Mother Nature reclaims what is hers.
Man can clear a space. He can lay a foundation. He can build a structure of wood, nails and metal. He can scatter gravel along its path.
But again and again, nature will take it back. Vines will pull it apart. Rain will rot the wood. Rust will eat the metal. Through neglect, the historical buildings of yesteryear too often fall victim to the slow but steady hand of time.
But an old gristmill in rural East Hall has advocates today, and it’s their mission to keep Mother Nature at bay while they transform Healan’s Mill into something amazing for future generations to enjoy.
More than two dozen members of an advisory committee created for the restoration of Healen’s (or Head’s) Mill met last week at the nearly 170-year-old gristmill. There, they discussed their plans.
Member and architect Garland Reynolds showed the group some blueprints that illustrated some of the top priorities for the mill, which is located off Whitehall Road near Lula.
In regards to its preservation, first and foremost will be the closing of the small road that leads to the mill.
“It’s very lightly traveled, if at all, and it would be easy to either put a cul-de-sac at either end or connect the road up higher,” Reynolds said. “Next, will be to get ahold of some additional property nearby for parking, and some land to act as a buffer.”
These objectives are integral, Reynolds said.
“There is no question that development is coming like gangbusters up (Ga.) 365. It’s just a matter of time before this whole area is enveloped with industrial and residential development.”
Added Reynolds, gesturing toward the site: “This promises to be the jewel in the crown. The possibilities are unlimited.”
He said one of the possibilities is turning the mill into a nature center with trails.
Abit Massey, an organizer of the group, said the restored mill would be “a good place for weddings and family reunions, as well as something that tourists would enjoy. ... I think we’re going to have one of the most popular attractions in Hall County and Northeast Georgia when this is done.”
But right now, it’s a matter of getting from point A to point B.
Officials are looking at using proceeds from the five-year special purpose local option sales tax approved by voters in March to stabilize the mill, according to Marty Nix, assistant Hall County administrator.
Hall County bought the mill and some 4 acres surrounding it off Whitehall Road at the North Oconee River in March 2003, using grant funding from the Trust for Public Land.
Head’s Mill Historic Preservation Trust, a nonprofit offshoot of the Hall County Historical Society, has since rallied for the structure’s preservation.
During last week’s meeting, Nix told the group “the county’s resources are committed to this project. Whatever we have to do to move it along, we’ll do it.”
Nix toured the mill with the rest of the committee last Thursday.
As they walked single file past the streetcar rails that support the porch and glanced warily at the “DANGER” and “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” signs nailed beside the door, the group entered the gristmill.
The committee marched up rickety stairs that groaned. They crisscrossed one another inside the dark building, stepping over sunken spots in the flooring, eyeing the caked red mud of dirt dauber nests.
“There is lots to be done, but there is great potential,” Reynolds said as he stepped into a room with a crumbling chimney and a view of the water wheel, a structure that is 25 feet in diameter and no longer turning.
“Back when this was operational, the water would fill up a pan, and the weight of the water would turn it, and it was a very powerful force,” Reynolds said. “The area was very lucky to have this mill. People would come out here and camp out to use it.”
Local residents once used the mill to grind crops, manufacture shingles, gin cotton and turn timber into boards.
Added Reynolds: “We almost lost it, but thanks to the Healan Family, who got ahold of it and preserved it ... and Hall County, which was able to get ahold of this small piece of property, we’re on our way to making it something incredible once again.”
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 to Fred and Burnice Healan.
The Healans fixed up the old building and converted it into an antique store, according to former Times editor Johnny Vardeman.
Massey said last week’s meeting was “a dramatic step” in restoring the mill’s integrity.
“This group of people, it’s a very strong committee,” Massey said. “Each brings unique areas of expertise to the table. We have a long way to go, but this is a big step. I think we’ll all look back and remember this day.”