In 1881, two journalists, Ziegler and Crosscup toured the Unaka Mountains of Graham County, North Carolina. The following story is adapted from their travel book, “In the Heart of the Alleghenies.”
Three years ago, while taking a tramp through the wilderness of the Santeetlah and Unaka mountains of the Tennessee-North Carolina border, I stopped for a few days with Mr. Staley, an elderly farmer who lived on the bank of Cheoah River. One afternoon, we took a ramble over his extensive farm. We walked through the cool woods, upward along a roaring stream for probably half a mile. At that point, the rough wagon trail we were following led away from the river. Looking through the thick undergrowth in the direction of the stream, I saw the outlines of an old building.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing toward it.
“That,” my companion answered, “is a worn out mill.”
“Why,” I said, “this is the first mill I’ve noticed on the river. It does appear dilapidated. Looking at the heavy thickets and tall trees that stand so close to it, I should think that at the time it was abandoned it might have been in pretty good condition. See, there’s a tree, probably fifteen years old, thrusting its whole top through a window, and the casements around it are not yet rotted away.”
“You are a close observer,” Mr. Staley said, “but, nevertheless, we quit running that mill because it couldn’t be worked.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“‘Because it was haunted.”
“Haunted! A haunted mill?”
"Yes sir. The subject is one I don’t like to commence on, but I suppose now you must hear it.”
“Yes, by all means, but wait till I see the mill first.”
I pushed through the tangled thickets under the scrubby oaks, and a minute later stood before the structure.
The side of the mill that faced us was farthest from the river. One door, which the rotten steps led up to, and two windows, through one of which the tree before mentioned spread its heavy limbs, were on the front. The siding was falling and hanging loosely in places from the upright timbers, and the entire structure was fast becoming a skeleton. All the clapboards had been torn by the wind or thievish hands from the three remaining sides. The roof had fallen part way in, but had been caught by the shaky stringers of the upper, half-story floor.
The spot on the riverbank was rocky and peculiarly suited for a mill site. The channel of the stream above was rock bound, the banks being steep and narrow. Just before it reached the mill the body of waters shot over a fall of twenty feet. An outlet had been blasted through the solid rock close by the side of the falls, and a wooden race set up leading to the mill. This race had long since disappeared, worn away by time and water. The old wheel still hung in its place beside the structure almost under the falls, and above the mad waters, boiling and foaming below.
Going around to one of the sides, we managed to climb in. There was half a partition through the center, forming two rooms, each about 20 x 25 feet. The mill-stones were still in place, but the hopper and grain bins were missing.
We seated ourselves on the floor at the back side of the building, with our feet hanging over the green, rotten wheel, the thin spray of the falls now and then touching us, and the turbulent river sweeping onward below. Mr. Staley began as follows:
When I came here from Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1840, the first thing I found necessary, after building my house, was a mill. As many families that lived in these valleys, I was compelled to go to Murphy, a distance of thirty miles, to get my flour and meal, or take my grain to a primitive hopper two miles below on this river, and wait a day for it to grind a bushel. Either was an exasperating procedure. This site seemed the best place for a mill along this river. The race was formed, a foundation laid, and, by the aid of a temporary saw, I got enough lumber to finish this mill completely by the following summer.
Time went by, the mill ran smoothly, and I managed to make enough to provide for my family with it. One morning, however, on entering I saw that the wheel, which I left running for the night in order to grind out an extra amount of meal, had stopped while the water was still pouring on it. On examination I found the body of a dead young man, a farmer, who lived on the slope of Deer Mountain, hanging fastened to the lowest paddle of the wheel. All that could be learned of his untimely end was that he had left home for an evening’s trout-fishing the day before. He must’ve fallen into the water upstream, drowned, and was swept through the race down to the wheel where his clothes caught on the splintered paddle.
A short time later, a neighbor’s boy fell through the trap door in the mill and broke his neck. Superstitious people began to whisper that there was a spell on the place. They had no proof of what they imagined and reported, but such was the influence that my mill was avoided at night. Travelers beat a new path around it through the forest. Of course, this talk had no effect upon me, and in fact I rather liked it, because it scared off some people who had been secretly grinding their corn here at night.
But in the spring of 1861 something really strange did occur. My youngest brother was with me at the mill one day. I left him here while I went into the woods to get a hickory tree. I returned a half hour later. Just before coming in sight of the mill, I heard angry voices. One voice was my brother’s, the other I didn’t recognize. Without warning the report of a firearm sounded. When I came out of the woods, I saw no one near but my brother, and he was leaning partly out the front window there where the red maple is growing now. The day was growing terribly dark. Heavy, black clouds were filling the entire face of the sky between the mountains.
"What have you shot?” I shouted.
There was no answer.
As I drew nearer I noticed that my brother’s face was deathly pale. I ran up the steps and caught hold of him. He had fainted.
I laid him in the doorway. My first thought was that he had been shot by someone. I tore his shirt open and found a bullet hole under the nipple. Five minutes later, he was dead. But who had killed him? I hadn’t seen anyone. I looked around the mill in vain.
Meanwhile the storm burst with a fury. One of the first flashes of lightning struck a monarch ash, whose decaying stump stands just over there, not thirty feet from the mill’s front. It cut through the base of the tree. The whole body of the ash fell with a resounding crash. I was knocked down and blinded for an instant by the electricity. It was the hardest rain that had drenched these mountains since 1840. All night long it continued, and I remained in the mill with my dead brother.
It must have been past midnight when, in the pitchy darkness, I heard hoarse cries, hollow shouts, and groans that seemed to proceed from outside the mill. The building shook in the wind and storm. The doors rattled on their hinges. The river’s roar increased with the swelling flood. Yet, above all these deafening sounds, at intervals, rang this muffled voice. I must confess that I laid it to the supernatural.
Morning and calm came together. With the first streaks of light, two of my farm-hands appeared. The storm had made havoc around the mill. The ash had fallen lengthways down the center of the road. The body of the tree was lying close against the base of that great hollow oak you see still standing. We carried the body home. Everyone wondered who had killed him.
We buried my brother in the old churchyard down the river, and the day after I went on business to Murphy. As fortune would have it, I was just in time to be drafted into the Confederate army. I had only a day to spare to go to my house and return.
The occurrences of that stormy night had kept me away from the mill, and on my trip home before going to war, I had no time to visit it. My wife told me a strange story of ghostly cries, strange flames, and apparitions which had been heard and seen at the mill for two nights by one of the farmhands. None of the men in the area would go near the place, even in the daytime. The description of the sounds perfectly matched what I myself had heard. Having no time to investigate, and thinking those fears would wear away, I left orders for one of the hired men to run the mill during my absence.
Four years passed, and I had returned from the war. The mill had been abandoned. The hand whom I had asked to work it had wholly disregarded my orders. A few days after my return, I went up to look at the forsaken place. I found the underbrush rather heavy, fair-sized trees springing up, the old ash lying undisturbed where it had been struck down. Everything within the mill, though, was in excellent condition. The mill appeared never to have stopped running. The stones were not mossed in the least— on the contrary they were still white with flour. It looked like a supply of wheat had been ground there that week.
One of my neighbors told me me that on many a night he’d heard the mill’s wheel splashing, and had seen my brother standing in the window. The haunts all fled when the neighbor came nearer to investigate. An owl had hooted overhead, and one night he was knocked flat by some unseen devil, and woke up a mile away. He went on to tell me how the meal, which he had ground in the daytime, made people sick.
That night I determined to watch the ghostly millers in their midnight toils. A man named Bun volunteered to come with me. Just after dark we came up here and ensconced ourselves in a thicket about fifty feet from the mill. The hours passed by. It was late in the night, when suddenly, above the dull roar of the falls, I heard an owl’s hoot up the river road. A few moments later, a light flared in the mill, and through the un-boarded side we saw two figures in white garments.
“Let’s get out of here,” whispered Bun, his voice trembling.
I told him to stay if he loved his life. The wheel started, and the two ghosts began to pour corn from a bag into the hopper. Their faces were covered with some white substance, and I failed to recognize them. We crept closer. Then we saw that they were talking, and their voices reached us. It was not our language these shadows conversed in— it was a strange tongue, but I recognized it. It was the dialect of the Cherokees.
I leveled my rifle, aimed the barrel in the darkness, and fired. Both millers stopped in their work, and in an instant an intense darkness wrapped the scene, followed by a crashing in the thickets on the farther side of the mill. Several owl hoots ensued, and then all was silent. Having no light, we didn’t venture into the mill that night, but quickly found our way home. The next morning I returned here at an early hour. A bag of corn, some ground meal, and a few drops of blood on the floor, were what I discovered in the grinding room.
The conclusion drawn was this: A settlement of Cherokee over the mountains, being in need of a mill, took advantage of this one being unused. By dressing as specters they scared off the mountaineers and secured a good mill, rental free, for two or three years. My shot that night, together with a sharp watch kept up for some time had the desired effect, and the mill was run no more.
My brother’s murder remained a mystery until a few days after we drove out the Indians. The discovery occurred in this way: I determined to have the old road cleared out and go to working again. The fallen ash was first attacked. As we rolled away a severed part of it from where it blocked the hollow of that oak standing there. One of the choppers noticed a pair of boots in the rotten wood within the hollow oak. He pulled them out and a full skeleton was dragged with them. Pieces of clothing were still preserved on the corpse. A revolver was also scraped out of the rubbish. It was the body of a man who had disappeared four years earlier. Most people thought he had been drafted and died in the war.
Of course, I had no doubt that he was my brother’s murderer. He had fired the shot, and when he heard me coming, he hid in the hollow trunk of the old oak. The lightning felled the ash tree, blocking him in. When he tried to get out, he discovered this and began calling for help. These were the cries I heard on that stormy night. His dreadful cries at intervals for a few days were startling to the mountaineers who, had they been less superstitious, might have rescued him from a horrible drawn out death. His motive in taking the life of my brother remains a mystery.
This revelation sickened me and brought back sad memories. I had the men stop work for a few days. In that time a heavy flood aided in breaking down and sweeping away the worn out millrace. I never attempted to repair it, and the old mill was left to rot and molder.
Next week’s issue features the story of “Devil” John Wright: The Law of Pine Mountain.
Did you enjoy this issue? Send Luke some feedback at email@example.com
Not subscribed to The Weekly Holler?