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Tour a Gristmill American Roads and Global Highways American Roads and Global Highways
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Gristmills were a commonplace in the eighteenth and nineteenth century South. Many gristmills still exist in North Carolina, including a few that still are commercial enterprises. We visited a historical gristmill which includes a surrounding historical district. Murray’s Mill Historic District is just ten minutes off Interstate 40 in eastern Catawba County. The mill is on the banks of Balls Creek, with a mill dam and large tranquil mill pond. It is a small historic district, not requiring a lot of walking. Of course, the highlight is an operating 28-foot waterwheel. The District qualifies as a National Register Historic Site. The tour starts at the General Store, which includes goodies, local and regular, and many general store items. There is a porch swing out front if you need to build up the energy for the tour.

The gristmill dates from 1913, Murray & Minges General Store dates from the 1890s, the Wheathouse (used as an exhibit gallery) from the 1880s, and the John Murray House (furnished for the period, with outhouses) dates from 1913. This is the last milling complex remaining in the county. It was run by three generation of the Murray Family and ceased operations in 1967. Now it is meticulously preserved and interpreted by the Catawba County Historical Association.  

millstone at gristmill
A millstone for grinding grain into flour.
the top of the water wheel
The top of the waterwheel, where the power begins to be created from the falling water.

The two images above are the crux of a gristmill: water flows onto a waterwheel, providing the power to rotate a series of large millstones which crush grain into continuously smaller and smaller pieces, eventually producing flour. In order to produce that flow of water, gristmills tended to be located near creeks, logically near a natural falls. Often saws would be attached to the waterwheel, allowing for a secondary use of the power produced. Dams were used to increase the power, with millraces to carry the water to the mill.  

Gristmills were crucial to the development of the state and the legislature enacted laws with incentives to build gristmills to feed the new settlements on the frontier. The mills were so important that they were subject to government regulation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century only a few gristmills remained in the state, with a very few still in operation.

The Murray & Minges General Store is more than a place to just begin the tour. The building is two stories with a gable front. As expected for a general store, there is an antique Coca-Cola refrigeration with glass bottle drinks. There are toys like yo-yos, as well as toys made by local woodworkers. For the sweet tooth are local honey (in season), local molasses, Cow Tails, Striped Coconut, and a selection of modern candy. Locally made items like pottery and aprons are available. Of course, there are Murray’s Mill t-shirts, bags, magnets, and mugs.

The gristmill is the focus of the historic district. It was built by John Murray on a site that his father had used for a gristmill since 1883. There were improvements over time. A twenty-two-foot overshot waterwheel was replaced by the current twenty-eight-foot waterwheel. The original dam was made of wood. John’s son constructed the existing dam to raise the water six feet. It is said the wooden dam is still beneath the waters of the mill pond.  

gristmill in distnace
The gristmill with the waterwheel.
closep shot of mill
Closeup of the waterwheel, where all the “action” takes places.

The machines and equipment inside the mill are extensive, and someone with a keen interest in machinery could spend hours inspecting the vast array of gristmill technology preserved on the three floors. Visitors will find the original one-ton French buhr millstones for grinding corn, as well as Sprout Waldron & Co. roller mills installed for grinding wheat into flour. All of the mill’s storage bins, each partitioned by tongue and groove sheathing, have also been preserved. Below is the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the complex machinery you’ll encounter. The No. 39 Eureka Horizonal Scourer & Brushing Machine, for example, served as the cleaning apparatus for roller mills; the wheat scourer separated the wheat from the chaff and filters out unwanted elements like wild onion and garlic, and then sends the grain downstairs to the roller mill via a gravity feed shoot. The chaff went to a separate bin and was used to produce animal feed The wild onion and garlic ended up in the creek. The details for each machine are outlined on display cards near the machines and the visitor can follow the flow of grain easily as the tour progresses. We’ll just add a couple of other machine images below and leave the details for the tour.Eureka Horizontal Wheat Scourer & Brushing Machine.

The No. 39 Eureka Horizontal Wheat Scourer & Brushing Machine.
close up of Eureka Horizontal Wheat Scourer & Brushing Machine.
The grain and chaff were stored and moved around the mill.
flour being packaged
 At the end of the process, flour ends up in a bag ready for sale.
utenisls from daugenhart mill
Items from other grist mills are preserved at the mill. These are from the Dagenhart Mill
located on a creek elsewhere in North Carolina. It operated from 1885 to 1970. 

The mill allows for the visitor to see many of the connections that went into the process. Many of the mechanisms that went into the engineering ares there, plus many of the tools that were used to maintain the machinery. Junior engineers will have a great time seeing how the process worked.


antique gears
Anyone interested in gears and pulleys will find endless diversions in the mill.
tools at gristmill
The number of tools located throughout the mill is impressive.

Since this is a historic district, there is much more than the gristmill. There are historic houses used now for exhibits or finished for the period. The 1880s wheathouse is two stories and was originally used to store extra grain. It contains the original grain hopper and the elevator used to move grain up to the attic. The wheathouse now has exhibits. The John Murray House is the former residence of the miller and the one that is period-furnished.This site offers multiple opportunities to go back in time to see how things were done in the past.  

historic home near gristmill
The best view of the historic district is from the porch of one of the houses situated on the mill pond.
chimney on old house
The rockwork on one of the chimneys caught our eyes.

This is another good pandemic stop off the Interstate, which is mostly out-of-doors or in the mill with a few people. A quick overview might take an hour or so. A good look will take a couple of hours. It is worth the stop.

Author/Photographer. Tom Straka is an emeritus professor of forestry at Clemson University. He has an interest in history, forestry and natural resources, natural history, and the American West. Pat Straka is a consulting forester and the photographer on most of their travel articles. They reside in South Carolina, and have also lived in Mississippi and Virginia. 

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sign at gristmill