Run of the Mills: North Carolina Gristmills
There are only a handful of working gristmills in North Carolina today, but they once played a vital role as community centers.
“In the South, we used to have a mill in almost every county. Everyone knew their local miller,” says Bryan King, fourth-generation miller of Lakeside Mills in Spindale.
Though they may not be as commonplace, a few mills have stayed in business thanks to the natural fondness for Southern – and often nostalgic – recipes.
“The traditional cooks want to buy what they recognize from childhood,” King says. “That’s what your local mills produce. We’re now a niche market.”
He also attributes the success in part to the trend-turned-mainstay of buying local.
“If you buy a locally produced product from Lakeside or any of the quality mills that we have, you are actually continuing a tradition,” King says. “You’re buying something you can enjoy that your ancestors also enjoyed 50, 100 or even 150 years ago.”
Old Mill of Guilford
Built in 1767, the Old Mill of Guilford in Oak Ridge is one of the oldest working gristmills in the country. The mill grinds corn, wheat and rice to make different varieties of flour and baking mixes. Run by miller Annie Laura Perdue and a staff of local volunteers, the mill sells products at the country market on the property and on its website. They also ship items to general stores and restaurants across the country. Its bestsellers are mixes for sweet potato muffins and apple-cinnamon pancakes.
“We get a lot of word-of-mouth visitors,” Perdue says. “A lot of folks send our products as gifts, and then those people come in to buy more. The next thing you know, we have people calling, saying ‘I can’t do without your sweet potato muffin mix. Can you send me some please?’ ”
Current owner Amy Klug started out as one of the mill’s customers. When the previous owners decided to sell in 2008, she and her husband, Darrell, jumped at the opportunity.
“As a customer, I always loved their products, so when the mill came on the market, I thought [owning it] would be an exciting adventure,” Klug says. “It was important to keep it in the community because it’s a symbol of the area’s history. It’s even on the Oak Ridge city crest.”
The original mill was built on Beaver Creek by Daniel Dillon to grind grain for the early settlers. During the Revolutionary War, British General Charles Cornwallis captured the mill prior to the Battle of Guilford Court House. Two centuries later, the mill still has the original stone foundation.
“The tour allows visitors to see the way our country used to produce food,” Klug says. “Farmers brought their grains to be ground into flour or cornmeal or grits because they did not have the ability to grind at home. The mill provided a service to the farmers.”
It also connected townspeople.
“Mills traditionally were meeting places for the community, and our mill still is. It’s nice for them to be able to come, sit down on the front porch, relax and enjoy the atmosphere here.”
Lakeside Mills in Spindale traces its roots back even further, to 1736. The original mill, like many others throughout the state, fed troops on both sides of the Revolutionary and Civil wars. It went through a few incarnations over the years, and the King family has owned the mill since 1929. Not a lot has changed since then – and that’s a good thing.
“This was something built over time from my grandfather and great-grandfather, and I take pride in continuing what they started,” says King, who runs the mill with his brothers, Aaron and Kim. “If this was easy, anyone could do it. Who else knows how to dress a millstone?”
He notes they still have millstones used by his grandfather, as well as the same relationships with growers.
“We have farmers who have been growing grain for us for generations,” he says. Farmers in North Carolina and other states grow soft red winter wheat, yellow corn and white corn for Lakeside Mills. Its most popular products include hush puppy mix created from a family recipe and a seasoned flour breading used to fry fish.
The King family has taken over a few mills that had to close over the years and now sells products under the labels Lakeside, Blue Ribbon, Joy Brand and Yelton’s Best. Their products can be found in more than 4,000 retail outlets all across the Southeast, including Lowes Foods, Publix and Food Lion.
“There’s nothing like going on vacation and seeing in a grocery store or restaurant our Sweet Caroline Hushpuppy Mix made five hours away at our mill in Western North Carolina,” King says. “We always ask our clients to ask their grocery stores to stock our products. That’s what keeps us in business.
He also credits farmers with helping Lakeside Mills carry on that tradition.
“Our success hasn’t only been having a good crew, but also our farmers who care about the soil and what they produce,” he says. “We are fortunate enough to be right here with quality farmers growing quality grains, so we can make quality flours and grits.”
Because it’s such a small industry, the millers in North Carolina work together in order to stay in business. “Even though we ‘compete’ in the marketplace, we help each other out,” King says. They borrow from each other if a millstone breaks or a widget is needed to keep the mill running until the part comes in.
“It’s a family tradition, and the family extends to the other mills when we’re doing what we do,” he says. “That’s what has happened for generations.”
– Teree Caruthers