Two milestones for Music at the MillAs mill observes 125 years, benefit celebrates 10
If a hurricane were to ever hit this far west, everybody knows where Jerry Donahoe would be.
The local banjo player and history buff likes to joke he'd be standing right under the historic Francis Mill in all that swirling wind and rain. It's hyperbole, of course, but maybe not completely. Donahoe, who began volunteering at the site in 2003, has watched its incredible transformation for nearly a decade. If the drive to save it hadn't begun — and people like him hadn't pitched in — he can only imagine what would have become of the 125-year-old structure.
"It certainly wouldn't be here today," he said. "It would be a pile of rubble."
Instead, it's standing tall and stable, and is able to grind corn again after a 30-year break. The mill comes alive during educational talks and even weddings — but it's probably never more vital than during the annual Music at the Mill. Celebrating its 10th year this Saturday, the low-key day of music, crafts and barbecue isn't just a fundraiser, but an acknowledgement of how far this little, tucked-away spot has come.
This year's historic fest, slated from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., will feature bluegrass by Fall Creek and the Hill Country Band, and the dixieland sounds of The Frog Level Philharmonic — with Donahoe and his banjo, of course.
Donahoe, who has performed at every Music at the Mill, described the day as a laid-back affair.
"It's a wonderful afternoon," he said.
For Tanna Timbes, who had been organizing it since the beginning, it's also reassuring. Every year, the crowds tell her that all the research, love and fretting she's poured into the mill really means something to people around here. Timbes, who heads the Francis Mill Preservation Society, is actually the great-granddaughter of William Francis, who built the mill in 1887. The mill ceased operation in 1976, and surely would have stayed that way if Timbes hadn't stepped in. Maybe it was the family connection or perhaps it was a reverence of history, but after years of watching that old building slowly go to pieces, she decided to do something about it. Almost 10 years ago, she typed the question "How would you restore a 100-year-old mill" into an Internet search engine.
For the last decade, she's been finding her answer.
"For it to still be there, I mean, that's just amazing," she said.
So, too, is the effort behind this metamorphosis. Thanks to the magic of the Web, she quickly found out about nonprofits like the Society for Preservation of Old Mills and the Heritage Conservation Network. Pretty soon, she and her fellow mill lovers decided it was time to form their own nonprofit. By 2003, HCN sent out an expert who deemed the mill worth saving. Shortly after, the organization made the mill into a "working holiday" site, meaning that a collection of volunteers from all over the county and the country (Donahoe included, of course) swooped in to help. For one- or two-week work sessions, they began to rehab the aging building, using wood donated from around Haywood. To Timbes' delight, locals began to take notice.
She remembers one day when the sight of a crane hoisting a large beam at the site made the Francis Mill the talk of town for a short while.
"There were people stopping in the yard cheering," she said.
That was moment was exciting but nothing compared to one a few years down the road. During another work day on Sept. 22, 2007, Timbes and her fellow volunteers were holding their breath to see if the mill might actually run again. A new wheel had recently been installed, but no water had run across it yet — and no one was completely sure what would happen when it did. Timbes can still remember the sound of water whooshing toward the wheel and then, finally, the sound of the wheel slowly turning.
"Oh honey, I was crying," she said.
Back then, as she realized they'd been successful, she was overwhelmed by the transformation. She still is. In the beginning, she explained, she thought this process might take 25 years. In the end, it was only three. At this point, Music at the Mill is about raising money for upkeep, as well as raising consciousness about a place that she loves. For extra punch, she gives all the attendees she can small samples of freshly ground cornmeal. For Timbes, these little baggies are proof that the mill really is alive and well.
"It's been an amazing journey," she said.
And she, Donahoe and the rest of the mill's biggest fans, hope it will last for another 125 years.
For more information about Music at the Mill, including tickets, call 456-6307 or visit www.francismill.org. In addition to music, the day will feature crafts, milling demos, door prizes, Mama Moody's fried pies and barbecue by Jeff McLeod.