Last August, I was charged with an assignment to shoot some photos for Plough to Pantry, a local magazine. Although it didn’t pay anything, I was pretty excited to be given a chance in proving my photography skills and getting a little exposure.
The shoot wound up being an epic fail in my opinion. Among other things, I destroyed a rented three hundred dollar flash by dropping it in a water race & stream. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a pretty good day.
My subject was Dellinger’s Grist Mill which is located just outside the small town of Bakersville in Mitchell County, North Carolina.
I had talked to the proprietor, Jack Dellinger, via telephone earlier in the week. Seeing as how he was hosting me, I played by the rule of allowing him to pick the time for my arrival and departure.
When I arrived, I cursed my luck in my mind. The lighting was absolutely horrible, with the sun beating down white hot on parts of the location, while shadows took over the majority of the area.
An elderly gentleman was talking to some visitors. By the sound of his voice, I knew right away that this was Jack Dellinger. I simply let him conduct his business while I got my camera equipment and tripod ready.
When Jack was through with the group, I went over and introduced myself. He told me to have at it. I shot photos from various angles and exposures, none pleasing me. Then I dropped the flash into the water race, watching it flow out of the runoff into the branch never to be seen again.
I breathed a heavy sigh after cursing mightily. By now, I had enough shots anyway.
I eased back down to the water wheel area of the mill where Jack was by himself, the crowd having dispersed. He told me to have a seat and that is when the highlight of the day began for me.
Jack and I began conversing, asking each other questions about the other and by the time we were done we had held a two and one half hour conversation!
Right off the bat, I knew he was a card. After liberal amounts of straightforwardness, a little cursing and a tale or two later I inform Jack that I am from here, of Irish descent, from a family of pathological pranksters & liars so he will have a hard time getting the best of me.
Jack simply laughs with a little mirth at my candor.
Our conversation turns toward the old mill and its history with me providing Jack a wealth of questions, all of which he is happy to answer as we sit there and chat like lifelong friends.
Having been born in the early years of The Great Depression, Jack is eighty-five years young but his constant wit and steady movements belie a fate held for most his age.
“Have you always tended the mill?” I ask.
“No, Sir. After school I went away and joined the Air Force and became an engineer. After retiring, I came back here to run it.”
I don’t even think to ask in detail about all those years he was away from his childhood home. My interview skills are as bad as my photography luck on this day.
The grist mill was built by Jack’s great grandfather Reuben Dellinger in 1867 and Jack is happy to answer any and all questions with razor sharp memory, all the while throwing in challenging tidbits.
“Steve? That building out behind the mill. You know what that is?” Jack asks of me.
I ponder for a moment and reply “Well, if this was the old road running by here I am going to guess that it was a store, considering that your family had this mill to where they could sell corn meal and flour right next door.”
Jack nods his head in respectful acknowledgement of my guess and understanding of Appalachian History, so I thought I had given the correct answer.
However, Jack replies “No, but that’s a damn good guess! It was an Apple House.”
“An Apple House?”
“Yes, Sir. In 1903, the lumber companies came in here and were buying up everything in sight, especially the American Chestnuts, which had been hit by the blight. Well, my grandfather (Dave) rigged up a belt drive off of the mills water wheel and set up his own sawmill. He sawed the logs and built the Apple House. Also, like most people of that time, he didn’t waste anything. He saved all of the sawdust and used it for insulation by filling the walls of the Apple House with that sawdust. When I was young, we would go in there during the dead of winter and get warm.”
“No fireplace or wood heater?” I ask.
“Not a bit, but it was warm” He replies.
Our conversation concludes, so I ask Jack if I can take a few photos of him working around the mill to which he allows.
I get quite a number of photos of Jack and then I notice that evening is coming on and the light is getting close to perfect on the mill and the grounds around it, so I am anxious about getting the perfect shot of the mill.
“Well, time to go home” Jack says.
My heart sinks but I offer Jack an honest “Thank You” telling him that I will be back to see him and talk some more if he doesn’t mind.
“I’d be glad to see you coming, Steve” Jack says with sincerity.
As I start the trek back to Madison County, I can’t help but feeling disappointed from a professional standpoint but I realize that from a personal standpoint it has been the best of days.
Y’all have a great week!