Restoring the Mill

After more than 40 years of vacancy, the McNeel Mill is seeing new life.

By Mary Power and Allison Rollins | 10/17/2011

Growing up in Pocahontas County, Lanty McNeel spent his childhood on his family’s farm, an area known as Mill Point. He often worked inside the McNeel Mill doing the chores typical of the agricultural times. While today, grains are ground into flour or meal by automated machinery, Lanty first remembers using a pulley and rope, manually hauling sacks of wheat inside and filling all of the bins in the mill.

While no longer working, the McNeel Mill, built between 1860 and 1868, still stands in mint condition. Lanty F. McNeel, can trace the mill all the way back to his great-grandfather, Isaac McNeel, who originally purchased the land which encompasses a mill, a home, and a barn.

“After Isaac McNeel bought the property,” said Lanty, “he started building the mill prior to the Civil War. Then the war came along and postponed the building. I believe it was about 1868 when he finished building the present mill.”

The Mill produced things like corn meal and buckwheat for nearby towns. When the McNeel Mill was in top form, so was the small town of Mill Point. Multiple mills, a blacksmith shop, a post office, and even a railroad line dominated the scenery. However, a flash flood in 1935 washed out the creek, damaging the race that ran water to the mill. The water came within three to four inches of the platform where the grinding stones were set.

The McNeel family kept the mill operating as long as possible, but the flood had done a lot of damage and in 1940; they had to close for business. The family relied on the mill for storage and small farming purposes until the late 1980s when they finally stopped using the mill for good.

In 2006, Matt Tate, who is currently working to restore the mill, was taking a vacation from his job at the Mountain Institute on Spruce Knob when he was driving down Route 219 and spotted the hidden gem between the county seat of Marlinton and Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro.

“I just started asking who owns the mill. And I stopped in at Taylor’s grocery and they said its Lanty McNeel,” said Tate. “The first night I met him he probably spent three hours just telling me about the mill…he pulled out suitcases just full of photos and then he had me come back the next day. He walked me through the whole mill, the house, and the barn up beyond it. It was just wonderful.”

Originally from Massachusetts, Tate first attended college at Northeastern University where he majored in Mechanical Engineering.

“I was disillusioned. All the other guys there were just struggling to avoid work,” said Tate. “I was thinking that’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to enjoy my work.”

He transferred to Colorado and later graduated with a degree in Outdoor Leadership. For years, Tate worked with youth at outdoors camps, until 2006 when he found the mill, and it rekindled his interest in the mechanics of how things work. Tate now works for Pocahontas County Public Service District and focuses his spare time on the mill.

Surrounded by well-known landmarks like Cranberry Glades, Cass Scenic Railroad, and Snowshoe Ski Resort, the McNeel Mill is a gristmill or corn mill—a place where the grinding of grain takes place. With a water-powered wheel and superb machinery, the Mill played an important role for the small, rural West Virginia communities surrounding Hillsboro and Marlinton, especially in earlier times when the lack of cars and solid roads made it was more difficult to get supplies and necessities.

According to National Historic Registry documents, the McNeel Mill operated with millstones imported from France that were used to grind cornmeal, cracked corn, and buckwheat.

“The stones weighed a thousand to 1500 pounds and had to be sharpened every two years with a special chisel as the grooves had to be precise,” said Lanty. “For one revolution to occur, it took one and a half minutes, if the process occurred too fast it would scorch the meal. “

Because of the flood in 1935, the mill is disconnected from the water supply, which turns the wheel to power the operation. Matt Tate plans on changing that.

“I want the mill to work. I want the mill to be a mill again,” says Tate. “I want to make it work with its original water source. I want the water to do its job. I want the river to do work.”

In order for the mill to work, Tate must rebuild the path to the water source. This means erecting about 17 log poles to serve as flumes in order to carry water. Part of this project also includes the race, the path that carries the water from the creek, which is located about fifteen miles upstream from the water source at the mill.

The first obstacle Tate had to overcome in order to restore the mill to its former glory flew away, literally.

“We had a big rainstorm and it ripped a 15-foot hole in the roof and blew the metal across the road to the other side,” said Tate. “After that it shook up a little more attention that this mill was going to need a little more help or we were going to lose it.”

The community raised $12,000 to put an authentic reproduction roof on the mill. Tate was able to contact the Division of Culture and History and apply for a matching grant for the other half of the $24,000 needed to get the job done.

“I think it’s a sight of pride that they are very proud of this mill,” said Tate. “That it’s so old and it’s something special that we have here and something they can point to and something neat that they have. “

Tate and the community have a mutually beneficial relationship He regularly opens the mill for the annual Heritage Festival and Pioneer Days, and last Christmas he even put lights around the Mill.

“I think that’s one amazing thing, that this treasure is sitting 20 feet from 219 and really sat here abandoned and empty for so long,” said Tate. “It wasn’t damaged, it hasn’t been hurt or destroyed in any way, but it’s just so easily accessible.”

Tate himself is in the process of petitioning the National Historic Register to include additional parts of the McNeel property in order to make his projects eligible for more grants and funding.

If he were to buy everything new and complete the restoration, he estimates it would cost $65,000. However, he hopes he can keep costs as low as possible with items he can find and donations. He currently has $1,400 to rebuild the flume and expects no labor fees, by doing the work himself and with volunteers.

“Everybody who has ever talked to me about the mill has been really enthusiastic, encouraging, and supportive, and helpful. And that’s been really nice,” said Tate.

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