Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series of stories called “Find Your Park,” where we will highlight local, state and federal parks within this region of North Carolina and nearby Virginia communities.
Though Mabry Mill is touted as one of the most photographed structures on the Blue Ridge Parkway, what doesn’t appear in images also contributes to its enduring charm.
“A lot of stories go behind it,” said Christopher Reid, a National Park Service ranger and interpreter at Mabry Mill.
It’s Reid’s job to tell those stories at the Floyd County, Virginia, site, where hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year.
Reid described the mill, located at Parkway Milepost 176, as an outdoor historical museum dedicated to showcasing what the area was like in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I help people understand what they are seeing,” he said, which makes for a more enriching experience than merely gazing at a historical structure.
In trying to determine what is his favorite historical story to tell, the ranger said there isn’t necessarily a single one. “It depends on the mood I’m in.”
One that came to mind during a recent talk there involved the genesis of the mill. The history of it is simple enough, and information is readily available on a number of websites.
The gristmill, waterwheel and water supply flume system were built by a married couple, Ed and Lizzie Mabry, in 1905. The mill, which produced corn meal, buckwheat flour and grits from locally sourced grains, was operational within a few years. A woodworking shop, blacksmith shop and new home for the couple were added later.
After Ed Mabry died and Lizzie moved away, the National Park Service acquired the property in 1938 and restored the buildings in 1942.
What that history doesn’t contain is how badly the Mabrys wanted to run a mill, Reid said.
“It had always been Ed Mabry’s dream to become a miller,” Reid said. To accomplish that goal, he moved to West Virginia and worked in coal mines for two years to save money.
“The pay was really good” for mine work, Reid said.
Mabry also worked as a blacksmith, Reid said, “all for a purpose, all for a grist mill.”
The couple returned to Virginia and built the mill themselves. It was a dream realized — almost.
“It turns out, his wife was a better miller than he was,” Reid said of Ed Mabry. “He started calling her ‘boss,’” and cheerfully enough, went back to work in the blacksmith shop, leaving his wife to the milling.
Reid explained that the quality of the grinding depended on various factors. “She was just better at monitoring the stone speed, height or temperature of the grist,” he said.
Mabry Mill became known for its high-quality product.
“Stories like that are why, even after 100 years, it can still be relevant” to visitors, as well as picturesque, Reid said.
It’s a very American tale for a very American destination, full of dreams and aspirations, taking advantage of what’s possible in the land of possibility, as well as making the best of a situation that didn’t turn out exactly as planned.
Interpreters also perform demonstrations of milling and centuries-old crafts typical from the region, which also still remain relevant.
“A lot of traditions we showcase are still passed down,” Reid said.
If he is weaving a chair bottom, visitors will often approach him. “They’ll say ‘we used to have baskets like that,’ or ‘my grandfather used to do that,’” the interpreter recalled.
“Even though technology has changed, the type of house we live in has changed, the stories behind them, the people behind them, are still incredibly relevant.”
More than Mabry
Mabry Mill is now a highlight on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is the longest contiguous unit within the National Park System. The region near Milepost 176 has plenty to offer beyond the mill attraction.
Connecting two National Parks, Shenandoah in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, it was conceived by both an engineer and a landscape architect, Reid said.
“It was designed to showcase the land and community around it,” he said, resulting in scenery that features things in bloom year-round.
With that accomplished, the region on the parkway offers “a lot of flora and fauna unique to this region” as intended by parkway designers.
Rocky Knob Recreation Area, located at milepost 169, offers a visitor center, campground and lots of trails to hike.
Reid said the region was known as the “Salamander Capital of the World” and also boasts the first building actually built on the parkway.
The park service keeps interpreters at the Rock Castle Gorge community, which thrived beneath the tall, covering canopy of once prevalent chestnut trees that were killed off by blight.
“It was a lot easier for people to live down there,” Reid said.
While the mill attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, every Sunday, it attracts many local residents who come for the regularly scheduled live music.
From 1 to 4 p.m. in the spring, summer and fall, local and semi-regional musical acts perform at the mill on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.
“Music is a big part of life in the area,” said Logan Wrice, manager at the mill, which also features a restaurant and gift shop.
The genre of music, bluegrass, old time and country, “It’s what they grew up listening too,” Wrice said, but also the gathering of community is a way of life, too.
“I think it is just a rope to the past for a lot of people,” he said. “And a neat, eclectic attraction for tourists.”
Terri Flagg may be reached at 336-415-4734.