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WOYM: Saving Vinton's Gish Mill a tall order

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Recent news reports of a Vinton redevelopment project were headlined with description of the property as “historic” Gish Mill.

The old mill on the Vinton side of Glade Creek has been referenced in this space before. Following will be more details about what makes the old mill historic. First, a sketch of some more recent history of the property.

“Currently there are safety issues for any visitors, including poor lighting, an unstable basement stair, upper-floor stairs lacking handrails, heavily accumulated bird and animal droppings, and holes and weak spots in the floors,” wrote architectural historian Mike Pulice in a 2015 site report for the state Department of Historic Resources.

The report closed ominously.

“The building remains open to the elements and wildlife to some degree … ”

Evidently the town of Vinton and its partners in the redevelopment project for the former Holdren’s Country Store, as the mill was known in its last commercial incarnation, are not easily frightened.

Not so for one of the first groups of historic preservationists who visited the site after Holdren’s sold its last sack of seed and before auction of the property had been announced. Debbie Pitts, Madeline Forbes and Judy Cunningham of Vinton Historical Society were in the advance party.

“The windows were broken, animals had been there, some floors were about to cave in,” Cunningham said during a conversation last week at the town’s museum. “We felt like we were risking our lives. But it was very interesting.”

Interesting the mill’s long history most certainly is. The preservationists were certainly aware of that when they first got wind of plans to auction the property.

“We were worried what would happen to the mill,” Pitts said.

The main section of the mill, the tallest part of the current barn-like structure, is part of the original building, which has survived one and possibly more fires. The double mill wheels, tailrace and dam are long gone.

“The interior of the building was fully accessed during the survey, revealing an intact three-story brick core, most of which has not been heavily altered since the 19th century, and not at all modified since milling operations ceased, many years ago,” according to the Pulice report.

The exterior of the original structure is handmade brick “three wythes thick.” An “exceptionally deep, dark basement” has tall, mostly uncoursed stone foundation walls. Heavy wooden posts and beams form support.

Forbes, co-writer with Irma Trammell Moseley of “Vinton History 1884 to 1984” traces the founding of the grist mill to 1797 and brothers David Gish and Christian Gish Jr., whose family arrived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from Germany in 1733.

Their father Christian Gish had previously developed a mill near Daleville in Botetourt County. Incidentally, the house he built as the family residence close to the mill eventually became the home of the president of Daleville College, a defunct Church of the Brethren school profiled in this space a while back.

The Gish brothers operated mills on both Glade Creek and Wolf Creek. Raymond Barnes, who covered the mills in a 1960 Roanoke Times series, wrote that he had tried to locate the remains of the Wolf Creek operation but was unsuccessful. If fruitful efforts were made later to find that mill, the results were not readily available for this report.

David Gish Jr. was the Gish Mill operator in 1838 when Roanoke County was formed, Barnes noted. When the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad came to the Roanoke Valley in the 1850s, a depot was built near the mill and related store.

It must not have been much of a depot — Forbes and Moseley described it as “nothing more than a small boxcar” — so it couldn’t have taken long for cavalry under federal Gen. George B. Stoneman to have burned it down in 1865 near the end of the Civil War.

Stoneman’s orders had been to tear up railroad tracks and other infrastructure in Southwest Virginia and over into North Carolina in order to hasten Confederate surrender.

The account at the website for the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies says a primary focus of the mission had been to destroy parts of the Tennessee and Virginia system and described how that was done in Salem and Cambria but made no mention of Gish’s Depot.

The Gishes continued to operate the mill until selling the Glade Creek operation in 1867. There was quite a story to that sale in Forbes.

It goes that I.W. Vinyard, whose family were early settlers in what would be the Vinton area, had led a gold prospecting expedition from here in 1849. Judging from the date, the gold was most likely in California — Forbes did not say. In any event, she wrote that most of the party were unsuccessful in their hopes of striking the motherlode.

Vinyard by contrast came home with enough nuggets to finance purchase of the mill. The mill operated into the mid-20th century. Vinyard didn’t do too badly either.

“Having gold left over after this purchase, Mr. Vinyard minted the rest and hid it in a rock chimney of one of his homes,” Forbes wrote. “It was in this place, years later, it was found.”

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