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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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by Joey Powell, 2006
Additional research provided by Natalie Popovic.

Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The first recorded North American gristmill was built in Jamestown, Va., in 1621. As settlers moved from the Jamestown area into what is now northeastern North Carolina, they carried their milling techniques with them and began building small mills to grind grain.

Yates Mill, a gristmill in Wake County, 1958. Courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.

Gristmills generally operated by guiding a stream of water into a waterwheel, which provided the power to rotate the series of huge millstones that crushed the grain into progressively smaller pieces. Most early North Carolina gristmills were situated along creeks for a source of waterpower, usually near natural falls. Many gristmills had saws attached, harnessing the waterpower not only to grind flour but also to saw lumber. Power was increased by building dams. On some mills, millraces were built to carry water to the mill, particularly those equipped with an overshot type of wheel.

The demand for grinding grain for use as flour or meal grew as the population of North Carolina increased. In an effort to encourage the settlement of the Carolina backcountry frontier, the legislature in 1715 passed a law granting 50 acres of land and exemption from taxes and service in the state militia to gristmill and sawmill operators. This act contained a provision subjecting all mills to government regulation because of their "public" character. Despite these efforts, the number of mills in the colony remained small until the mid-eighteenth century. A more extensive and detailed law was passed in 1758, giving the colonial government greater supervision over the operation of mills.

Roller mills, an 1876 invention first used in John Sellers's mill in Philadelphia, had a tremendous impact on the milling industry. The roller mill had several advantages over stone mills. Primary among them was a product that was more uniform and had a more appealing appearance to customers. The use of rollers eliminated the need for stone "dressing," the periodic sharpening of millstones, saving the miller money and time. The rollers also extracted more flour from the same amount of wheat as the millstones. Most North Carolina mills built after 1876 were of this variety.

Few of North Carolina's older gristmills remained operational at the beginning of the twenty-first century, having become obsolete in the shadow of the larger, more efficient grain processors of the Midwest. House's Mill near Newton Grove in Sampson County claims to be the oldest continuously operating gristmill in the state, having ground flour and meal since 1812.


Grimsley Hobbs, Exploring the Old Mills of North Carolina (1985).

Additional Resources:

Catawba County Historical Association. "Historic Murray's Mill." (accessed June 14, 2012).

The Society for the Preservation of Old Mills. "The Old Mill of Guilford." (accessed June 14, 2012).

Dunaway, Stewart E. Grist mills of North Carolina: a historical review using county records  [North Carolina?]: S.E. Dunaway ;Morrisville, N.C.: Distributed by 2010.

Stephen Cabarrus History Club, Harrisburg School. By the Old Mill Stream: The Story of Early Industry in Cabarrus County. [Harrisburg, N.C.: Stephen Cabarrus History Club, 1967?].

Dellinger, Jack David. Dellinger Grist Mill on Cane Creek, Mitchell County, North Carolina: A Personal History. Folk Heritage Books, 2004./p>

Image Credits:

Yates Mill, a gristmill in Wake County, 1958. Courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.



I am interested in information on Marley's Mills in Randolph County, NC. On old maps, it is shown as Marleys on the Brush Creek in the easternmost section of the county. It was run by Benjamin Marley (around 1790) then by his son Thomas.


Dear Joseph,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and taking time to share your comment.

I am connecting you by email with Reference Services at the N.C. Government & Heritage Library.  A reference librarian will contact you shortly to see if you are still looking for this information and, if so, will suggest some resources that might help.

Good luck with your question and best wishes,

Kelly Agan


Hello, I am looking for information on a mill that was located in Wake Co. in an area now covered by Falls Lake. It had been known as Boyce Mill by my family that lived near it but I have found it as Dolby's Mill on an 1870 drawn Wake County Map by Fendol Bevers, Surveyors. It was located in the Oak Grove Township.

Thank you.
Seth Roberts


Have you contacted the US Army Corps of Engineers office on Falls of Neuse Rd? They might have information pertaining to that mill if the site was located in the Falls Lake project boundary.


Dear Seth,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and taking time to share your question. 

There are some resources on historical North Carolina mills that may help.  I am connecting you via email with Reference Services at the N.C. Government & Heritage Library.  A reference librarian will contact you shortly, if you are still looking for information.

Good luck with your research and best wishes,

Kelly Agan


Thanks for sharing this information! Do you know of anywhere that gives information on specific historic mills in North Carolina? I am looking for information on a mill in Union County, probably near Plyler Mill Road and Old Antioch Methodist Church? I believe it was operated by one of my ancestors, James Belk, at one time. I would love to find more information. Thank you!


Hi Rachel,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and sharing this question.

There are several resources that have compiled historical information on North Carolina's mills. I am connecting you by email with reference librarians at the NC Government & Heritage Library.  A librarian will contact your shortly to help you locate more info.

Good luck and best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library


I'm looking for information about the old mill that was located on south buffalo creek on Dicks Mill road in mcleansville. My brother in law just bought that property


Hi Shay,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and sharing your comment.  

I am forwarding you by email to the N.C. Government & Heritage Library.  A reference librarian will contact you shortly to help suggest resources for this question.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library


I am related to the House family of Newton Grove NC. I want to know more information about the old mill in Sampson County.

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