Shull's Mill: More than a road
Shull's Mill. It's not just a road. At least, it didn't used to be.
"Shull's Mill was this booming town in 1915," Kyle Grove said. "The Tweetsie Railroad ran right through it. There were three or four hotels and a giant sawmill where all the wood in the county was collected and processed."
Keep talking to Grove, and he'll tell you about the electric movie theatre ("Shull's Mill was the first town in the county to have one," he said) and the post office, all the things that made Shull's Mill a High Country metropolis.
He should know. Grove is winding down a documentary about Shull's Mill, and plans to present the trailer and talk about his efforts Saturday at Beech Mountain.
What started years ago as a class project at Appalachian State University has become a passion, an obsession, if you will, and it's all thanks to a woman he's never even met: Mamie Shull.
"She lived to be 109-years-old," he said, "and she was fiesty."
After his mom purchased property where the old general store used to be in Shull's Mill, Grove started making discoveries: Photographs, antiques, a journal.
"It was a journal for one year in her life, 1915," he said.
The journal painted a picture of a woman whose strength surprised Grove, and he couldn't put it down.
"She didn't take much mess from anybody and what she did through the day a normal man wouldn't have been able to accomplish," he said. "She tended to the fields, gathered fruit and vegetables, milked the cows, tended to the goats, and then she came back and she made bread and potatoes for the railroad workers."
All while running a general store, a store that would be in her family for over 70 years.
"When you run a general store, you're in that nucleus of the town, and you meet all the special characters," Grove said.
And, in a town as booming as Shull's Mill, there were several. Through the journal, Grove got snippets of a world he couldn't have imagined.
"It's basically a small movie, and it inspired me to do this documentary about this little town that used to exist," he said.
Countless library hours, fact checking and interviews later, he's almost ready to present his findings. The documentary is expected to be complete in September and ready for public view in October.
"It's really coming together nicely," he said.
A professional videographer for the past few years, the project has kept him going. With the addition of music by the Carter Brothers (producers for acts like Keith Urban and Alison Kraus), he feels his piece will do the town justice. He's obtained archival footage and photos, and become a historian, all to tell Shull's Mill's story. It's a story everyone might know if, that is, it hadn't been for the flood in 1940.
"It was the biggest flood on record, killed 16 people," he said. "A lot of the homes in Shull's Mill, they were swept away and families, the livestock, all the farm equipment ... it just devastated the county."
It was the final straw for a place already hit by an ill-timed depression.
"The Great Depression hit Shull's Mill just as the business left," he said.
The business? Its trees.
"They came up here, and they cut all the trees down," he said.
The lumber companies left just before the stocks collapsed. It's a common story throughout the High Country.
"There was a bunch of these little timber towns," he said. "These guys had a lot of money from up north and they put railroads all up in the woods to collect all the trees ... Certain valleys that had a flat spot gave them a good place to take all that wood, and those valleys became towns."
The flood wiped out what the Depression left behind, and Mamie Shull, she saw it all.
"It was a different world," he said. "It's the story of a town that lived in a different era, back when there wasn't any TV and computers and cars. Really, there were few cars in the county. At that time, people rode on horseback. Your mail got delivered on horseback. A lot of the state, from Wilmington to Greensboro, they had electricity, but the western part of North Carolina, they didn't get it until the '30s."
Farmers, they grew their own food. The towns were isolated, connected only by a railroad.
The isolation continued even after the railroads stopped running.
Grove, 35, can testify to that personally.
"You look back, there wasn't anybody at ASU until just around the '80s," he said. "The roads up here were just terrible up until about the end of the '80s ... a lot of things have changed around here, and one of them is these little towns."
After Mamie Shull died, the property went into to foreclosure. Grove hopes to honor her memory, perhaps by one day putting the diary and other artifacts on display at a Shull's Mill history museum. After all, he owes her a lot.
"This subject has been what's driven my career," he said.
For more information on the project, titled "Just a Stop Along the Way: The Story of Shull's Mill, NC," e-mail Grove at (firstname.lastname@example.org) Grove presents his trailer and facts at a question and answer session Saturday at 2 p.m. It happens at Buckeye Recreation Center (206 Grassy Gap Creek Road, Beech Mountain).