Mabry’s Marvel

The Blue Ridge Parkway’s iconic Mabry Mill came dangerously close to decay and destruction last year, until friends of the popular parkway outpost intervened to save its massive waterwheel.

Fork mountain creek trickles out of the seeps and damps of a Floyd County slope just a few miles north of the little hamlet of Meadows of Dan, where U.S. 58 and the Blue Ridge Parkway cross. For more than 100 years the waters of this hillside have powered an early 20th-century industrial marvel—a grist and sawmill, hand-built by a sturdy mountain couple from Southwest Virginia. The wonder is not that there was a mill there; the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge were home to many such mills. What made this picturesque mill special was that it reflected the ingenuity of the couple who built it. Though they did not have the benefit of education, their vision of simple utilitarian beauty has made the mill one of the most popular sites in America’s eastern national parks.

The iconic Mabry Mill, designed by Ed Mabry and running by 1910, is one of the most scenic mills in America and perhaps the most photographed, parkway officials say. One of the biggest stars of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, it lies in a picture-perfect setting, its flumes and rock-lined ditches collecting water from upslope and funneling it into a raceway that powers a 16-foot waterwheel. The mill was made for industrial practicality, not beauty, yet its board-and-batten siding, split-shingle roof and graceful white oak waterwheel, set just above a 1940s-era reflecting pond just a few feet off the parkway, have made it irresistible to marketers everywhere, many boldly claiming the mill as their own: Postcards in the Northeast and the Midwest have borne the mill’s picture along with such inscriptions as “Greetings from Connecticut” and “Greetings from Iowa.”

Ed Mabry had a third-grade education, and his wife Lizzie was illiterate. But together they designed, built and ran a remarkable institution that once served the many needs of their mountain neighbors: They made and repaired wagons, milled cornmeal, sawed tree trunks into lumber and made horseshoes, hinges and nails. Today, the Mabrys’ once remote outpost serves as a fascinating educational experience for visitors from around the world. “Ed was born with an innate ability to figure things out,” says Michael Ryan, a parkway interpretative ranger. “In his mind, he saw the gears, the pulleys, the belts, the levers. He was like a kid with an Erector Set.”

Ed Mabry died in 1936, and the mill, which had been deteriorating for some years, was purchased from Lizzie by the National Park Service in 1938. Though it came very close to being destroyed in the early days of parkway construction when a miscommunication sent a demolition crew to the wrong building to clear land near the roadway, a more recent decline in federal funding for maintenance and capital construction in national parks created a much more real threat to the future of the mill (federal budget cuts over the last decade have contributed to a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog according to the National Park Service). By 2013, one end of the reflecting pond at Mabry Mill had filled with silt and the waterwheel was leaking and rotting. But there was no money to repair the wheel or pay for other critical needs.

Parkway officials asked the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a 17-year-old organization which raises money for the parkway, for assistance. The foundation approved a grant of $65,000 to dredge the reflecting pond and rebuild the waterwheel onsite, as its massive, 15-foot-long by 22-inch octagonal axle was sound and still in good shape. (First restored in 1942 after lengthy disuse, the wheel has been rebuilt several times over the years.) Work by parkway preservation experts began in early 2014.

To replace the 15-inch waterwheel supports, preservation specialists at the parkway’s Historic Preservation Workshop near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, used an ancient white oak that had blown over two years earlier in the E.B. Jeffress Park area of the parkway. BPR’s plant ecologist Dr. Chris Ulrey measured a section of its growth rings and concluded the tree was at least 400 years old, and possibly 500 years old or more, which meant that it could have been growing when Columbus sailed for the New World. The tree’s 39-inch diameter base insured there was plenty of wood, but its location on a 50-degree slope made recovery hazardous. (Other weather-resistant white oak used in the project was purchased from a South Carolina supplier.)

The tree’s huge sections were milled at Glenn Bolick’s lumberyard a few miles south of Blowing Rock. Bolick, a noted storyteller, banjo player and fiddler, and among the few millers known for still doing old-school historic preservation work, used a 52-inch sawblade powered by an aging diesel engine to cut thick, wide planks for the waterwheel facings and backing boards, as well as 4½-foot long, 15-inch-square blocks that would bear the weight of the water-soaked wheel and absorb the stresses that thousands of daily revolutions impose.

Skilled parkway craftsmen Jack Trivett and Steve Marmie, the last two full-time historic preservation specialists at the BRP’s Historic Preservation Workshop, prepared parts of the waterwheel at their shop but also found the need to custom-cut a number of pieces at the mill site to fit the demands of the old wheel. “We’re perfectionists,” Trivett said one day while cutting and trimming a recalcitrant board for one of the 48 waterwheel buckets. “If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it right.”

In March, a contractor brought his big excavator to the mill site and began dredging the pond to an 8½-foot depth amid the sleet and snow of a St. Patrick’s Day storm. About 20 park service employees ran dump trucks full of soupy mud from the pond to an open field above an employee parking lot to dump the silt. Recently cut tree trunks were placed in the pond like old corduroy road logs to support the excavator as it scooped up years of accumulated silt.

The restoration of the waterwheel took longer than planned. Some of the green oak dried and shrank before a full flow of water to the raceway could be restored and had to be replaced. But when finished last June, the new wheel was strong, tight and fast. The project took a total of six months to complete.

Now, parkway employees who lead tours of the mill from May 1 through Oct. 31 can once again demonstrate how Ed Mabry’s canny mechanical skill produced such a versatile mill.

He could saw lumber to virtually any dimension using a log carriage built with parts salvaged from an old reaping machine. Other parts he built from wood or forged in his blacksmith shop.

Lizzie at one point took over the milling operations, producing corn meal, grits, buckwheat, rye and animal feeds. In the woodworking part of the mill, Mabry came up with such innovations as a two-bladed saw that allowed him to simultaneously cut both sides of the circular sections of wooden wheels—called “felloes”—for his thriving wagon business.

What made the Mabrys’ operation distinctive was the array of different shops that comprised the mill—lumber, grain, woodworking, blacksmithing, wagon building and repair among them—that could perform a variety of work, says the parkway’s Ryan. That, and the fact that Lizzie was more than a mere helper; she was a full-time partner who could work as long and as hard as Ed.“

He and Lizzie were soulmates,” says Ryan, author of the 2013 book Ed And Lizzie: The Mabrys And Their Mill. “I think Ed would’ve been the first person to tell you he could not have done it without Lizzie …. They found their niches with one another.”

The pair never had children of their own, but their mill site became a neighborhood place to socialize, catch up on the news, have a picnic and let children run about laughing and playing. Ed and Lizzie encouraged that kind of community building when people brought grain to be milled, equipment to be repaired or mules to be reshod.

At the end of their lives, when they were too old to run the mill, the Mabrys feared parkway construction would mean destruction of their life’s work. Instead, the parkway’s preservation of the mill and addition of other exhibits and buildings have introduced millions of visitors to an industrial complex that few outsiders could have imagined mountain folk were capable of building a century ago.

Ed and Lizzie Mabry would have loved the result, Ryan believes. “It’s the people who lived and worked in these buildings that have given them their spirit and soul.”

Jack Betts is on the board of trustees of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

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