Old mill in North Carolina mountains

We went to the Dellinger Mill. It’s “in the middle of nowhere” but nowhere is very beautiful, very lovely. It’s in the North Carolina mountains close to Tennessee; it’s on a long winding road and nestled in trees. And it’s been there since 1867.

The man who owns it, Jack Dellinger, is 94 years old and was standing in pride of place at the very spot where corn meal pours out from a chute, explaining all about it. He held onto the wood beams around him as he stood there and reminisced.

Corn flour in a wisp falling out of the grinding stones of Dellinger Mill

I always thought that a mill would be a huge enterprise, but no, this one is so small and simple. And it’s the exact same structure, the exact same tools as when the mill was first built by Jack’s granddaddy Reuben in 1867. Or was it great-granddaddy? Mr. Jack pointed out to us a beam running under the platform — it was huge, and it came from an American chestnut tree — a species that’s now extinct. He said that once, a man showed up and offered 140,000 dollars for that beam, but Mr. Jack wouldn’t part with it. It would ruin the mill.

The mill uses still the same grinding stones as it did in 1867; and the same wheel; and the same belts to pull the wheel. The water is diverted from the Cane River, slipping through a wooden path built over our heads like an elevated avenue. It’s really cute, like a little roller coaster track, or like a secret tunnel (except we can all see it) where Cinderella’s mice go scurrying in the night. The mill wheel — which is really big — just needs a little bit of water in order to turn it, so the avenue for the mice is not watertight — underneath the chute it goes drip-drip-drip all along in rivulets.

Mr. Jack said that his great-granddaddy Reuben was married to Mary Jane. There’s an entry in the diary of Reuben’s brother, who lived just next-door, dated from 1869. It goes, “Mary Jane was smashed flat.” What happened was, the millers’ wives all had to help their husbands with the work, and as Mary Jane was working, her long skirts got caught in the grinding stones and she couldn’t get loose. She was only 31 😦 What an awful end.

Mr. Jack himself was always good in math at school, but he didn’t pursue that right after he finished with high school. Instead, he joined the army. They sent him to Alaska, where they could see Siberia upon take-off or landing of the Air Force plans (this part reminded me a bit of something Sarah Palin once said) and from there they sent him to Japan. This was during the Korean War.

When he was out of the army, he went to NC State to study electrical engineering on the GI Bill. And when he was done, I think he maybe went back to work in the army. But the army was paying 110 dollars a month, whereas an industry engineering job got you 5000 a year — and some engineers, depending on which company they worked for, got over twice that. He got an interview to be part of a submarine outfit, but he realized he didn’t fancy being in a tiny cabin underwater. So he passed on that, and it was lucky, because the next place he got an interview at was IBM. They told him, “we like your record, but we don’t have an opening for an electrical engineer. How would you like to be a computer software engineer instead?”

Jack said, “what’s that?” But he got the job anyways. This was 1958.

A few months later, he found himself up in Poughkeepsie, New York, freezing cold through the winters, working for IBM. His first assignment was working for a spy outfit. He needed a top level security clearance for that, so the FBI showed up in the NC mountains and interviewed everyone that Mr. Jack had ever known. They didn’t say why they were asking nosy questions about him, so everyone assumed he must be in trouble. We knew he’d come to no good.

Back in Poughkeepsie, Mr. Jack kept talking about how much he missed the South. His bosses didn’t understand what anyone would miss about the South, but to placate him, they finally transferred him to the Maryland office (that was the furthest south they could imagine anything being).

Maryland was not much better, though, with the cold winter, and the DC traffic was a nightmare. He kept asking his supervisor about an opening even further South, and finally, one day, a notice went up. It said, “volunteers wanted.” Usually when they asked for volunteers, that wasn’t good, but in this case, it said that IBM had won a 25 million dollar contract to help NASA land people on the moon (it was 1961 or 1963.) And they wanted people to go to Huntsville, Alabama, in order to work on that. Mr. Jack ran into his supervisor’s office right away, and right away, he was put on the team. He ended up on a team of seven engineers, and they wrote the computer program for the spacecraft that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. According to Mr. Jack, after it was all said and done, he had four Sprites with Neil Armstrong (it wasn’t actually Sprite, I’m just sanitizing.)

So that is the story of the Dellinger Mill in the North Carolina mountains.

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