Old things and new on the year’s first trip to North River Mills

Like the recent installment about my drive to Middleburg, I’m chronicling the year’s first day back at one of my more or less seasonal activities. I like to make them sound like Civil War battles because both locations are dripping with history of the period — you can almost step in it.

The North River Mills facility is actually the late Charley Miller’s old tractor shed, which I have been using as a repair shop, bringing in components from my mobile tractor repair route in the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia Hunt Country. It has also become a sort of museum of an old-time repair shop to complement this historic location. Some slow, “whenever” repairs and restoration of antique machines are going on there.

These repairs and restorations are by invitation only and open exclusively to Virginia residents. The shop does no actual monetary business in West Virginia. This keeps things on a relaxed hobby status. Meanwhile, visitors enjoy looking at the old tractors, trucks and crawlers on display in various states of repair. Though there may be a modest profit involved, this is my gift to the community and to the history of North River Mills of which my family is a part. Besides, it’s fun.

Driving up to “The Mills” from Capon Bridge, I pass the old house that burned last winter, now an unsalvageable wreck. I’ve always associated this house with the Wolford family. I can vaguely recall seeing Verlis Wolford’s pulpwood truck, apparently converted from a “deuce and a half” or heavier military truck reposed in the yard.

Moving on to Harris Pond, a section of the Cacapon River, the rushing shimmering emerald river shines in brilliant clarity. Rock formations on Darby Mountain shine in glowing detail. I keep a journal of days spent at North River Mills. The following is from the journal of March 15. The most recent entry prior to this is Dec. 21, 2013, the winter solstice when I stopped by to pick up parts for an ongoing project at the shop at Hanging Rock.

“Arrived on March 15 at 12:23 (a little late), because of the possibility of rabid raccoons in the old buildings (there have been sightings) the first order of business is to load the .22 Magnum revolver. Next, I open the shop door. Nothing has changed. It seems that scrap metal thieves have spared us a visit for the time being. Following the old routine I tune the radio to NPR (Michael Feldman’s “Wattya Know”), then sit down at the workbench to eat lunch and read the Winchester Star.

I hear the familiar sound of the diesel mail delivery truck arriving at the mailboxes. Walking outside, I ask the driver, Cleona (Wolford) Grace, for some history about the old house that had burned along Cold Stream Road. She explained that the house had actually always been in the Sine family but that the Sines and Wolfords are related. She went on with a detailed history of Cold Stream and North River Mills and their relation to the Wolford family. I tried to keep up. The history cleared up some mysteries such as the old chimney in the bend by the public hunting access. Her great uncle (I think) lived in the house that stood there till around 1946 when it burned. He often spoke of the bushels of copperheads that would drape themselves over the stone fence. Her genealogy was almost biblical in detail. If my memory had been better and her truck not so noisy, I probably could have learned more about Cold Stream and North River Mills in that five minutes than I had in 10 years of living there.”

I decided to set to work on a Farmall Cub that I’m restoring for Fulgrin Farm, Rockland, Va., beginning with the heavy parts assembly. The traffic on Cold Stream Road is quiet — scarcely more than the usual trucks with Farm Use plates heading out, loaded with huge round hay bales and coming back empty. Tourism didn’t seem likely. However, a car did stop in front of the old Miller house and folks with cameras started milling about. “Our first tourists of 2014, (confirmed by the Ice Mountain guest book) Mark and Wendy Claude from the Baltimore, Md., area along with their relative and guide, Mike Pierce of Green Spring, stopped by the shop to visit. They were fascinated by the antique machinery, especially the 1940s Beetle bulldozer. Of the 90 of these units produced, only 13 are known to still exist. This visit is the first chance of the season for me to deliver my standard “docent lecture.” (The accuracy of this little soliloquy could easily be called into question.)

At 4, it’s customary for me to make an entry in the journal describing the surroundings outside the shop. It’s 4, so here goes; “Sky is cloudless. There’s no budding yet in the maples. Seed balls still hang in one of the sycamores while the others have borne none — must be a question of gender. The ‘peeling wallpaper’ tops are a brilliant white. Looking up the steep hill to the east, dry broom sage is golden against the deep blue sky. There’s really no green to speak of in the fawn colored pastures. The sun is about 40 degrees above the hemlocks on the ridge to the west.” (By comparison on Dec. 21, the sun was already ‘under the ridge’ at 4) “Then there are the rocks — Raven Rocks, jutting out of a stand of scrub pines high above North River Mills. Obscured by foliage much of the year, they’re now easily visible from the shop. The rocks, basking in the sun are timeless and alluring — well, for some folks anyway. Our daughters regularly get together with friends and walk the near vertical trail up there. The Old Hippie often joins them and climbs the trail like a mountain goat.”

Pardon my lack of enthusiasm but a knee that recalls a 1968 motorcycle accident tends to distract me on these ascents. Anyway, before the Nature Conservancy acquired the property, I regularly carried a deer rifle all over that mountain (don’t bother).

In summer, North River Mills days are often concluded with a stop at Mick and Tina’s Tavern for one of their large frosted mugs of beer. I decided to stop there to complete the experience. Mick and Tina’s Tavern was packed. Nancy, a slender, attractive and very energetic bartender served the crowd, maintaining a lively pace while still finding the time to be friendly.

The view from the tavern is spectacular and holds a lot of personal history. Out there are orchards I’ve worked, roads I helped build, woods I’ve logged, the mountainside where we built a cabin and lived off the grid for several years. The land that the tavern occupies belonged to the Poling family with whom I’m well acquainted.

Ironically, despite my 40-year familiarity with the area, I didn’t know anyone seated at the bar. Likely though, I know all their parents’ first names, last and middle initials. I had the pleasure of meeting Craig Goznell, the apparent manager of the place who insists that his official job title is “the son-in-law.” Craig is so personable that he could persuade Carrie Nation to check her ax at the door and try a Bud Light.

Though regaled with opportunities for the evening’s entertainment, I decided that just one of these generous servings of Budweiser would be enough for now and headed home.


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