The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mabry Mill - Mac Dale's Story

By William "Bill" Lord © 2014

Online: December, 2014

Edwin M. "Mac" DaleEdwin M. "Mac" Dale was the first Park Ranger of the Virginia portion and only the second Park Ranger hired by the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by the National Park Service.Provided to The Mountain Laurel by Ron Leonard
Facebook Group: Carroll County, VA (Reminise&Photo's)

To this day I feel a shudder remembering that, but for a fortuitous circumstance, Mabry Mill, the Blue Ridge Parkway's tribute to folk lore, would have vanished forever on a certain morning in "half past September," 1938.

I arrived on the Parkway, ten years later as a rookie park ranger; stationed in Floyd, Virginia, and Edwin M. "Mac" Dale was the head ranger of the Virginia portion of the Parkway. He was the Parkway's first ranger, patrolling the first miles of Parkway construction in Virginia from his home base in Hillsville. This stretch Included Mabry Mill, at that time an abandoned shambles of weather gray boards, with its inert water wheel leaning a-tilt.

The Parkway had big plans for the mill. But somehow the Virginia Department of Highways thought the mill was something they had been assigned to "clean up." Mac showed up in the nick of time. I meant to "hole up" with Mac and get the details, but he was reluctant to elaborate. "It wasn't anything really, I just happened by at the right time." Then, in the mid fifties our lives took different paths and we never met again. Fortunately we began a correspondence in 1985 – 87, when he sent me a tape of his recollections about Mabry Mill. Mac had long since retired from the National Park Service. His deep voice and careful enunciation were the same as ever, just slower and a bit tired.

Mabry Mill as it looked in Mac's day. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.Mabry Mill as it looked in Mac's day. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.The tape began with, "Good morning, Bill." It was liked shaking hands. He said he had made a number of previous attempts to tell his stories about Mabry Mill, "but for one reason or another l have always failed to do it. This morning I'm determined to go ahead and see if I can get the job done one way or another."

Mac's first assignment on the Parkway, May of 1938 through December of 1939, covered fifty-two miles from Tuggle's Gap in Floyd County, Virginia, south to the North Carolina state line. Only the northern twenty or so miles had been graded and surfaced with crushed stone. Fortunately, this distance included Mabry Mill.

Mac talked about getting acquainted with his mountain neighbors. "And I tell you truthfully, that summer of 1938 was one of the truly great years of my life; of learning and discovering and being new man on the block. They were new to me and I was new to them." He was warmed up now and his voice glowed. "Let's get along to Mabry Mill. The Mill, as such, has fascinated me from the very beginning. I was intrigued with it the very first time I saw it. And the more I saw of it, the more I explored it and looked at and admired it, the more certain I was that this was really something extraordinary. All that spring and summer every chance I got going up and down the district, I stopped in and peeped and peered trying to get acquainted with the mill and to understand what had gone on there...the good part of getting acquainted that summer was to see the progress of spring...and seeing for the first time the flame azalea, rhododendron, sourwood, and all that sort of thing. All that was new to me and I enjoyed it immensely."

Ed & Lizzie Mabry, owners of Mabry Mill, standing on the porch of their home. This house once stood where a log cabin now stands.Ed & Lizzie Mabry, owners of Mabry Mill, standing on the porch of their home. This house once stood where a log cabin now stands.According to local custom, old timers were politely referred to as "uncle," or "aunt." Mabry mill was the home and enterprise of Uncle Ed Mabry, where he and wife, Aunt Lizzie, lived and worked their family enterprise comprising a blacksmith forge, grist mill, saw mill and wheelwright shop. Uncle Ed died in 1936, about the time the State purchased the Mabry land and home site and transferred it to the federal government.

Aunt Lizzie, like all the other home owners within the designated Parkway right-of-way, had to vacate the property. When Mac first saw it, the changes of abandonment were already evident. "The place did have an unkempt appearance; weeds grew, flowers blooming around. The paths got a bit overgrown and not used and it looked pretty forlorn. But it still was the nicety of the color of that weathered siding of the mill itself, the mill buildings, all kind of tucked in there. Mr. Mabry, sometime in the past, several years before, planted a row of pine trees. I suspect he did this to provide shade for the mill and for the wheelwright and blacksmith shops. It gets pretty warm up there in the summer time."

During these first months, Mac traveled his district by patrol car and on foot, getting acquainted with his neighbors and their resourceful "do it yourself or do without," economy. He discovered other mills in the community and concluded that Babe Cochran's mill, at Meadows of Dan, was, "the best mill anywhere in that country. He not only ground all grains brought to him, but could even bolt them – the buckwheat flour, instead of being gray with chaff that usually you associate with buckwheat flour, when he bolted it, it was cream colored, almost white."

Ed and Lizzie Mabry - a close-up showing Lizzie's flowers.Ed and Lizzie Mabry - a close-up showing Lizzie's flowers.But Mac recognized that Uncle Ed earned the regard of his community as a man, "Who could fix most anything. He operated a complex that served a considerable community. And the complex, I think, grew out of his blacksmith shop. I have no doubt that this was the start of it. And his reputation was that anything he fixed would never break again where he fixed it. He made things twice as strong as they really needed to be. But that was his approach. He meant to do a good job, and he did."

"Uncle Ed and Aunt Lizzie acquired their land just into the 1900's. I think it's safe to assume that there had been no previous building. He located at the present site to have a water source for his mill. First, he built a small cabin home and then his blacksmith shop. These first years were years of hard, but productive labor. Uncle Ed must have wiped his brow many a time and welcomed the call of Aunt Lizzie to, 'come and eat your dinner and rest a spell.'"

The mill took years to complete. First came the main building housing the saw mill and the grist-mill, and the extensive length of the wooden millrace. The front and final portion of the mill containing the wheelwright shop, was completed in 1910.

Meanwhile, Uncle Ed had built a chicken coop, a shed or two, and a barn. This was the Mabry Mill that served the Meadows of Dan community for 25 years. Uncle Ed operated a productive, well-maintained enterprise until the twin misfortunes of an uncertain water supply and a lame back lead to a gradual decline. Aunt Lizzie ran the grist mill the last years. The rest lay dormant.

But the evidence of better years still remained. When Mac first saw the mill, "There were still three logs inside the saw mill. They were being guarded by the resident self-setting mouse trap, a three quarters grown copperhead snake. And I left him there to take care of the mouse population. The saw mill, of course, could be operated only when there was enough water to turn the wheel at its maximum rate. The usual amount that would build up in his pond was not sufficient. It did very nicely for a grind of total corn, even to meal, but for the saw mill to operate you would have to have a fast spin of the saw and enough power to move against the wood."

Uncle Ed ran his sawmill and grist mill as well as he could, but he was probably most adept and self-assured as a black smith and wheelwright. Mac's description of Uncle Ed's means and methods seemed as though he had been peering over Uncle Ed's shoulder and was reporting "live." "As he needed tools or needed to be able to do anything, he just built it. He made it. And this is nowhere more in evidence than in the little wood-working shop, the one that has the real nice little jig-saw that he built. Now the prime purpose of that jig-saw was to go with this wheelwright operation. To cut out the felloes and to season the hickory and the oak used in repairing or building the wheels. Now there are a great many blacksmiths in the mountains who couldn't for the life of them rebuild a wagon wheel, much less a buggy wheel. That little jig-saw was used to shape the felloes, as they are properly called. And the thing that makes you wonder, the thing that separated Ed Mabry's type of blacksmithing from most of the others, that I know, was his ability as a wheelwright."

"Now one of the niceties of the wheelwright operation, even after you get beyond the niceties of curvature and angles of cut for the felloes, when you consider the necessity to assemble all of this and then bind the wheel with a tire of iron, that's where a real master blacksmith is required. He had to figure out not only the finished dimension of the tire itself, this continuous band of metal, but in order for this to fit properly, the wheel had to be perfectly dry. That is, all of the wooden components and the metal had to be hot enough to burn off a little of the irregularities; and as it shrunk, to shrink down to a size that would tightly grip the entirety of the wheel all the way from the felloes through the spokes and into the hub. There aren't very many blacksmiths who could calculate as nicely as they need to be calculated, in order to be successful."

Although Mabry Mill was an abiding interest of Mac's, his daily routine required a constant presence to represent the Parkway's interest in everyday dealings with the community. To some the Parkway was a, "mighty particular road." Mac relied on tact and persuasion whenever possible.

One area of mutual benefit involved fire control. "Toward the tail end of summer, there were these annoying – we call them forest fires. They were just fires in woodlots and all of that. These were of particular concern to those people because what little bit they had was being burned and their idea of fighting a forest fire was to build a back fire and fall back to it. I was able to take a crew down in a pretty wild section of Pinnacles of Dan and show them you could scrape a fire line of exposed soil just ahead of the creeping fire and actually put out the fire. The Service approved of me putting out fire tool boxes here and there so they would be handy to me in case I had to get a crew and also to give permission for these people to use in case of need."

The business of fire control had a bearing on the fortuitous event that saved Mabry Mill. On a "half past September" morning, in 1938, Mac left his quarters in Hillsville and drove east on Rt. 58 to its entry onto the Parkway at Meadows of Dan. Everything Mac said to this point was interesting, but now the fortuitous event was being described and documented. The scene came to life as though on a stage. Mac spoke as if he were in the audience and listening to his own voice. "So about half-past September, with the feeling of fall in the air, I had been tied up in some of these fire reports and all was kind of laid away in my little place in Hillsville with two things bothering me; one being that fire report I had to make out with some information I needed from Rocky Knob, the office there, and the other immediate problem having to do with a man who was trying to build an access road where it wasn't supposed to be, south below the Pinnacles of Dan."

If Mac had decided to turn south, no more Mabry Mill. Luckily, he "decided that I had better get this confounded fire report out first," and turned north, with Mabry Mill en route, toward the ranger office at Rocky Knob. "So when I got to the Parkway there at Meadows of Dan out of Hillsville, I turned north. When I got up to Mabry Mill I did a double take and a fast stop because right there in front of the mill was a State's road's department maintenance truck and a group of men, one with a crowbar and one with a sledgehammer just going through the door into the mill. And this startled me and I climbed down all ready to do battle. I said, to myself, 'hey boy, cool it. Let's find out what goes on.' So I 'howed' at them and they 'howed' me back and I inquired and they told me that their orders were to knock down all of the buildings of the group and have them ready so they could be set on fire and be got out of the way the first snow. I said, 'Well, wait a minute. Are you sure there isn't some mistake? This group is not supposed to be taken down. This group is supposed to be left just like it is.' And the foreman reached into his pocket and said, 'Yes, today's orders, and when my boss says to do something he means for it to be done, and I'm sorry but I'm going to have to do what he said.' I said, 'Well I don't blame you at all for following his orders, but I think surely that somebody has failed to get the word to your boss.' Well it took some convincing to have him decide, as I suggested, that he wait a bit and just go and clean a culvert or something or do something and give me a chance to drive over to Hillsville, the nearest [telephone] exchange, and get in touch with Roanoke (Parkway Headquarters) and his office, and have them call his boss at Hillsville back and confirm that this was not to be torn down. And he agreed to do that and with their tools, sledge hammers and axes and a couple of crowbars, they piled them into the truck and took off. I also took off. I made one of the fastest trips from there to Hillsville. I made it in record time."

"The first part of that run from the mill to Hillsville I spent berating myself for not having taken some sort of action, not having done something to ensure that what the State proposed to do would not be done and I should have done it a long time ago. I recognized the necessity for the arrangement between the Park Service and the State for the removal of the buildings. I've been in Shenandoah National Park at the time they were still buying land and knew that the reason for the removal of buildings along the way; the primary reason for it was that they had encountered a situation in Shenandoah Park, whereas, they would buy the land and the buildings from the owner, and settle with the owner, and he would move out with the family and before morning somebody else would have moved in. And they had to go through the whole dreary process of having to tear down or burn the building in order to conclude the affair."

Mac knew that his superiors had plans to preserve and rebuild the mill. This was in keeping with the Parkway Master Plan conceived by Landscape Architects, Stanley Abbott and Edward Abhuehl, and administered by Superintendent Sam P. Weems from the Parkway headquarters in Roanoke.

On reaching Hillsville, Mac drove directly to the home of Ella Wilcox. "Now the switchboard in Hillsville was located in the home of the nice lady who operated it. And when I got there and told her what I would like to do, gave her the Roanoke number and all, miracles started occurring. She managed immediately to get a circuit to Roanoke just going through Floyd and I think one other switchboard to do it. And then to add to the wonder of it , I got Sam Weems on the line right away and he arranged a conference with Ed and Stan at that end and I explained the situation...and they told me to stand by right there and they'd call back."

Mac spent several long hours sweating out the return call. Finally it came through, directing him to go to the Hillsville office of the Virginia road department and pick up an order cancelling the demolition.

Mac's timely arrival rescued Mabry Mill, but the effects of weathering and neglect were edging it into oblivion. Aunt Lizzie had sold all of Uncle Ed's tools and iron equipment to a junk dealer. This included the mill wheel shaft. Thus bereft, the mill was a slowly melting shambles, with its waterwheel leaning a-tilt.

Soon thereafter, WWII arrived and Stan, Ed and Mac joined the military service. Parkway development came to a halt, but Ken McCarter, a long time landscape architect close to retirement, was assigned to assist Superintendent Weems and, "do what he could." Ken proceeded to carefully record the precise measurements of Mabry Mill's buildings and equipment and restore them. The drawings are as specified by the Historic American Buildings Survey and are now in the Library of Congress.

Mac served as a naval officer assigned to the Merchant Marine. He didn't talk much about the war but did admit that German U-Boat activity put him into a life boat a time or two. On arriving home after discharge from the navy, of course his first priority was greeting and hugging his lovely Eloise and reuniting with Sam, Stan and Ed. But soon he was behind the wheel of a Parkway patrol car, headed south from Roanoke to Mabry Mill.

He anticipated seeing this one man industrial plant just as it was in Uncle Ed's heyday. At first it was a dream comes true. The fully restored mill wheel splished and splashed, turning as water poured from the overhead mill race. He walked from his car and into the grist mill. The mill wasn't in operation but everything was in working order, the mill stones, the hopper and its levers and pulleys. To the right was the millwright shop with its parallel jig saws and, back past the hopper, was the saw mill with its rotary saw in fine order facing logs ready to be sawed into timber.

Outside, close by was Uncle Ed's blacksmith forge with its anvil ready to receive the hammer pounding to shape hot, glowing iron. Well, this was just dandy. But wait. Something is missing.

Mac couldn't believe it. Uncle Ed and Aunt Lizzie's house was missing; that lovely frame house that Ed and Lizzie built themselves. "And it had the nicest summer kitchen at the back that Uncle Ed built special for his wife, so summer breezes could make cooking easier in the summer heat." I don't remember Mac telling me who made the decision to take down Mabry's house, but by general consensus it was decided that the comparatively modern frame house and its painted exterior were out of character with the unfinished weatherboard gray of Mabry's shop buildings.

Maybe so, but when the Mabry's first bought the site, they lived in a log cabin. But like most of us they wanted to succeed in life and live better. Their home was a vital part of their life's story.

Another place Mac stopped by was the Aunt Orlena Puckett's cabin, 14 miles further down the Parkway. When he arrived as the Parkway's first park ranger, Aunt Orlena, the storied Blue Ridge midwife, who tended to the "borning" of over a thousand new born, was living with kin folk close by the cabin that keeps her memory alive. She and Mac became good friends. Upon leaving he would say, "Anything I can bring you the next time I come by?" Aunt Orlena would be pleased if the ranger would bring her, "some cherry pop and some rat trap cheese." Well, Aunt Orlena had passed away in 1939, a year or so before Mac left for the service. Here and now, it was nice to see the cabin well maintained as a permanent Parkway exhibit. But Mac would tell you that Aunt Orlena and her family only lived in that small, one room cabin a few years after they first bought the land. As soon as they could, they built a much bigger home. It's gone.