Meet Me at Yates Mill

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If you had news to share or vegetables to sell, a sweetheart to romance or fish to catch, Yates Mill was the place for you in 19th-century Raleigh. [1]

Yates Mill was a thriving center of commerce—the hub where many roads met and where all the locals gathered. It’s now a National Register Historic Site and Wake County park. Dating back to the 18th century, (1756 to be exact), this fully restored, water-powered gristmill located at 4620 Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, provides a window into what early industry in the piedmont region of North Carolina looked like.

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There were as many as 70 different mills operating at one time or another in Wake County. Yates Mill is the only mill in Wake County still standing, thanks to dedicated preservationists who have fully restored it to what it looked like in the mid-1800s. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC

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Not only is Yates Mill the only standing mill in Wake County, it is the only restored and operational automatic mill in North Carolina, and one of the few remaining in the country. Corn grinding is demonstrated on the third Saturday and Sunday of each month from March to November. Mill tours are available every Saturday and Sunday in March through November. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC

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Yates Mill used an automated milling system patented by Oliver Evans in 1790. This system reduced the amount of labor needed to run the mill and also improved the quality of the flour or meal. (Incidentally, George Washington also used the Evans system in his gristmill at Dogue Run Farm on his Mount Vernon estate.) — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC

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Yates Mill Pond: In simplified terms, the pond provided water that filled the waterwheel, caused it to turn, and subsequently brought the machinery in the mill to life. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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Cattails on Yates Mill Pond — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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The milldam at Yates Mill flows out of Yates Mill Pond, creating a creek that passes under Lake Wheeler Road. — Yates Mill Historic Site; Raleigh, NC

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Like many mills, Yates Mill had a blacksmith who kept equipment running and who also shoed customers’ horses. This reconstructed log building, just east of the mill (which is in the background at left), is a replica of the original blacksmith’s shop. (Raleigh, NC)

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The logs of the blacksmith shop at Yates Mill were salvaged from a tobacco barn destined to be flooded by Jordan Lake. Students from the NC State School of Design reassembled the timbers here in the mid to late 1970s. (Raleigh, NC)

From 1898 until the mill’s closure in 1953, Yates Mill was operated by John D. Lea, Sr. His daughter, the late Mary Lea Simpkins, grew up at the mill and provided artifacts, photographs, and oral history that helped to shape and preserve a view of life at the mill. She recalls,

Farmers would come to the mill and bring corn on wagons or mules….Daddy would weigh it and grind it for them….Sometimes while he was grinding he’d sing hymns. He taught me songs.

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An old wagon behind the Research and Education Center is a recalling of the days when famers brought their corn to the mill to be ground or brought their produce to be sold. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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Historic Yates Mill exists to preserve Wake County’s agricultural heritage, as well as it’s environmental and historical resources. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC

In addition to the mill, Historic Yates Mill County Park is also a 174-acre wildlife park, complete with trails, a research center and exhibit hall (called the A.E. Finley Center for Research and Education), an outdoor/field classroom, and an outdoor amphitheater.

I traveled the Millpond Trail, parts of the High Ridge Trail, as well as the Wetlands Boardwalk leading to the Creekside Trail. Much to my disappointment, (and perhaps a testament to the time of year or the intense heat of the early afternoon), I didn’t encounter much wildlife. I saw a yellow swallowtail butterfly, a mess of dragonflies, three turtles, two skinks, a male cardinal, and a dead snake (which, according to the trusty Snakes of North Carolina Online Identification System, was most likely a worm snake). The swallowtail wouldn’t sit still for a second, and the snake was just too morbid to photograph.

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A yellowbelly slider suns among the lily pads on Yates Mill Pond. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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Plants along the pond’s edge provide food and shelter for animals. They’re pretty to look at, too. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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A common whitetail dragonfly on the water along the Wetlands Boardwalk leading to the Creekside Trail. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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Beaver make their homes along the creek and wetlands of Yates Mill. Did you know that young beaver are called kits? …That’s just one of the many informative facts you’ll find along the trails and in the education center at Historic Yates Mill County Park. (Raleigh, NC)

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Can you spot the skink (lizard) in this photograph? I spotted him in the brush along the Millpond Trail. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh NC

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A five-lined skink near the outdoor amphitheater. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

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An open field adjacent to the amphitheater. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

Yates Mill was a gathering place for commerce, companionship, and community in the 1800s. Today, if my recent visit was any indication, it is still a gathering place for the local community. Several families, immediate and extended, assembled for professional photographs near the cascading falls of the picturesque mill. A young girl, field notebook in hand and her mother close by her side, stopped to tell a passing peer about some plants that she had discovered on her excursion into nature. As I took my final picture (above), a father sat on the highest row of the outdoor amphitheater beside his young daughter, while her older sister performed an impromptu skit. Her talent was uninhibited. Their applause was enthusiastic. New memories were in the making at old Yates Mill.


[1] Quote on exhibit in the A.E. Finley Center for Research and Education