put a dent in the cost of the project, but interesting to see what comes up.

Miraculously, at least to me, was the fact that the pond not only was excavated to its new depth within a week, but the landscape was also cleaned up -- the pipes removed, the logs used to keep the excavator from sinking were extracted, the rockway that gave dump trucks access removed -- and the banks reseeded and covered with straw while new grass starts to grow back sometime this spring.  It was an amazing thing to see:

Next up in Chapter 3: Finding the right wood in the right sizes

And now this message:  Want to help bring Mabry Mill back to life?  You can be a big part of it by donating to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, which has committed a substantial sum to pay for the work because the Parkway itself doesn't have the money and isn't likely to get it from Congress any time soon. Find out more about the Foundation at  If you donate at least $100, you'll find your name on the Donor Board at Mabry Mill, along with other Parkway lovers who have cumulatively donated several thousand dollars to this effort. Here's what the Donor Board -- just like the one that helped attract donations for repairing the Heart Pond at the Cone Manor estate on the Parkway at Blowing Rock -- looks like:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rebuilding a Southern Appalachian Icon, Chapter 1: The Challenge

 Blue Ridge Parkway historians make a pretty good case that the old mill near Milepost 176 is one of America's cultural treasures.  It has become an icon for the American country mill -- weathered board- and-batten siding, stone-lined drains and flumes gathering water from seeps and trickles and creeks across the gently sloping land, converging to provide the rushing water power that turns a big wooden waterwheel and drives a grist mill, a sawmill, lathes and other tools, even a sash saw of the kind once used to build window parts.
Photo by Jack Betts, Rocky Knob Writery LLC

And it's gorgeous, particularly in the fall when the maples are in full-burn color, reflected against a lovely little pond where ducks paddle back and forth as the waterwheel creaks and groans and splashes fresh, clear mountain water about the stony foundation of the mill.  The image of this mill has adorned postcards sold in other states "Greetings from Iowa," notes one of them. Another says, "Greetings from Connecticut."  It looks just like what you'd find in some rural New England hamlet. But it's not. It's in Virginia, near the little crossroads of Meadows of Dan.

It's Mabry Mill, a reconstruction of a century-old mill built by Edwin Boston Mabry, known to some as E.B. and to others as Ed, whose family owed land near the border of Floyd and Patrick Counties as long ago as the 1780s.  More than a century later, Ed Mabry had a water-powered lathe that he used to make chairs, according to an online history by the Blue Ridge Parkway:  "Later he worked as a blacksmith in the coal fields of West Virginia. In 1903 he returned to Floyd County and soon began construction of the mill. It was first a blacksmith and wheelwright shop, then became a sawmill. By 1905 it was in operation as a gristmill. By 1910 the front part of the mill was completed and included a lathe for turning out wheel hubs, a tongue and groove lathe, a planer and a jig-saw.

"Between 1905 and 1914 he bought adjacent tracts of land, mostly for the purpose of acquiring more water power. Those who knew Ed Mabry thought well of him and have described him as peaceable, easy-going, honest, hard working, a Primitive Baptist and a Republican. Whatever he needed he tried to make himself including most of the furniture in his home. He didn't travel much, but when he did it was either on foot or in his one-horse Concord wagon. Today the Mabry Mill is one of the most popular attractions on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway."

The mill has, of course, been rebuilt a number of times.  Even using the most weather-resistant of natural woods, the hard winters and long summers take their toll, and every 15 or 20 years the old mill needs body work and a good worming-out of the silted-over pond. As you can see in the foreground of the next photo, taken Jan. 2, the pond had filled up with silt and other things that have slid down the hillside and rolled in on the creek.  You could, I'm told, walk across the pond without getting wet much above the knees -- if you didn't first go neck-deep in the silty mud that fishermen call pluff.
Photo by Jack Betts, Rocky Knob Writery LLC
 And that's not all: the waterwheel is in bad shape.  The buckets on the wheel -- the compartments that water from the flume pours into and forces the wheel to turn with an increasing amount of power as the flow of the water increases -- have weathered away in some places.  Pictures taken last week of the wheel illustrate the problem:

Photos by Jack Betts, Rocky Knob Writery LLC

So the National Park Service has to do periodic maintenance on its buildings and its landscape, at a time when Congress seems in no mood to provide adequate funds for personnel or sufficient maintenance to keep the national jewels in good shape.  More than a year ago, the Blue Ridge Parkway asked the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation -- a private group that raises money and helps support the Parkway in a variety of ways -- for help.  The Foundation (whose board of trustees I serve on) agreed to provide funding for rebuilding the waterwheel; early this year the Foundation also agreed to provide funding for dredging the pond.  (The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation's website is at

Dredging work began in foul weather last week and ended successfully on Friday, but that's another story.  Stay tuned for more on the restoration work of the waterwheel and dredging of the millpond. And don't be confused by anything you read in the newspapers about the waterwheel being shipped off to Asheville; the work will be done on-site starting this week, Parkway officials say.

It's all taking a lot of ingenuity, scavaging for suitable materials and making the best use of resources that indicates that the kind of engineering skill that built Mabry Mill the first time a century ago has not entirely disappeared, thank goodness. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Winter's middle finger

Sure, sure, the calendar says it's just a few more days until Spring formally arrives.  But Winter is a nasty, unforgiving, revengeful brute up here in a part of the Blue Ridge that forecasters have a hard time figure out what to even guess at.  And the light icing that was mentioned, briefly, a time or two, has settled in to its butcher's work of bending tree limbs and finding bare places on the ground and covering them with broken limbs and old trees that were unsteady on their feet. Maybe it's best that it's so foggy that we can't see far into the woods.
The Southern view....

This comes about, mind you, after a lovely day Saturday -- good warm sun, gentle breezes, plenty of blue sky.  I was working near the cutting garden, and saw the first few shoots of daffodils poking up through soil that has been frozen much of the past two months.  I saw buds on maples starting to swell, small tufts of grass just beginning to show a little pale green, and down by the old house in the hollow below us I saw the first daffs about to break into bloom.  The eastern end of that house is sheltered from a lot of the weather, and at the foot of the old rock chimney there's a spot that gets warm every day there's some sun.

And so I thought, foolishly, that Winter was about to give up.  Even more foolishly, I started picking up some of the season's fallen limbs -- tantamount to poking the weather dragon in the eye.  Shoulda known better.

Sunday morning I was up early, cutting a few more dead locust and oak for a few more fires, just in case.  We've gone through a bit more than four cords of firewood this year, and I'm out of everything burnable except for a sacred cache of red oak in the back corner of the garage.  I've cut next year's wood, split and stacked it, and it's busy drying out and starting to take on that light-gray patina of year-old firewood for this fall.  Maybe five cords in all. But I needed enough to get through the last five days of winter.  So I found three standing dead trees, enough for maybe forty billets, about 4 inches in diameter, that don't need any kind of seasoning, cut them into firewood lengths and stacked them on the rack on the deck outside our door. 

Some of those billets are burning merrily right now, about the only part of my late-winter planning that is working right. Outside this grim Monday morning, sleet is falling and fog is blowing and freezing on limbs and the windows are glazed over with a pebble-grained translucence that makes the place look eerie from the inside -- a broad expanse of dull dreary gray illumination.  If we could see through the windows, I'm pretty sure we would see Old Man Winter out in the hayfield, dressed in sheets of dismal dun, shooting us the bird.

We will, of course, have the last laugh, but not nearly soon enough.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mountain man Martin Nesbitt, gone too fast

When I started covering the North Carolina General Assembly for the Greensboro Daily News in March of 1977, I noticed state Rep. Mary Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, right away.  Might have been because I have an affinity for retired school teachers, being the son of one, and Mary Nesbitt was a lifetime educator.  She had that schoolmarm look about her -- compassionate, but tolerating no foolishness; insistent on a higher standard but not overly surprised when younger folks fail to meet them; expectant of better things, knowing that in a legislative session small steps are often the only hope.  She died in 1979, and soon after, her son Martin Nesbitt was filling her seat in the House.

Martin and I were the same age, and as a teacher's son, I recognized some familiar things, particularly the pressure he felt to live up to expectations and do right.  He could be unpredictable, but he was always focused on helping folks. He had populist sensibilities, often raised hard, sometimes irritating questions about what otherwise good-soundling legislation might do to old folks or jobless folks or retired folks or folks who just wanted their government to leave them alone.  He sometimes made life hellish for legislative leaders with his probing questions and his warnings to think twice before rushing into something and his constant goading of the leadership to do more for schools, for mental health programs, more for people who needed help, more for rural areas that were never going to have the kind of amenities you would find in Charlotte or Raleigh.

Nesbitt moved to the Senate some years ago and with the arrival of a new Republican majority in Raleigh, found himself as the Senate Minority Leader -- a job he stepped down from earlier this week after doctors discovered stomach cancer.  He died Thursday at age 67 after coming home to Buncombe in an ambulance with a police escort.  His admirers stood along the streets as the small procession came through town, wishing Sen. Martin Nesbitt well. He went too fast.

I recall running into Nesbitt in a convenience store along I-85 a few years ago. We had both stopped for a tank of gas, some coffee and a chance to use the restroom.  Nesbitt's face and white shirt had grease stains on them -- not what you usually see in a veteran lawmaker.  He smiled and explained he had been working on his son's race car for a big upcoming race somewhere nearby, and spoke avidly of all the places they had raced and how much joy he took in helping out with the pit crew.  I was amazed -- here I knew only of a man whose life was dedicated to practicing law and debating issues and working on legislation, but what he really liked was spending time with his son, with a wrench in one hand and a spark plug in another. He had a life outside politics. I admired that.

I had one last interview with Nesbitt just before Christmas. I was working on a Business North Carolina cover story on Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, and I asked Nesbitt how he saw Berger's performance.  He was gracious about Berger's personal style, his reputation for keeping his word, and some good procedural things Berger had done in the Senate.  But he was also worried, he said, about what was happening to the state with the changes Republicans were making.  He understood the GOP wanted less government, less regulation and fewer taxes.  But he fretted about the direction.

"I expected solutions from Phil," he said. “I expected him to make goverment better and leaner, and there are plenty of places to do that, but what we have seen instead is a lot of dismantling."

What there was not, he thought, was a cogent plan about how that would help improve things. "I asked them on the floor, 'I know what you are doing, but can someone tell me what the plan is? When you destroy the university system, who is going to lead the Research Triangle Park? When you cut the sales tax by 1 penny, how many jobs do you create? When you gut community colleges 10 percent, how many more people do you train to do the jobs?"

And he thought this: "When they started doing all this stuff, their polling looked pretty good.  But as all of us know in politics, you better keep listening.   You might look around and find out nobody is following you."