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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First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s more easily understood if you think of it as a climatic fever. When you have a fever, your temperature is elevated, yet your body experiences chills as it attempts to fight off infection. This is precisely the situation in which our planet finds itself, attempting to deflect the worst ravages of industrial extraction by hobbling the climate on which industry depends for ease of extraction and transportation. In the process, however, there are numerous side-effects which most media outlets conveniently blame on the natural world rather than the extractive industries which are truly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

This pattern of climatic destabilization – which includes the undermining of established patterns of temperature and precipitation globally – is an increasingly common phenomenon throughout our world and represents another aspect of climate change. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and highly inhospitable global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

At Occoneechee Mountain, this climatic transition was more subdued on my first visit of 2018 than it was in 2017. In 2017, there were flowering plants of every stripe putting forth new growth by January. When I visited Occoneechee Mountain in February of this year on the other hand, there were comparatively few flowering plants in bloom. There were some, however, and there were other signs of spring to be found as well, despite the fact that spring in central North Carolina doesn’t typically arrive until the beginning of April at the earliest.

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential and unseasonable rainstorms that have recently become common in central North Carolina during the winter months. The land was still drenched from the latest rainstorm, and with temperatures in the 60s it felt more like April than February. I got out of my car, started hiking the Mountain Loop Trail, and tried to keep solid footing on ground that might as well have been the last remains of a mud pit.

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

References:

Erythronium americanum,” Missouri Botanical Garden, accessed March 7th, 2018

Callery pear (Bradford pear), Pyrus calleryana,” Invasive.org, accessed March 7th, 2018,

The Beauty of a Winter Hike on the Cabe Lands Trail

by Mark Miles

Winter isn’t typically considered the ideal time to go for a hike. Most people dislike the cold, snow, and limited hours of daylight–which can be daunting. But there are also perks to hiking in winter: 1) there’s greater visibility in a deciduous forest due to the absence of leaves, 2) there’s added photographic appeal because snow will provide accentuation to the contours of the land, and 3) there are fewer difficulties with parking due to the general preoccupation with indoor activities at this time of year. So, in short, there are good reasons to look for a park in your area even when the thermometer is dipping below freezing.

The perks of winter hiking were recently made clear to me when I took the Cabe Lands Trail at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know this park is one of my favorite hiking destinations, with so much acreage and so many trails that I still haven’t covered all of them in the year and a half I’ve been hiking there on a monthly basis. The Cabe Lands Trail was one of those unexplored areas–though I covered some of it in June of last year on another hike (full story here)–and so on the third weekend of December I decided to remedy the situation by hiking the remainder of it for the first time.

I arrived at the Cabe Lands Access in late afternoon on Sunday, and there were only two cars in the parking lot. This is amazing because in summertime parking space for the Cabe Lands is virtually nonexistent, as I discovered when I hiked part of it last year. In winter you’d be forgiven for thinking this isn’t even the same trail simply on the basis of the lack of crowds, which so thoroughly characterize the area near the Eno River Rock Quarry in summertime, when the appeal of cool water on a hot day is tantalizing.

Getting out of my car, I was greeted by the cold but fresh air, which immediately invigorated me. Starting on the Cabe Lands Trail, I took the western fork when I reached the junction with Eno Quarry Trail, and from there I headed toward the quarry itself. My plan was to circle the quarry, return to the junction, then resume the Cabe Lands Trail for the remainder of its length, going in a clockwise direction. After traipsing through a forest of pine, oak and beech–which allowed greater visibility due to the lack of leaves, providing a gorgeous view that extended for miles into the distance at some points–I reached a beautiful creek that marks the edge of the land bordering the quarry. The water in the creek was so pure and clear, I was almost tempted to take a sip. Instead I took several photos, including the following.

Crossing the little creek, I reached the Eno River Rock Quarry itself. The difference between summer and winter was absolutely striking. Whereas the entire area surrounding the quarry had been full of splashes, laughter, conversation, and flirtation when I visited in June, there was now stillness, peace, calm, and tranquility of an almost preternatural depth. In the absence of human activity, the quarry was something out of a dream, reclining lazily in the embrace of the forest and waiting patiently for someone to come and appreciate its beauty.

Of the three other people I saw during my hike on this day, two of those people were at the quarry, some distance ahead of me on the trail that snakes around the body of water. They appeared to be father and daughter, and the pensive silence between them reflected the silence of the water around them. Something about the way they walked, with heads bowed and voices hushed, conveyed a sense of reverence that was entirely appropriate at this site where at least two people have drowned over the past fifteen years. Though I didn’t ask them, I did wonder if they were family members of one of the two young men who never returned from the murky waters of the Eno River Rock Quarry.

Passing around the western edge of the quarry, I came to the spot where divers congregate to make flying leaps into the sixty-foot waters in summertime. The place was utterly transformed, so calm and quiet that the call of a house wren would’ve reverberated across the waters with the audacity of a freight train. Despite the ideal acoustics, I was too enamored with the reverential silence of the area to do anything but proceed with hushed footsteps.

After finishing my circuit of the Eno River Rock Quarry, I returned by the way I came, arriving soon thereafter at the junction where I had originally diverged from Cabe Lands Trail. Taking a left at the junction, I noticed that the trail started to descend rapidly, taking me from the height of Laurel Ridge to the south bank of the Eno River in about five minutes. The trail was exceptionally rocky and strewn with river pebbles, highlighting the fact that this portion of the Eno was once adjacent to a working mill, which had extensive earthworks and employed stone from the banks of the river in its construction.

Before reaching the ruins of Cabe Mill, however, I noticed a ford in the Eno where rocks provided an ideal vantage point to take a photo of the river on its eastward course. Balancing tenuously on stones as the frigid water gurgled under my feet, I marveled at the sight in front of me. It was easily one of the best views of the Eno that I’ve seen in a long time, ranking among my top three views of an exceptionally photogenic river in an exceptionally photogenic park.

After satisfying my photographic impulse, I returned to the bank in time to notice the third and final person who crossed my path on this hike. He had a small dog running ahead of him and quickly stooped to leash her before getting close–which was probably a good thing judging from her apparent lack of socialization. Passing the man and his dog, I finally started to notice definite features of an abandoned mill, including deep rivets in the ground and partial stone embankments, which formed millraces long ago. I had to go some way off the trail to get a better view, but it didn’t take long before the ruins of Cabe Mill came into view.

As always, I was fascinated by the stonework, so intricate and well-made that a significant portion of it continues to stand after two centuries. In my research regarding the history of the site, I wasn’t able to find out the exact date of the mill’s construction. But if Cabe Mill is contemporaneous with Holden Mill, another historic site at Eno River State Park, then it was built in the early nineteenth century. The Cabe family–who owned the mill and lived nearby–settled in this area in 1758, when Barnaby Cabe immigrated to North Carolina from Britain. He was Presbyterian and as a result had a high estimation of the value of education, which prompted him to fund the construction of a schoolhouse nearby. The real handiwork of the Cabe Family, however, was the mill which bore their name, the ruins of which were standing in front of me in the middle of the woods by the Eno River.

Realizing the light was waning and the day fast approaching an end, I left the ruins of Cabe Mill and started my ascent from the south bank of the Eno through Cabe’s Gorge on my way toward the parking lot. I tried to envision what the area must have looked like two centuries ago, when so much of the land surrounding the Eno River was heavily industrialized and much more densely populated. It would’ve been virtually unrecognizable, in addition to being much more dirty and polluted than it is now. Though it’s easy to take for granted a place like Eno River State Park–which receives very little public funding from the state of North Carolina and stands in a position of increasing economic precarity due to budgetary shortfalls–it’s worth remembering that without this park the area surrounding it would very quickly be turned into a wasteland, where the beauty of a winter hike in the woods would be nothing more than the memory of a bygone era.

References:

Anderson, Jean Bradley, “The History of Fews Ford,” Eno Journal, Vol. 8:1 via Eno River Association, accessed January 2nd, 2018.

Cabe Lands Trail,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed January 2nd, 2018.

Cabe Lands Trail,” Hiking Project, accessed January 2nd, 2018.