Old mill building serves as reminder of community’s past

Old-Mill_NP21114-1-300x200Robert Noles/Opelika Observer

By Morgan Bryce

Opelika Observer
Staff Reporter

At 6:38 a.m., the first beams of sunlight pierce through the trees shadowing Meadows Mill. The muddied waters of the Little Uchee creek flowing over the dam are now visible. A sure but steady breeze blows, being cooled by the nearby water. The sound of the occasional passing car can be heard, and the birds chirp happily as another day starts.
As the rays of sunlight peel back the previous night’s darkness, the mill’s exterior features come into focus. A two-story wooden structure, it perches on a steep hill, with the Little Uchee as its backdrop. The freshly-primed wood paneling and rustless tin roof provide a sense of newness, but the glazed windows serve as a clue to the mill’s true age.
The blended characteristics of the mill’s exterior continue inside, as the rustic ceiling and walls coalesce perfectly with the recently constructed stone fireplace and kitchen area. The overall feel is no longer that of a mill, but that of a home.
Located on Lee Road 175 in Salem, Alabama, Meadows Mill is much like the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, serving as a gateway to Salem’s past, a past strongly rooted in farming and agricultural traditions. Though its days of  milling corn and wheat are long gone, the mill’s continuing presence in the community serves as both a positive reminder of their past and a source of optimism for their future.
Few historical records exist concerning the mill because of its age and rural location. However, Ken and Carol Story, both Salem residents and relatives of the Meadows and Story families who once owned and operated the mill, know bits and pieces of information regarding the mill’s history.
“We don’t know the exact date of the construction of the mill,” Carol said. “But, according to our research, a man by the name of Michael Thomas and his brothers built the mill probably sometime between 1830 and 1835.”
There is a gap in the mill’s history until the 1870s, when records show the property was purchased and then divided by the McKinnon and Meadows families.
“On June 27, 1873, the mill owners at the time, David and Lucy Fuller, sold a one-fourth interest of the property to a Daniel P. Meadows,” Carol said. “The other three-fourths interest was already owned by the McKinnon family.”
The mill would continue operating with divided ownership until 1911, when the McKinnon family sold their portion of the mill to the Meadows family.
Originally purchased by Daniel Meadows, the mill would pass to his son D.P., who would run the mill until his death in 1951. After D.P.’s death, the mill was leased out to Geoffrey Story, Ken’s father.
For six years, Geoffrey rented out the mill until 1957 when he officially purchased the property. Under his ownership, the business flourished.
“Mr. Geoffrey milled corn meal and cracked corn for animal feed,” Carol said. “He had regular truck routes to distribute the corn meal to stores and restaurants in four to five nearby counties.”
It was during this time that lifetime Salem resident Earl Gullatte would go with his father to have their corn processed and milled into flour and meal, which constituted a large part of his family’s diet.
“I remember going there with my daddy when I was little,” Gullatte said. “Whenever we would get through harvesting, we would take our corn up there to be processed. On rainy days especially local farmers would come hang out at the mill while their corn was processed. It was definitely a gathering place.”
Ken, who lived directly across from the mill, also has a myriad of memories about the kind of work and experiences that he had while working at his father’s mill.
“I can remember unloading the corn, shelling the corn, and bagging and delivering the corn and corn meal,” Ken said. “I also have fond memories of swimming in the mill pond and going to sleep at night hearing the hum of the millstones milling.”
Carol also lived just down the road from the mill. She remembered ‘’passing by it all the time’’ and the fact ‘’that it seemed like it had always been there.”
Later, when she and her future husband Ken were dating, she enjoyed visiting the mill and eating cornbread that was made using freshly ground cornmeal from the mill.
In 1971, the mill closed for good and passed from the Story family’s possession in the 1990s.
In 2007, Marsh Real Estate Development Group, a company that prides itself on historical renovations, acquired the property. They had received a call from the owner of Meadows Mill to gauge their interest in buying the mill for scrap wood and parts.
“We went out to the property to look at it, and my dad immediately fell in love with the place,” Nelson Marsh said. “The uniqueness of the property, its 30-foot elevation, rocky creek and 100-foot long dam were all factors in us buying the property. We knew that if we didn’t buy the place and fix it up, no one else would.”
After purchasing the property, the new owners spent months removing the kudzu and other forms of undergrowth that had spread and covered the property.
After cleaning up the property, the process of restoring the mill to a structurally sound building began.
“The mill was eroding off the hillside, into the creek,” Nelson said. “We ended up pouring about 400 yards of hand-mixed, hand-formed concrete to reinforce the columns and supports underneath to restabilize the building.”
However, the foundation of the mill wasn’t the only part of the mill needing repairs.
“Because of the house’s gradual slide down the hill, the structure itself twisted so much that it was at risk of collapsing,” Nelson said. “We had to jack up and straighten the mill, and then we framed a new 2×6 structure around the mill like a skeleton – which supports the entire building now.”
Lastly, the transitioning of a building to a livable space included the insertion of modern conveniences like heating and air, and plumbing. The building’s age was at first problematic, but through some ‘’creative things and ideas’’ they were able to install the necessary utilities.
Restoring the mill to its former glory and previous appearance weighed heavily on the minds of the Marsh group during the process.
“Our main concern was honoring the heritage of this beautiful construction,” Nelson said. “We did it in a way that showed off its homemade construction while still making it a useful structure.”
The restoration of the mill hasn’t gone unnoticed by the locals in the Salem community.
“Everyone seems to love it,” Nelson said. “I think everyone was hoping that something good would come out of the renovation, and I think it gives the people in Salem hope of fixing their old structures, which serve as pieces of their history.”
With the renovation being nearly done, Nelson and his company have a plan in mind for the property.
“We originally thought that the property would make a great restaurant, but there were some constraints and parking issues that made that idea infeasible,” Nelson said. “I had planned to move out there, but there was a slight change in my plans. We’re now looking to rent out the house during  football season, because of its relative closeness to Auburn. It will be a vacation rental house of sorts.”
Though the mill will no longer be churning out meal and flour, it will still continue to be a landmark and iconic symbol of the Salem community.
“I believe Meadows Mill is a keystone to this community,” Gullatte said. “It brings back memories to a different time, and seeing it restored to what it once was makes me happy. It makes us all happy.”

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