COURTING HISTORY: The Clifton Water-Powered Mill

Water powered mills were common sights in Ashe County well into the 1950s. They were used to grind grain into meal or flour as well as saw logs into lumber.

One such mill intrigued me each time I passed it from my childhood into adulthood. It was located on the north fork of the New River just across N.C. 88 from the old Luke Eller residence. To be exact, it’s at the west end of Gilley Road and the east end of Carl Eastridge Road where both enter N.C. 88.

While interviewing Ralph Shoemake for an article several years ago, I learned that his family owned the mill. He said the mill dated back to 1878 when it was built by the Rev. George Miller and his brother, S.W. Mary Miller, daughter of one of the brothers, inherited the mill. She married William Eller. They sold it to S.W. Welch, D.P. Welch and Fred Shoemake in 1907. Fred bought out the Welch interests in 1910 and it was owned by his family for the remainder of its life.

When N.C. 88 was built, it separated the mill from its pond that supplied the water power. Fred Shoemake insisted on the installation of a culvert large enough to carry water under the road to power the mill. Today this culvert is the only thing left of the pond or the mill.

Originally a sawmill, the Shoemakes added grinding equipment. The mill served the community for several decades, sawing lumber, grinding cornmeal and buckwheat flour. When the mill needed a new wheel it was built by Ralph Shoemake who had already built a reputation as a master woodworker. Customers and visitors alike marveled at the beauty as well as the intricate joinery of the new wheel. Frank Shoemake once stated, “Not just cause he’s my brother, but Ralph can make just about anything.” Folks who knew him agreed.

Ralph Shoemake told me that when he was a young man he would go to the mill early in the morning, saw a pond full of lumber, then go to school while the pond refilled and after school, saw another pond full.

A color picture and an article about the mill appeared in The Ford Times magazine in November 1955. There have also been articles and pictures in the The Skyland Post (Dec. 8, 1960), Winston-Salem Journal (December 1960) and The Charlotte Observer (Oct. 22, 1952).

Most of the water-powered mills are gone. The beauty as well as the ingenuity has passed on into history as electricity replaced water as a power source. Ironically, down the river about a mile, the Sharps Falls Dam is using the river to generate electricity.

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