Exploring History on a Spring Hike to McCown’s Mill

by Mark Miles

History pervades everything. If you’ve ever gone on a hike in the woods and unexpectedly discovered the remains of a crumbling barn, the shards of a glass bottle, or the fading traces of an abandoned path, you’ve seen this for yourself. So often, however, this fact is overlooked by our culture in its persistent race toward novelty, which is frequently presented as an unqualified good but should more accurately be considered a drug to distract us from what is truly important in life. Regardless of whether it functions as a sedative or stimulant, novelty is frequently nothing more than a relic of the past redecorated for modern consumption.

The irony of this situation is that confronting the complexity of the past in all its historical depth can provide a greater sense of novelty than any prefabricated commodity on the market. By going into the world, seeing for ourselves the impact of the past on the present, and extrapolating from the present to the future, we can begin to appreciate where we as a species have been and where we are rapidly heading. We can also begin to appreciate how much our own lives are deeply and inextricably interwoven with the lives of people whose last footstep came to rest on this planet centuries ago.

Not for the first time, I found myself in this position on the first weekend of May, when I took a hike on an unfamiliar stretch of trail at Eno River State Park. I’ve hiked portions of the Laurel Bluffs Trail in the past (click here to view story), but the trail is so long and hilly that I’ve only ever been able to traverse a small portion of it at a time. In this instance, I started from the Pump Station Access on Rivermont Road in Durham and made my way northwest to the southern bank of the Eno River, where I then followed Laurel Bluffs Trail on its southwest trajectory toward the ruins of McCown’s Mill.

Laurel Bluffs Trail is one of the less frequented and consequently less well maintained trails in Eno River State Park. As such it can be somewhat treacherous in parts, especially when the trail suddenly veers up a steep incline or skirts the edge of an actual bluff. Nonetheless it’s also deeply peaceful by virtue of its seclusion and at times hypnotically beautiful in its serpentine dance along the banks of the Eno River. On this occasion in early May, as I navigated through the woods on Laurel Bluffs Trail, I was keenly aware of this.

I was also aware of the presence of the ruins of an old mill – which was originally called McCown’s Mill and later called Cole’s Mill – on this stretch of the Laurel Bluffs Trail. In fact there’s a nearby road in Durham named Cole Mill Road, which to this day passes within a quarter mile of McCown’s Mill and was presumably named for its close proximity to the mill after it underwent a change of ownership in 1874. Though most people have no idea of the origin of the name of the road, it’s one small but pervasive way in which history has left its mark on the land.

The mark would never have been made, however, without the work of many people who lived in this area and ensured the construction of McCown’s Mill over two centuries ago. Foremost among these people was John Cabe, the owner of another mill a couple miles upstream, whose family was one of the most powerful and influential in Durham during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Fulfilling his responsibilities as patriarch, John Cabe oversaw the construction of McCown’s Mill in 1813 as a kind of dowry for his daughter Rachel Cabe upon her marriage to Moses McCown.

The reason for this was simple. John Cabe had nine daughters and no sons, and during this period in US history women were prohibited from owning or inheriting land in their own name. If they were in a position to own or inherit land, it transferred to their husbands by default. This situation did not change in North Carolina until 1868, when married women were finally allowed to own property in their own name in the event that their husbands were irresponsible, imprisoned, or incapacitated. Therefore, if John Cabe wanted to continue to exercise power and influence over the region, he had to find some way to ingratiate himself to the man who would become Rachel Cabe’s husband and the legal owner of his lands. This John Cabe did by financing the construction of a mill and naming it after his son-in-law, Moses McCown.

This marked the beginning of McCown’s Mill, one of the more substantial mills in the region as indicated by the presence of a tilt hammer. A tilt hammer is a very large and powerful blunt instrument used primarily in smithing to refine ore and temper steel; this made it very handy in the time before steel mills were common in the United States. Below is a short video demonstrating a tilt hammer (also called a trip hammer) in action.

It represented a significant input of capital on the part of the mill owner and allowed the mill to perform a much wider range of operations than it would otherwise have been able to. In a sense, it was John Cabe’s way of making sure that Moses McCown fully appreciated how much he owed the older man.

But the marriage between Moses McCown and Rachel Cabe was not to last. In 1830, Moses McCown died, leaving Rachel the implicit but unrecognized owner of McCown’s Mill. To ensure that her children would inherit the mill uncontested, Rachel married another mill owner named Herbert Sims in 1831. Rachel’s family subsequently held the mill until 1874, when Rachel’s children sold the mill to John Anderson Cole. It was at this time that McCown’s Mill became Cole’s Mill. In 1908, however, the mill was destroyed in a devastating flood, after which time McCown’s Mill became little more than a footnote in history.

Aware of the presence of the old mill, I was keen to find as many traces of it as I could on my hike. After crossing under the overpass for Cole Mill Road, which is still functional to this day, I passed through the surrounding forest of beech and sycamore, noticed the leveling out of the trail on the flood plain, and finally caught sight of something ahead. There was a footbridge over a small creek, and I hurried to cross it.

After the footbridge, I noticed a side trail branching to the left away from Laurel Bluffs Trail. Peering into the distance, I caught sight of something that appeared to be an old stone hut. Intrigued by the thought of what it might be, I approached through the thicket of undergrowth, which wasn’t as well cleared now that I was off the main trail. When I came within ten feet of it, I stopped in my tracks and admired the handiwork which graced the old springhouse. This was the location where meat, dairy, and perishables would have been kept cool in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before the advent of icehouses or refrigeration.

Returning to Laurel Bluffs Trail, I resumed my search for the ruins of the old mill. Before long, I noticed a cylindrical depression in the ground to my left, about twelve feet wide by five feet deep with sloping edges. Then something, actually two somethings, caught my eye. They were sitting on the southest side of the depression, opposite where I was standing. They were about four feet in diameter and were draped in undergrowth. They were undoubtedly millstones.

The first millstone I saw was the runner stone, which sits on top and rotates in a traditional gristmill. In this position it provides the necessary force to create friction to grind the grains which are fed into it from above. The circular hole in the middle facilitates the motion of the stone spindle, an axle which attaches to the runner stone and causes it to rotate.

The second millstone I saw was the bed stone, which sits on the bottom of a traditional gristmill. In this position it remains stationary while providing the counterforce necessary to create friction to grind the grains which fall between it and the runner stone. If you look closely, you can see the fissures where separate stones were plastered together to form the bed stone.

Continuing down Laurel Bluffs Trail, I came to a hill where another side trail branched to my left. Taking this trail, I ascended the hill by the side of a creek bed and came to an old abandoned cabin, surrounded by foliage and adjacent to a field. There was no clear indication of what purpose this cabin served, but it may have been associated with one of the ancillary businesses frequently attached to a mill: forge, general store, cotton gin, or distillery.

Turning west, I continued to explore the hillside. Before long I came to a clearing, after which I was able to discern the unmistakable traces of an old road stretching into the distance. To the south of this road, there was a primitive stone wall that stood about two feet high, though it may have been much taller when the mill was still operational. Positioned on the edge of the road that passed by the mill, the wall may have formed an enclosure for a loading dock where materials from McCown’s Mill were transferred onto awaiting vehicles for transport to distant markets.

Backtracking to the cabin and descending the hill, I started hiking Laurel Bluffs Trail back to the Pump Station and my car. The trail was mostly deserted, but the views were pleasant and gave a distinct impression of what must have attracted so many early European settlers to this area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Certainly the beauty of the area must have been one of many reasons why John Cabe and his daughter Rachel chose to make a home for themselves on the banks of the Eno.

For my part, the beauty of the Eno Valley has been a great benefit to me over the past two years since I started hiking regularly. But there’s so much more than mere beauty to be found here and in any other wilderness. There’s a haven of peace and tranquility, a hotspot for health and fitness, and a great place for outdoor recreation. Beyond that, there’s a vital connection to the past in the form of historic sites such as McCown’s Mill, without which future generations will have no way to fully appreciate the importance of a crucial chapter in local history.

There are other additional reasons for the preservation of historic sites. For a start, they prompt us to reconsider what is truly important in life: freedom, nature, beauty, peace, health, and belonging. They beg the question of why our culture is so obsessed with and addicted to novelty for its own sake. They allow people to develop a real relationship with the land, without which our lives would not be possible. They reveal that history and the land are one, so deeply intertwined that it takes only the smallest scratching at the surface to uncover a wealth of knowledge about both. Finally they show that if our species is to survive on this planet, we must protect both history and the land. Without them not only will we starve, but we will even forget who we are.

References:

Anderson, Jean, “A Community of Men and Mills,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 7 Special Issue, July 1978, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Anderson, Jean, “Cabe, John,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (via NCpedia), (University of North Carolina Press, 1976), accessed May 3rd, 2018.

Anderson, Jean and Margaret Nygard, “The Story of West Point on the Eno,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 3:1, 1975, accessed May 2nd, 2018.

Bender, Nancy, “Spring Houses, Important Buildings in the Past,” Mercersburg Historical Society, accessed May 1st, 2018.

Cabe, John Family Cemetery,” Durham-Orange Genealogical Society (via Cemetery Census), accessed May 3rd, 2018.

February – McCown-Cole Mill,” Eno River Association, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Heron, Duncan, “Mill Sites on the Eno River; A Geological Viewpoint,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 7 Special Issue, July 1978, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Khan, B. Zorina, The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920 (New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp. 166-8.

Kueber, Gary, “McCown-Cole-Sparger-Nygard House,” Open Durham, accessed May 2nd, 2018.

Nygard, Margaret, “the Coles,” January 1986 Calendar, Eno River Association, accessed May 10th 2018.

Spring Houses,” Good Things by David, accessed May 1st, 2018,

Trip Hammer,” Wikipedia, accessed April 30th, 2018.

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16 thoughts on “Exploring History on a Spring Hike to McCown’s Mill

  1. Kristy Ambrose May 13, 2018 / 7:26 pm

    Excellent post and stellar photos, this sounds like a fascinating area. Thank you!

  2. tonytomeo May 13, 2018 / 9:12 pm

    Even in our region, where there is not as much history to find, there always seems to be something out there. Have you happened to see the previews for the new movie ‘Winchester’? This is NOT our history by the way.

  3. sledpress May 13, 2018 / 10:13 pm

    Many thanks for this one. It takes me back to early years when my family excursions were frequently to the Skyline Drive park in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, where every so often we would come upon structures and relics like this, though nothing so complete, and never with a guide as good as this.

    Completely out of left field… your style in this entry kept provoking the feeling that I was reading a newly discovered story by H. P. Lovecraft, and that at any moment the family history involved would converge into some present-day narrative of Eldritch Horror. “West of Arkham the hills rise wild…”

  4. obsidianmanatee May 14, 2018 / 12:17 am

    Love the overgrown mill stones.

  5. katharineotto May 14, 2018 / 2:02 am

    Thank you, Mark, for this bit of history. It would be nice if we could time travel back to when the mill was operational. Life was certainly different then.

  6. ekurie May 14, 2018 / 9:58 am

    This should be published in Our State magazine.

  7. Sherry Felix May 14, 2018 / 10:10 am

    Terrific article and great sourcing. A small suggestion is to add North Carolina after Durham so folks abroad know where it is.

  8. Kate@VanhaTaloSuomi May 15, 2018 / 5:09 am

    A wonderful glimpse into an unknown nugget of Americana. Thanks for that small, but important voyage of discovery!

  9. ellie894 May 17, 2018 / 3:17 pm

    Beautifully written and a thoughtful summation of the importance of preservation. 🌷

  10. ashiftinconsciousness May 26, 2018 / 5:07 pm

    Excellent essay. It’s sad that appreciation for nature as well as for history is dwindling in modern society. Our priorities are changing – and it doesn’t look good for anyone.

  11. Luke Smith June 1, 2018 / 6:08 pm

    This was a wonderful read, man. So insightful and intriguingly presented. Looking forward to getting deeper into some of your work. Fantastic writing style. Things for a lot of travel bloggers and writers to learn here. Thanks for sharing and taking the time to create something as well considered and constructed as this!

  12. The Park Explorer June 5, 2018 / 11:07 am

    We should invent a term for this type of hike: historic hiking – or maybe re-creating while recreating. Thanks for the research and for sharing it.

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