It was a real privilege to spend time talking with Benjamin Wheeler and his mother, Betty, last Saturday. They own and operate the Atkinson Old Grist Mill in Selma, North Carolina.
The Mill was built in 1757 by John Richardson and his descendants. The dam was actually built by Dr. Wade Atkinson with his neighbors’ help in 1930.
Ray and Betty Wheeler had been employees since 1958 and raised their six children on the property. In 1971 the Wheelers were able to buy the corporation.
It is still a fully operational mill with 4 turbines but basically the same structure. They employee 65 people and have a nice variety of retail products. I tried their Flat Cornbread which can be baked or fried and is delicious. It has just a kick of Tabasco to add flavor! They have a small store onsite or you can mail order.
The Mill entrance is a wide hallway with low ceiling which quickly opens up into the working area. There are 3 levels for the different operations. The base level has all the heavy machinery for cleaning the corn meal and bagging products.
At the far end of the production room is a raised level where the round concrete caps of the turbines are visible. They can also still operate by hydropower but the difference is 3hp for hydro vs. 30hp for electric!
The third level holds more ducting for routing the cornmeal through the Mill. The corn is largely imported from Kentucky and stored in large silos which feed into the Mill.
I’m sure there were many tough years, but the stretch between the 1990 and 1998 were particularly challenging. The Little River flows downstream from Wake Forest and has caused major flooding problems. The floods of 1990 caused damage, and were followed by Hurricane Fran in 1996 which caused the Mill to be raised to avoid further flooding. However, Hurricane Floyd came two years later in 1998 and again flooded the Mill requiring another rebuild of sections. But the Wheelers have persevered and have a thriving business.