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A historic mill in North Hall holds mystery and a grinding stone
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Donald Parks shows the old Gilstrap Mill’s upper floor bracing beams currently under renovation that used to help keep vibrations down in the structure when the mill was operating.

It’s easy to get lost among the rolling hills and pasture land along Gilstrap Mill Road in North Hall County.

Giant boulders jut out of one hilltop, while around another meandering bend, a canopy of trees glows a soft green against the midday sun.

But take the road just a bit farther and suddenly you’re in another world entirely — one that takes you back generations to a simpler time, when the entertainment for the day was sitting by a quiet pond or listening to a babbling waterfall.

Waiting for your corn to grind.

For around that one particular corner on Gilstrap Mill Road is a building for which the road was named: An old corn mill. Ravaged by time, high school students and wood scavengers, it’s slowly being brought back to its old glory by its current owners, mainly because of the history it holds.

"Just to preserve it," said Don Parks, who has replaced the roof and shored up some of the weak spots in the building. "The people around here — it’s a historical thing — they would have a fit if you talked about tearing it down. They don’t want that."

The exterior of the building is wood plank siding capped with a metal roof. Inside, the mill is two floors, with heavy wood beams constructing its floor. The wood timbers framing the structure are dovetailed together, secured by wooden pegs. On the second floor, vertical wood beams are used to support thick crossbeams, which have disappeared over the years.

"It has these big posts that you can see, and it had these big old beams that came across and connected to this," said Parks as he ran his hand along the rough-hewn wood.

"I thought, ‘Why in the world would you have that?’

And someone told me, when the mill ran, it shook the building, with the vibrations. So they braced it that way. You can see somebody came in here and cut them out before I bought it."

But the most valuable piece of the mill is still intact, securely fastened to a series of wooden cog wheels: The millstone and its metal housing.

Set alongside Wahoo Creek, the mill’s builders also constructed a spillway that directed water to a wooden wheel just outside the mill. Although the exterior wheel has rotted away, its metal axle is still connected to a wheel underneath the mill, which is connected to an interior series of wheels that turned the millstone.

This is the heart of the mill, said Joann Tarpley, owner of Nora Mills in Helen, a working mill established in 1876 that grinds flour and varieties of corn meal.

Unfortunately for too many mills, Tarpley said, their millstones are taken out and slowly they are dismantled for their wood until there’s barely any trace left.

"People gut them because old millstones, they’re worth — well, they’re priceless," she said. "So people have gone into these old mills and taken the stones."

What’s unique about the millstones, she said, is that the way corn is ground hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Even today, in high-tech electric mills, the principle is the same.

"There’s always two stones," she said. "The bed stone that stays stationary (and) the top stone is the larger of the two — they match — and it can be raised up and down depending on what you want to grind."

For example, if you want corn meal, they are closer together. And because of the friction caused during the grinding process, millers have to be careful they are not accidentally cooking the corn during the process.

Electric mills typically grind faster than water-driven mills, she added, which is something that makes the water-driven mills special.

"Really good millers, in any mill, can get a feel for it. It’s a rhythm thing," she said. "They know the perfect temperature to know what they’re grinding."

Parks, who has owned the property with his wife, Nell, for about 15 years, said he has received offers to take the millstone — but so far, he’s refused.

According to a few longtime North Hall residents, Gilstrap Mill was a working mill, still grinding corn meal, up through the late 1930s.

The building was at one time run by the Carter family and, in the 1930s, was run by the Harkins family.

Roy Truelove, whose family at one time owned much of the land around the old mill, said it was probably named for the Gilstrap family that moved to the area from South Carolina. Although there is no record of how old the mill is, Truelove said there were two John Gilstraps, who were cousins, who helped start Bethel Baptist Church in the Murrayville area in the 1880s.

Truelove, who has done genealogical research and has ties to the Gilstrap family, traced the first sign of the family in this area to about the late 1860s.

His wife, who moved to North Hall as a young girl in the late 1930s, remembers playing in Wahoo Creek next to the mill with a friend who lived in the house next door. That house has since burned down, and only its chimney remains.

Truelove said the women, who are still friends today, recalled running their hands through the warm corn meal after it had just been ground.

His nephew, Dwight Truelove, still owns much of the land near Gilstrap Mill. Dwight said he remembers there being a larger wing of the mill. Compared with the size the building is today, it was easily twice that.

"I think somebody just tore it down," he said. "There’s been a lot of wood stolen out of it."

And, he remembers there being three mills on Wahoo Creek. Today, they are marked only by the roads now named after them: Barnes Mill and Howser Mill.

Howser Mill, he recalled, was swallowed up by Lake Lanier. The woman who owned it didn’t want to give it up, and only left when the water got too close.

But throughout the years, even after it stopped running, Gilstrap Mill remained.

Tarpley said it’s expensive these days to keep a mill operating. A member of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, she said Georgia was once home to countless mills. One by one, they fell dark, into disrepair, and eventually disappeared.

"There are more mills in Georgia than anybody could ever know," she said. "Sometimes there’s nothing left of them but pieces, but they’ve been there for hundreds of years."

Nora Mills, she said, was built for the gold miners who came to Helen seeking their fortune. They, in turn, had to eat, and so the mill was built from necessity.

Roy Truelove recalled tenant farmers living on the land around Gilstrap Mill, and, he said, his grandfather told him the farm had always been there. "It just felt that way when I bought it," he said of nearby land, which was once all part of the same farm. "It’s a garden of Eden."

In that sense, Gilstrap Mill grew from the local farmers’ necessity.

"It’s kind of like an old house that burns and the fireplace is still there," Tarpley said. "It’s just an integral part of our history and our food.

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