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Mary Lea Simpkins: The Yates Mill

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 7/8/2001. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Mary Lea Simpkins grew up around one of the state's oldest grist mills, the Yates Mill just off Lake Wheeler Road south of Raleigh. For more than 200 years the Yates Mill ground meal and flour for local farmers, and Simpkins' father, John Daniel Lea Sr., was the miller there from 1898 to its closing in 1953. Simpkins often helped her father in the mill but mostly enjoyed a childhood spent playing in the mill's attic and along the shores of the millpond.

Water-powered mills like the Yates Mill once thrived in nearly every community. By damming creeks and channeling their flow, mill builders used nature's power to turn a waterwheel that moved belts, pulleys and cogs that whirled heavy millstones to shear the corn and wheat. In the days before electricity and gasoline, mills furnished clean, abundant energy, and villages and towns often sprouted up around them.

The Yates Mill has been called the "queen" of the state's grist mills because of its wonderful state of preservation, including much of its original machinery and two pairs of millstones. Currently being restored by a local community group as the centerpiece of a new county park, the mill will soon host schoolchildren and other visitors who want to learn about the workings of one of the most common, but often forgotten parts of daily life in our past.

And if those visitors are lucky, Mary Simpkins will drop by and remind them that a mill wasn't just a place of business, but a place for summer joys like picnicking, fishing and falling in love.

In Mary Lea Simpkins's words: 
Mary Lea Simpkins. Photo by Chris Seward, 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.
Farmers would come to the mill and bring corn on wagons and mules. They would come from all around, up over Swift Creek and places like that. They were just country people. They would bring the corn in burlap bags, and Daddy would weigh it and grind it for them. Sometimes I've seen him go down there in a snow, and I've seen him grind at night with a lamplight. Sometimes while he was grinding he'd sing hymns. He taught me songs. Daddy loved being a miller, and everybody liked Daddy's cornmeal, they did. I don't mean that bragging, but they did. I would go down there when I was a child, my sister and all, and help shell corn. It would be on the cob and like they had pulled it out of the field. It was ready to grind but you would have to shell it. The corncobs would run under the mill, and my mother cooked with them.

When Daddy would go in to start the water going, there was an iron like a lever. That's where he turned the water on the forebay. Then it would come on and the rocks would start turning and he would grind. There was a big box that held the meal in it, and he had a wooden paddle that he would dip up that meal with and fill the bags. He ground corn meal, and he would grind graham flour. The graham flour made good biscuits. Real good. A lot of people liked it. That was upstairs. They had two hoppers in there, where you put your corn in and then your wheat.

When it would be grinding, Daddy would do like that with his hand to see how coarse it was, and then he'd throw a little bit in his mouth and taste it. He could rub it through his fingers and check it. This was the way he really could tell how it was. Some people liked it a little more coarse, and he could set it to grind it coarser or finer. The farmers didn't pay him. He would take a toll, a bit of meal about that big around. It wasn't much.

Daddy would sell meal in 5- and 10-pound bags. He had a great big old Franklin -- he was proud of that old car -- and he would go to Raleigh. He could fill that car full of meal and we'd go to town with him and eat candy and hot dogs and bananas all day long! He would sell the meal in town to different stores.

An old fellow named Mr. Stanley Smith helped Daddy in the mill, and he would go to town with him and help unload his meal. I thought the world of him. He had a shack made out of tote bags and everything, but he would sleep in the mill. We fixed him a bed, and he had a stove in there. It was just a little tin heater where they shelled corn. He stayed out there for a long time.

We had some kind of fun down at that old mill. We'd go down there lots, sit down there around the mill and play. Mama would go down there, too, and sit and carry me when I was a baby. People would come out and have picnics up there, and we used to go swimming. They used to baptize up around there too. I was baptized there when I was about 13

There'd be a lot of fishermen out there. They rented boats to people, so much a day, and they could fish as long as they wanted to. People from Raleigh and places around would come fishing. We would have Easter egg hunts and roast hot dogs down there on the big rock. We had a "tacky party" one night under the shelter of the mill.

And Lord, yes, they used to date down there. The moon would be shining, and that yard would be full of people! Oh, Lordy, they'd date, you better believe they would. They'd go around the pond and park and date. That's all they'd do -- date! They'd park right there in the mill yard, they didn't care. Daddy didn't particularly like it, I'm telling you. He was liable to find whiskey bottles down there and anything else.

We loved to walk around the mill, and go in it, and walk on the dam, walk around the pond, in the woods. It was real pretty. In the fall it was absolutely beautiful. When the trees were like that in color, and the water was real still, it looked like a mirror.

People would come to the mill, and they sure would talk to Daddy. Everybody would talk to him! I'm not saying it because it was my daddy, because I know there's a lot of good people in this world. But they all liked Daddy. They'd talk to him, yessirree. He didn't mind. He loved to talk to them.

But every time Mother would cook dinner for him, he'd sit down and we'd hear somebody shouting, "Ehhhh, Mr. Johnny!" Somebody come to pick up some meal where he had left his corn, and Daddy would get up and go and get it. One old man -- he was a nice old fellow -- come down there, and he said, "Mr. Johnny, I brought you a little corn to have ground today." And he backed his old wagon up to the door. He got out, and he said, "Heh, heh, heh, I forgot it! I left my corn at home!" And he went back and got it, and Daddy ground it for him. Daddy never did get through telling that, it tickled him so good.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "Mary Lea Simpkins."  Photograph. 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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