Cable Grist Mill-Cades Cove-SS
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Discover These 10 Grist Mills in the Smoky Mountains

If you’re tired of the daily grind and want to take your turn exploring the Great Smoky Mountains, it helps to have an itinerary of cool places in the hopper. Part of where history and modern day meet across Appalachia is at grist mills.

In fact, the first sentence above has three sayings derived from the grist mill days. (Can you find them all? We’ll explain later.)

Simply put, a grist mill is a way to grind wheat and corn into powder. Most meals relied on one or the other before the 20th century, which made mills the hub of rural areas.

Then, the food could be stored and used to make bread, grits, pancakes, and other wheat or corn-based foods. It took a balance of water power, gravity, and evolving technology to keep grist mills going in what was initially a roadless region of the Great Smoky Mountains.

We put our shoulder to the wheel to find the best Smoky Mountain grist mills that still show their mettle.

Mingus Mill-Cherokee, North Carolina
Mingus Mill | photo via henksmit1974

Mingus Mill

Cherokee, North Carolina/Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Oconaluftee Area)

Mingus Mill might be the most well-known in the region, both for its historic value and present-day demonstrations. That’s right, this mill built in 1886 still works! It’s located about half a mile from the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center.

It was the largest grist mill in the Smokies and one of the most advanced. Instead of a waterwheel, a turbine and flume carried water from Mingus Creek to power the grinding process. As the only mill in Oconaluftee Valley, business was good for 50 years. It ground to a halt to make way for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

While the National Park Service tore down many buildings while finalizing the park layout, Mingus Mill was quickly put on the rehabilitation list in 1936 and functioning by 1937. Today, a miller shows visitors how the corn goes from grist to grits.

Given the age, constant exposure to water/humidity, and habitual use, Mingus Mill undergoes rehabilitation projects every few years or so. Check the status before you visit.

Cable Mill

Townsend, Tennessee/Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Cades Cove)

On the other side of the park in Cades Cove, John P. Cable built a grist mill for that community in 1870. The water of Mill Creek also fueled the sawmill, offering supplies for meals and home building.

In fact, the Gregg-Cable House, located near the mill, was built from “run of the mill” local trees that were sawed into wood. Since the home doubled as a store, nearly 700 Cades Cove locals didn’t have to take the long trip to Knoxville for supplies.

The Cable Mill is just one of many amazing places to see on a tour of Cades Cove.

THE GIST OF GRITS: The name for finely ground corn is “grits,” a name adapted from the word “grist.” Eventually, grist was associated with wheat or grains, while grits were coarse corn grist.

Ogle Mill-Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Ogle Mill | photo via daisyjay27

Ogle Mill

Gatlinburg, Tennessee/Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail)

Whether you’re on your way to Rainbow Falls or taking a ride on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a stop at the Bud “Ogle” Historic Nature Trail is easy and a great example of another grist mill variety.

The Ogle family was among the first settlers in the area known as White Oak. (It is also referred to as Junglebrook.) The homestead on the nature trail shows the layout of a growing family living off the land. The “tub” grist mill iteration right off of LeConte Creek was commonly used by families who grew and ground their own corn and wheat.

In fact, the creek was previously named Mill Creek for the 19 homesteads who used the water to power their own mills. The Ogle’s tub mill, building, and 80-foot-long flume are still on the property.

“Ogle” is still a big name in this region, as is evident by the Ogle Brothers General Store on the Parkway.

Reagan Mill

Gatlinburg, Tennessee/Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail)

On the opposite end of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, you’ll find the Alfred Reagan grist mill. The Reagan Mill and Ogle Mill are the only remaining two tub grist mills remaining in this park section.

This section of Roaring Fork lives up to its name, with the rush of water breaking the silence of isolated nature. Regan used his tub mill to run a small general store and was skilled at woodwork, blacksmith work, and carpentry around the early 1900s.

Today, only the house and mill remain, both preserved for generations to come. Walking this homestead, you get a true glimpse of Appalachian mountain life more than a century ago.

Ely’s Mill-Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Ely’s Mill | photo via seth.polfus

Ely’s Mill

Gatlinburg, Tennessee/Outside the Park on Roaring Fork Road

At the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, another mill is just a stone’s throw from the park boundaries. However, it’s definitely not a run-of-the-mill kind of mill. “Old Man Ely” left his big-city lawyer job in the 1920s, grieving the loss of his wife, and took over 25 acres.

Ely was concerned the national park would cause “Old Gatlinburg” mountain life to be lost, so he set up the Water Wheel Craft Shop. The main mill was used for machinery power. A smaller, non-descript grist mill was elsewhere on the property.

By the 1940s, nearly two dozen buildings filled the space. Ely passed away in 1967, but the spirit of his property never waned. Just ask his granddaughter, who runs Ely’s Mill now; she’s usually on site.

Ely’s Mill is eclectic and enchanting at the same time, with locally made crafts that were just as useful 100 years ago. Two cabins are available to rent if you want to live like “Old Many Ely.”

The Old Mill

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Ask anyone in the Smokies about the best restaurants, and The Old Mill usually makes the top three. However, there’s more to the story than the crispy-yet-juicy fried chicken, breaded in a sensational mix of spices with a side of corn fritters and that maple crystal butter that glides right on… wait, what were we talking about?

The Old Mill has only been called by that name since the tourism industry took over in the 1950s. The real history goes back to 1830 when Lewis Mill was built in this very spot on the Little Pigeon River — the same location where Issac Love built an iron forge 15 years earlier.

The mill changed hands a few times and experienced the wrath of eastern Tennessee weather, yet still thrived even so long as to bring electricity to the area in 1933. More tourists came after the national park was created, and 1993 brought a new restaurant using ingredients from the “Old Mill.”

Now, the Old Mill complex offers several restaurants, stores, and a gift shop as one of the main stops for Great Smoky Mountains visitors.

PIGEON FORGE NAME: William Love named Pigeon Forge for the pigeons that migrated along the river and the iron forge created by his father.

Dollywood Grist Mil-Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Dollywood Grist Mill | photo via dth1138

Dollywood Grist Mill

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee/Dollywood

The story of the Dollywood grist mill only goes back to 1982, but it was designed as if it was made 100 years earlier. Located in the Craftman’s Valley section of the park, you’ll smell this grist mill before you see it – then you’ll see the line to get in.

The (short) wait is worth it, as this grist mill is used to make cinnamon bread paired with apple butter. You’ll watch the breadmaking before or after you explore the shop and grist process.

You’ll buy a loaf, swearing you just want to take one home to try later. It’s okay when you don’t even make it to the car. It happens to all of us.

Francis Grist Mill

Waynesville, North Carolina

Our next grist mill is off the beaten path to and through the Smokies but is worth the 40-mile drive from Cherokee, especially if an event is planned. The mill has the idyllic appeal of Old Mill without all the crowds.

The Francis Grist Mill served the Francis Cove community starting in 1887. Ownership of the mill never changed hands, and it was still being used as a grist mill until 1976. The Francis Mill Preservation Society now works to keep the mill preserved with volunteers and charitable events.

Blowing Cave Mill

Sevierville, Tennessee

Between Douglas Lake and Forbidden Caverns, Blowing Cave Mill literally cannot be missed as it sits mere inches from the Blowing Cave Road.

Not much historical detail is known about this mill, but here’s what is known. It was built in 1880 by the Early brothers and was going to be turned into a craft store called Grist Mill Primitives in 2008, but no records show that store ever opened.

The land is privately owned, and a small parking area next to the mill should be as close as you can feel comfortably going for a quick picture.

Saunooke’s Mill

Cherokee, North Carolina

Just two miles from Mingus Mill, Saunooke’s Mill sits right on the other side of the Oconoluftee Visitor’s Center.

The mill isn’t as old as the other, having been built in 1975. However, the most shocking detail is that the property owner had no idea how to operate a grist mill, but was fascinated by the nostalgia, so he put his nose to the grindstone and learned.

That work paid off because, a generation later, Saunook’s Mill still makes its own grist and grits. The product became so popular that the company had to expand to online sales. When visiting the mill, be sure to go upstairs, where you can see the mill machinery at work.

More Grist for the Mill

Many sayings that started in grist mills still fill out vocabulary today.

  • Daily Grind: The monotonous yet important mill work kept communities thriving.
  • Take Your Turn: Farmers and families had to wait in line. The water power “turned” the stone to start grinding. So, everyone waited for their “turn” to get the grist.
  • First Come, First Served: Nobody was more or less important than anyone else, so a “turn” was done by order of arrival.
  • In the Hopper: Where grain or corn was put before it was ground between the stones.
  • Test Your Mettle (Metal)/Show Your Steel: Those who maintained grindstones used a metal chisel, and pieces would fly off during their work. The experienced ones just rolled up their sleeves to show the scars or embedded metal.
  • Put Through the Mill: Going through something difficult, like the corn or wheat being turned into powder at the mill.
  • Milling Around: As the corn or wheat would move from the hopper to the grindstone, it would haphazardly jump around in all directions. That transitioned to the meaning of “moving around with no particular purpose.”

If you want more mill mania, consider staying at a grist mill! The Cabin on Dumplin Creek dates back to 1798.

Cable Grist Mill-Cades Cove-SS
Cable Grist Mill I photo credit: Jim Vallee / Shutterstock

Visit a Smoky Mountains Grist Mill

Grist mills played a vital role in the history and development of the Smoky Mountains region. These mills served as crucial centers for processing grains, providing sustenance for local communities, and driving growth.

The enduring presence of grist mills in the Smoky Mountains is a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the people who called the Smokies home. These mills have evolved from essential hubs of industry to beloved landmarks and cultural treasures, attracting visitors from near and far.

We have plenty of more information about things to do in the Smokies. After all, it’s just more grist for the mill!

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