Remaking the mill
Growing up in Pocahontas County, Lanty McNeel spent his childhood on his family's farm, at Mill Point. He often worked inside the McNeel Mill doing the chores typical of farming life. While today grains are ground into flour or meal by automated machinery, McNeel remembers using a pulley and rope, manually hauling sacks of wheat inside, and filling all of the bins in the mill.
While no longer in operation, the McNeel Mill, built between 1860 and 1868, still stands. 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 he started building the mill prior to the Civil War," said McNeel. "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 cornmeal and buckwheat for nearby towns. When the McNeel Mill was in top form, so was the small village of Mill Point. The community boasted multiple mills, a blacksmith shop, a post office and even a railroad line that served a nearby sawmill.
Nearly 70 years after it was built, severe weather took its toll on the mill. A flash flood in 1935 washed out the creek, damaging the earth and stone trench that channeled 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 considerable damage, and in 1940 it closed for business. The family used the mill for storage until the late 1980s, when they finally stopped using the mill for good.
In 2006, Matt Tate was taking a vacation from his job at the Mountain Institute on Spruce Knob, and as he was driving down U.S. Route 219 he spotted the landmark between the county seat of Marlinton and Pearl Buck's birthplace in Hillsboro.
"I just started asking who owns the mill," said Tate, "and I stopped in at Taylor's Grocery, and they said, 'it's Lanty McNeel.'"
"The first night I met him he probably spent three hours just telling me about the mill," Tate continued. "He pulled out suitcases 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," Tate said. "All the other guys there were just struggling to avoid work. 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 outdoor adventure camps, until 2006 when he found the idle mill. The discovery rekindled his interest in the mechanics of how things work. Today, Tate works for Pocahontas County Public Service District and focuses his spare time on the mill.
Located within a short drive of well-known landmarks like the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, Cass Scenic Railroad and Snowshoe Mountain Resort, the McNeel Mill is a gristmill-where the grinding of grain takes place. With a water-powered wheel and superb machinery, the mill played an important role in the community between Hillsboro and Marlinton.
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 1,000 to 1,500 pounds and had to be sharpened every two years with a special chisel, as the grooves had to be precise," said McNeel. "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 was disconnected from the waters of Stamping Creek, which turned the wheel to power the operation. Tate plans to change that.
"I want the mill to work," Tate said. "I want the mill to be a mill again. I want to make it work with its original water source. I want the water to do its job. I want the [creek] 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 support a long, wooden flume, or trough, in order to carry water to the wheel. Part of this project also includes rebuilding the race, the path that carries the water from the creek, which begins about a quarter-mile upstream from 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," explained 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 a historically accurate 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 sign 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 people can point to and something neat that they have. "
Tate regularly opens the mill for tours during the annual Little Levels Heritage Fair and Pioneer Days. Last Christmas, he even put lights around the mill.
"I think that's one amazing thing, that this treasure is sitting 20 feet from (U.S. Route) 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."
"Everybody who has ever talked to me about the mill has been really enthusiastic, encouraging, and supportive and helpful," Tate added.
Tate is in the process of petitioning the National Historic Register to include additional parts of the McNeel property in order to make the project eligible for further grants and funding.
If he were to buy everything new to complete the restoration, Tate estimates it would cost $65,000. However, he hopes he can keep costs as low as possible with donations and items he can salvage. He currently has $1,400 to rebuild the flume and expects no labor fees by doing the work himself and with the help of volunteers.