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Old mill could get new life as Hall County prepares to begin park construction
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Becky Ruffner, of Hall County Parks and Leisure, tours Healan's-Head's Mill Friday, March 11, 2022, as the old mill and surrounding area continues to be developed. - photo by Scott Rogers

The wheel at Healan’s-Head’s Mill might get moving again. 

For some with deep family roots in the Hall County community, the 170-year-old mill in East Hall is a special place. It’s the only standing grist mill in the county, and it has gradually been restored by Hall County government in recent years

But for Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds, the mill is more than a historical landmark. 

“My dad took me there when I was a young boy,” Reynolds said. “It has a meaning for me. My dad was one of those people that worked all the time, and I didn’t get a chance to spend much time with him.” 

He designed new features that will be built at the park around the mill over the next couple of years, including an amphitheater, pavilion, arched entrance way and bathrooms. 

“It’s like the Twilight Zone; you’re going into another time,” he said. “Everything there is going to be like if you went to the mill in the late 1800s.”

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The corncrib at Healan's-Head's Mill is visible from the door of the historic mill Friday, March 11, 2022. Hall County Parks and Leisure has plans for further development of the park that includes an amphitheater. - photo by Scott Rogers

The county released a master plan a year ago for the 100-acre park around the mill located off of Whitehall Road. The mill was built by William Head about 170 years ago. It changed hands over the years until it was bought by Fred and Burnice Healan, the last private owners, in the 1960s.

The county bought the mill in 2003 and then in 2018 purchased another 96 acres around it.

This summer, the county plans to start work on recently completed designs, said Becky Ruffner, marketing and public relations specialist for the parks department. The county is currently conducting topographical surveys on the park. 

The park is closed to the public for now except for occasional tours, and construction is expected to take a couple years to complete, Ruffner said. The plan would include the features Reynolds designed, plus a trail system, parking spots and educational features. Officials hope to get the wheel moving again, which would activate its grindstone and show visitors how the mill worked. 

Though it started grinding corn in the 1800s, around the 1940s, Ruffner said, the mill was used for lumber production and making roof shingles. 

“It will have special uses, such as interpretive programs, tours, special groups, special events,” Ruffner said. “We expect there to be weddings out here, receptions, field trips with school kids. It’s called a special use park in that it will be open certain hours.”

The county set aside $1.5 million for improvements at the mill in its most recent special purpose local option sales tax referendum, approved by voters in 2019, and Ruffner said funding will likely come from private donations as well. There are still descendants of past owners in the area, who support the park, she said. 

The county has tried to keep park plans under wraps, because officials fear more publicity would lead to vandalism. 

“We’ve had people come inside and carve on 170-year-old beams,” Ruffner said. “We’ve had kids come out here and unload fire extinguishers in the mill. … We’ve got a big fear that the worst could happen out here, and we could lose this place.”

When Reynolds visited the mill as a child in the late 1940s, the wheel still ran, and he would play with the miller’s son. 

Reynolds tried to make designs specific to the mill. The pavilion’s support beams are designed to look like a grove of trees. The gateway arch depicts a replica of the wheel overhead, and the amphitheater will have pre-cast stones made to appear weathered. 

It will be landscaped with noninvasive native plants, design documents show, and bathrooms will be built into a former corn crib. Reynolds said these areas will be accessible for people with disabilities, and the entrance will be wide enough for emergency vehicles to enter. 

“We’re dealing with something here that’s unique, that’s precious,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in Hall County, and I think it ought to be treated as such.”

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Becky Ruffner, of Hall County Parks and Leisure, tours Healan's-Head's Mill Friday, March 11, 2022, as the old mill and surrounding area continues to be developed. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Becky Ruffner, of Hall County Parks and Leisure, tours Healan's-Head's Mill Friday, March 11, 2022, as the old mill and surrounding area continues to be developed. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Healan's-Head's Mill Park's gateway would feature a sign that mimics the mill's wheel. - artistic rendering provided by Hall County
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Hall County plans to build a pavilion at Healan's-Head's Mill Park. - artistic rendering provided by Hall County