Millbrook's original mill?: Forgotten history discovered in North Raleigh neighborhood

ByHeather Leah
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Forgotten history discovered in North Raleigh neighborhood
Forgotten history discovered in North Raleigh neighborhood

RALEIGH -- On the tail end of Marsh Creek, tucked away in a quiet suburban backyard, stands a mysterious antique structure with a little-known Raleigh legend attached to it.

Around 200 years old, this impressive wall of granite stones spans roughly 25 feet across and towers 12 feet high over a smooth, flat stone base.

According to oral tradition, this wall was once part of the original Millbrook Mill, from which Millbrook Road got its name. It would have been one of the earliest mills in this area.

Today, North Raleigh bustles with shopping centers, malls, and thousands of homes; however, in the 1800s, Raleigh didn't extend much beyond the borders of downtown. The section now known as North Raleigh was then known as Millbrook, North Carolina.

For most of the 20th century, Millbrook was comprised of small family farms, a few churches and a railroad stop and post office.

If the legend and oral history are correct, the large granite wall in this quiet North Raleigh neighborhood might be, not just a mill, but the mill from which Millbrook was born. It could be one of the oldest remaining structures in the city, giving us clues as to what life was like dating back to the 1700s.

The Origins of Millbrook

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, naming conventions were fairly simple. The town of Chapel Hill, for example, literally got its name because there was a chapel on top of a hill. In the 1700s, farmers and citizens would just point and say, "He lives over by the chapel hill." Over time, these descriptors became the actual name of the location.

It makes sense, then, that locations like Six Forks, Falls of the Neuse, and Millbrook might have similar origins. Millbrook Road is named after the historic Millbrook community, and the Millbrook community was named after the "mill" on the "brook." The fact that Millbrook, North Carolina was named after a mill is a testament to how critically important the mill was to everyday life.

Jack Norwood of Millbrook Baptist Church, which was established in 1875, has lived in Millbrook (or North Raleigh) his entire life. In the 1930s and early '40s, he remembers having picnics on the wide, flat rock beside the historic granite wall.

"That was a millpond," he says, "There used to be a mill there, run by water. When I was in grammar school, we used to go over there on the last day of school." By the 1930s, it was already an abandoned structure."

"That was the original Mill Brook," Norwood said.

Richard Stevens and Evelyn Stevens -- also members at Millbrook Baptist Church -- corroborate Norwood's tale. The citizens of Millbrook have simply passed down this knowledge, that this was the original mill.

But is there any way to determine the real history of this structure?

The Abandoned Millbrook Mill

With no written history or maps, it can be difficult to determine whether or not the legends are historically accurate. However, historians do have some clues.

Dr. Phil Ashburn of Millbrook United Methodist Church wrote: "In the early 1860s a community developed along US-1, six miles north of downtown Raleigh near an important gristmill situated on Marsh Creek. As far as my research has gone, there are no remaining records about this mill. The well-hidden stone foundation is rumored to remain."

Very few people are aware of the remaining foundation. Amy Simpson grew up with the structure in her backyard.

"We had picnics on that flat rock, and we would sunbathe on it when we got older. We used it as a waterslide, and we'd ride our Big Wheels down the slippery part," she said.

Many others who grew up in the neighborhood share similar memories.

Is It the Original Millbrook Mill?

Whether or not the legends of it being the "Original Millbrook Mill" are true, an examination of the structure reveals some insight that seems to add validity to the legends.

First of all, the structure does indeed seem to be a mill. By researching the history of mill construction in the 1700 and 1800s and comparing it to the remaining stone structure, there are many elements that match up. First of all, the landscape has a tell-tale trench nearby, which could have acted as the spillway. When exploring other abandoned mills around North Carolina, the trench is nearly always still visible in the topography.

Secondly, the engineering of the structure itself indicates its use as a mill. The current property owner said: "We've found the sluice, and our son has also found old, rusty metal parts."

These artifacts could be a clue as to the use of the structure that once stood there. The wall itself is nearly four feet thick, and it has a large groove that travels down the length of the top. Several people, like Jimmy Lloyd and Jeff DeWitt, theorize this groove may indicate where the mill wheel's piping would have sat. This would also explain the unusual thickness of the wall; the "wheel-wall" of mills are often thicker than the other parts of the foundation.

Ryan Enggas, of Cornerstone Construction, said, "the water wheel probably sat in the creek with the axle running along the top of the wall, with a millstone on a spline gear on the dry side that would actually do the milling."

The wall is not a straight line, but actually bends about halfway through, which has other visitors theorizing that it's actually the remaining "tailrace." The tailrace of a mill is built to bend slightly, so it can return water back into the stream.

Determining the Structure's Age

Paying attention to the quarrying methods can help determine the age of the structure. The large stones atop the wall have several finger-length notches, each around six inches apart, running down the length of the stone. These markings indicate a stone-splitting method called "Plug and Feather," which was popular in the early to mid-1800s.

Oddly, maps of Wake County from the late 1800s do not show a mill (or even a structure) in that location. However, given that the geography, engineering, and oral tradition seem to support this structure being a mill, historians theorize this mill may have been built in the late 1700s or early 1800s. This would have made it one of the first mills in the area, but out of commission by the time Wake County was populated enough to warrant maps and historic record-keeping.

According to Mike Legeros, who first alerted the historic community to the location of the structure in his blog, it, "purportedly dates to the 1700s."

History versus Legend

When Raleighites drive down Millbrook Road, are we driving on the namesake of this forgotten relic?

There are still many unanswered questions about this mysterious structure. If it was a mill, who owned it? Why did it close down? Why is the wooden frame gone? And more puzzling: What happened to the millstone?

There may be no way to definitively prove whether or not this structure truly the mill for which Millbrook was named. However, it does seem to be a mill, and it seems to be from the early 1800s or earlier. Plus, the location is in the immediate vicinity, and generations of oral history insist, "This is the Mill Brook."

Given that timeline and its location, it would make sense that the legend may hold water.

Heather is an ABC11 Influencer. Read more of her work on her blog.