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The old mill place

Hall’s last gristmill deteriorates as preservation group, government battle over how to preserve it

POSTED: December 6, 2009 12:30 a.m.
TOM REED /The Times

Part of the original chimney can still be seen on the side of Healan's Mill.

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This is part of an occasional series called "Preservation and Progress" dedicated to the historic side of Hall County.

Down a gravel road in East Hall is a shabby wooden structure surrounded by a chain link fence. It doesn’t look like much.

But to some, it is a historical gem.

The enormous rusted wheel and patchwork planks belong to Healan’s Mill, the last gristmill in Hall County.

At one time, there were grand plans to restore the mill and turn the surrounding property into a public park.

The structure was stabilized, but no further restoration work has been done.

The Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust and county government officials are in a standoff over the terms of an agreement on the mill property made nearly a decade ago.

For now, plans are uncertain. But the mill is patient, standing by the rushing shoals of the North Oconee River just as it has for more than 100 years.

History

Healan’s Mill, originally known as Head’s Mill, was built in 1852 by William Head off of Whitehall Road in East Hall.

The mill’s large water wheel was used for years by area residents as a source of power to grind crops, manufacture shingles, gin cotton and turn timber into boards.

"Farmers needed a way to grind their corn and wheat," said Garland Reynolds, a member of the Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust, a non-profit arm of the Hall County Historical Society.

According to Hall County records, the mill was last remodeled during the Great Depression when the wooden water wheel was replaced with metal.

By the end of World War II in 1945, electricity had become available throughout rural Hall County and store-bought dry goods became more common, eliminating the need for the mill’s hydraulic power.

By the 1960s, the mill was in shambles, rusted and covered in kudzu when then-owner F.H. Turner sold the mill in to Fred and Burnice Healan.

The Healans fixed up the old building and converted it into an antique store, bestowing their own surname on the old structure, according to former Times Editor Johnny Vardeman,

The late Burnice Healan was a champion for the old mill, which is the last standing gristmill in Hall County.

According to former Times editor Johnny Vardeman, she spent many hours documenting the mill’s history in an effort to earn it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and finally succeeded in 1990.

Government issue

Hall County purchased Healan’s Mill and around 4 acres of land surrounding the structure on March 5, 2003 using grant funding from the Trust for Public Land.

The Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust and Hall County entered into a lease agreement in April 2003 that called for the county to acquire the land and the trust to raise the funds to restore the mill and subsequently operate and maintain it.

Members of the Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust said they collected enough donations to stabilize the structure.

"It was in terrible shape, it was about to fall down," Reynolds said. "All the trust could do was raise enough money to stabilize it."

The county paid for an assessment by architect Jack Pyburn, who reported that it would cost between $300,000 and $500,000 to fully restore the mill for public use. He included that Whitehall road also needed to be improved.

It was that detail about the road that put the whole project at a standstill.

At odds

Whitehall Road is a narrow gravel path that squeezes right next to the mill. It is often used as a shortcut for nearby residents and it is frequented by school buses.

In a 2005 letter, former Hall County Administrator Jim Shuler told W. L. Norton of the Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust that the county would be unable to relocate or close Whitehall Road.

"The County has unsuccessfully applied for High Priority Project Funding from the federal transportation bill," Shuler wrote. "At this time, there are no funds locally available for this project."

"However, section 3 (g) (7) of the Lease indicates "the failure of (Hall County) to effect such road changes for reasons beyond the control of (Hall County) shall not excuse (the trust’s) obligation to perform hereunder."

Since then, the trust hasn’t raised any money to complete the restoration, violating the time limit set out in the lease agreement.

Norton said without changes to the road, it would be nearly impossible to raise the necessary funds to make the restoration of the mill a reality.

"We’re not going to restore this if it’s not going to make it successful as a park," Norton said. "Why restore it and have it destroyed by some teenagers or somebody?"

The county took a similar stance, effectively putting the mill in purgatory.

"There’s no reason for us to improve that access to that place unless we’re going to use it," said Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton. "That restoration has to take place first."

The issue was further complicated for members of the trust when the county commission at the time proposed running a sewer line at the site, which trust members feel would compromise the foundation of the mill and potentially pollute the river.

"There’s no plans to have sewer through there," Sutton said.

Reynolds said without definitive confirmation about any future plans for sewer or road repairs, the trust has put restoration efforts aside.

"There’s too many elephants in the room," Reynolds said. "Everything is a moving target."

Sutton said funding a destination like this in a remote part of the county has not been popular with commissioners. But the county still owns the property so it is in no danger from developers.

"It’s an interesting piece of property," Sutton said. "There’s no plans to do anything at this point."

The future

Unless the Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust starts to actively raise funds again, it is unlikely the old mill will get a makeover any time soon. It’s looking even less likely that it will become the center of a park.

And that’s something the mill enthusiasts hate to think about.

While the mill has been stabilized, it is only a temporary solution to the problem. There is still much work to be done to save Healan’s mill.

Reynolds estimated the mill will only be structurally sound for another five years before more permanent work needs to be done to preserve it.

"It’s a historic treasure and everything in the world is against it," Reynolds said. "I wish there was some way in the world this thing could be resurrected."



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