Whether they come for necessity or nostalgia, steady customers keep this Oak Ridge landmark in business.
No matter how fast you drive down the hills of N.C. Highway 68 through Oak Ridge, it’s hard to miss the giant, red waterwheel on the side of the road that slowly spins in front of the Old Mill of Guilford.
The 24-foot wheel no longer provides power, but it’s become a symbol for the mill. And customers expect to see it turning.
“If it’s not running, people think we’re closed,” says Amy Klug, who owns the mill with her husband, Darrell.
In order to reach the retail store located in the mill’s back room, customers must walk through the operating mill. They pass 71-year-old miller Annie Laura Perdue and the sifters and grinders that work together to make flour, cornmeal, grits, and other ingredients.
“Visitors always want to feel the grain,” Klug says. “So we’ll scoop it out right in their hands.”
What those visitors might not realize is that they’re not just feeling flour; they’re holding a grain of history.
The mill’s story dates back to 1767 when it provided grain for early settlers in North Carolina. In 1781, General Cornwallis seized the mill to grind grain for his soldiers.
Since then, the mill has had six different owners in its nearly two and a half centuries of operation. Each one has used the same traditional method of grinding grain with big, rough, rotating stones.
This centuries-old technique separates the mill from larger grain suppliers and keeps the products that come from the mill all-natural, something Klug is proud to tell her customers.
“We don’t alter our grain,” she says. “We’re not bleaching it; we’re not enriching. We keep the grain the way it is.”
While neither the products nor the process change much at the Old Mill of Guilford, Klug still says that no day is quite like the one before. Along with the regular customers, Klug sees new faces daily, some from nearby, like church groups from Greensboro, and others from as far away as Tennessee.
“I love the products we make, and I love the people who come here,” Klug says. “Every day is a new day here; it’s never the same old, same old.” Except for the grains.
Emily Burniston was an editorial intern at Our State in fall 2012.