Everyone knows that a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee will provide you with plenty of outdoor activities and beautiful mountain vistas, but I was pleasantly surprised at some of the interesting historic sites I came across as well. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to look back at the culture of the hardy, adventurous people who settled in those mountains before the United States was born.
Note: I categorized this post under “Museums” because it is an institution that cares for objects of artistic, cultural and historical importance.
I’ve visited a lot of mills all over the East Coast, but Mingus Mill has some unique characteristics that make it unlike any others. For one, it’s located in a remote area of the Smoky Mountains and is now within the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nestled along the banks of the Mingus Creek, the mill was built on a crossroads—in a mountainous, out-of-the way area where there still aren’t that many roads today.
Built in 1886, the beautiful mill still stands at its original location, so it’s not hard to imagine wagon after wagon lined up waiting for their turn. According to literature from the mill, families who lived along the mountain ridges and valleys tended to their crops and livestock through the week, and then traveled many miles to the mill on Saturday. They brought their corn to be processed—a main staple back then—but they also brought other goods and skills to barter with others in the line. The mill was the “grocery store” and meeting place of its time.
Today, Mingus Mill provides a rare opportunity for visitors to get a glimpse of what life was like when this part of the country was just beginning to be settled. Staffed by knowledgeable caretakers April through October, the local historians share information about the mill and life in the mountains. Cookbooks, lye soap, wheat flour, and corn meal can be purchased during the open hours.
Amazingly enough, the mill was built in just three months for a cost of $600. Dr. John Mingus contracted with Sion Thomas Early to build the structure. His initials, “STE,” can still be seen, cut into the front gable just under the eaves.
The mill remained in the Mingus-Floyd family hands until they sold it to the National Park in 1930. The lumber used to build Mingus Mill was harvested locally at nearby Smokemont, which is now a campground. At one point in time it was a booming timber camp.
Another interesting and historical component to the Mingus Mill is a nearby slave cemetery. The Mingus and Enloe families were some of the first pioneers to settle in the Oconaluftee river valley in the late 1700s, which is why the cemetery is recognized by the National Park Service as the Enloe Slave Graveyard.
To find the cemetery, go to the far end of the parking lot and you’ll find a gate that is the trailhead from the Mingus Creek Trail. A worn path to the right of the gate wanders about 75 feet up a small hill to the secluded cemetery. There are no names or dates, or even headstones. Just rocks that mark the head and feet of the graves.
If you happen to visit and see a coin on the grave placed upside down, please leave it. This is a common tradition in slave cemeteries (and others as well). West African slaves believed the underworld is upside down of our world and connected by water. These coins are also left behind to: “pay the ferry man to safely get the departed soul to the afterlife,” a common theme in Greek mythology as well.
The slave graveyard isn’t the only nearby cemetery. The Mingus Creek Cemetery, also known as the Watson Cemetery, is two more miles up Mingus Creek Trail. There are 13 marked graves in this cemetery, but only one has a legible inscription: Polly Mathis (1888-1934).
Dr. Mingus is buried nearby at the Mingus-Floyd Cemetery. This can be reached by driving north from the Mingus Mill entrance and parking on the very first gravel pull-off that you come to on the right. Walk north (toward Tennessee) along the road a few yards until you are even with a speed limit sign on the opposite side of the road. Just past the speed limit sign, you will see across the highway the old road up to the cemetery angling off to the left and marked by two large stones. Only a short walk is required to reach this cemetery, perched just above the road. When the old road hairpins back to the right, you will be able to see the first gravestones.
The Visitor Center
There are lots of trails and historic sites in the area, so make sure you stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Cherokee entrance to the park. If you like visiting old cemeteries, there are 13 of them between the Visitor Center and the Smokemont campground!
As you can see, a drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a perfect combination of natural beauty, history, and adventure.