Gray’s Hacker Martin Mill: A New Lease on Life

There is something nostalgic about a water-operated gristmill with its large wooden vertical overshot water wheel, persistently rotating to power the heavy millstones that grind the staple crops into fine meal suitable for cooking.

While such mills are typically tourist attractions today, there was a time in our country when such structures were essential in maintaining basic food needs of the local community. It was common in East Tennessee for the populace to travel long distances on foot, horseback, or in horse-drawn buggies to transport their crops to a mill for grinding.

Hacker Martin Mill That Once Stood along Cedar Creek in Gray, Tennessee

Anyone traveling the back roads of Gray, Tennessee in the early months of 2002 would have encountered the vestiges of the dilapidated old three-story Hacker Martin Mill. This once majestic structure, standing alongside Cedar Creek, had been a stately hard working gristmill in its heyday. Now the old mill was deserted and silent; no water traveled along the flume from the headrace to the “buckets” of the water wheel.

The question begs to be answered, “What silenced this evocative and elegant piece of Americana?” The simple answer is technology and time. Technology had essentially made the mills obsolete with new and better ways to process the staple crops. Further, time had eroded the old mills with its constant exposure to the seasonal harsh elements of water, ice, snow, wind, and sun, making them costly to maintain. 

Many an old gristmill has faced this same predicament, eventually collapsing into a useless mass of fallen rotten boards. The Hacker Martin Mill appeared to be heading toward this same demise. Even with technology moving away from gristmills, many have been rescued over the years from sudden death.

Some mills have been costly refurbished, either in their original setting or in another locality. Scores have ended up as non-operating or operating museums, general merchandising stores, quaint restaurants, and even picking parlors for local bluegrass and old-time musicians. A select few have been restored specifically for attracting customers to pricey cottages and bed-and-breakfast houses situated around them.

Unfortunately, some mills have been vandalized heavily from years of abandonment and disuse, frequently having their useable parts either stolen or moved as spares for other operating gristmills.

The fate of the Hacker Martin Mill rested in the hands of John Rice Irwin, founder and director of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee. After observing the old mill in Gray, he visualized it in full operation at his living museum, a replica of authentic early pioneer Appalachian life. After purchasing it, he sent workman to Gray in the summer of 2002 to dismantle the enormous structure, piece by piece.

Over a three-week duration, each oak board was removed, identified with distinctive markings, loaded onto a truck, and transported to its new home one hundred and fifteen miles away, requiring forty tractor-trailer loads. This transfer also included the large water wheel and the “French burrs” (or “buhrs”), millstones comprised of separate pieces of freshwater quartz imported from Northern France. Not a trace from the once hard-working old mill was left behind on Cedar Creek.

While disassembly of the old mill went relatively unnoticed by most of its neighbors, Clint Isenberg, a Gray resident who lived just a short distance from the mill, watched the laborious operation with keen awareness and interest, the mill having once been owned by his family. He had fond memories of working and playing in and around it, recalling the days when it was originally used to grind whole wheat into flour and crack corn into chicken feed. Later it was used exclusively for grinding corn.

The original name was Dove Mill, having been constructed in the late 1700s by Coonrod Dove and later sold to Alexander Isenberg when it became known as the Isenberg Mill. Alexander developed the unique and profitable craft of fabricating wooden water wheels, which he sold to the owners of other gristmills.

The facility eventually went to Clint’s aunt, Dollie Isenberg Mohlar, affectionately known as “Doll,” who used it to help support her aging mother. Clint recalls when people would come from all over Gray “to turn a corn to the mill,” an old expression that means to grind corn in the mill.

When the neighbors accumulated a sufficient quantity of corn to grind, they would come to the mill and initiate a form of “self service” by first putting the gate up to dam the water from the creek and start it flowing into the hand-dug flume (or trench) leading to the wheel. They would then ring a bell that was located inside the mill three or four times, a signal to Doll that a customer was ready to have some corn converted to meal. By the time the water flowed to the mill to turn the massive wheel, Doll would be at the helm ready to do business with her patron. Her compensation was usually in the form of a “toll,” a small amount of grain extracted in exchange for the service provided.

In about 1942, Doll sold the mill to Hacker Martin, a legendary gunsmith and old-time fiddle player from the Gray area. He then built a block building adjacent to the mill where he lived and supported his gun business. After a few short years, the old mill was sold to a Thompson family, after which it was shut down, remaining inactive until its relocation to a new home in Norris in mid 2002.

Today, the mill has been reassembled at the Museum of Appalachia to the original design it once enjoyed in Gray. It now sits on the side of a hill, quietly and patiently waiting until equipment can be installed to provide for a steady flow of water to a reservoir behind the displaced mill. This will allow water to flow by gravity down the flume to turn the wheel, grinding out corn meal once again, as it had done during its glorious past.

Indeed, the old mill now appears to be smiling with a new lease on life; Coonrod Dove, Alexander Isenberg, Dollie Isenberg Mohlar, and Hacker Martin would be proud.