Environmental Factor, January 2005, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Mike Shelby, AKA Country Boy
John Denver famously crooned: “Thank God, I'm a country boy.” You could almost hear Mike Shelby's agreement.
Shelby leans on a wooden counter in the country store part of the grist mill at West Point on the Eno in Durham. He eyes a few bags of freshly ground cornmeal. Sunlight squeezes through the cracks between the roughly hewn wooden wall planks to partially illuminate the dusty, bare floor. By December, it is bitter cold here. Unless, that is, you are near the cast-iron stove, which is the sole source of heat.
Shelby, in his well-worn coveralls, is clearly at ease in this primitive, rustic environment. He and a select few others operate the mill, turning out organic whole wheat flour and grits in addition to white and yellow corn meal.
Since 1998, when Shelby happened upon the grist mill at West Point by the Eno in Durham, he has been volunteering, regularly spending weekend time here.
There is undoubtedly an element of contrast between Mike Shelby, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, and Mike Shelby, the Oklahoma farm boy who can't stay away from rustic old mill.
Shelby admits to a long-time fascination with grist mills, which turn grains into products like flour, cornmeal and grits. “I also regularly use the products,” he said.
Shelby grew up in rural Oklahoma, but spent quite a bit of time in east Tennessee. There, he began visiting grist mills. A friend in graduate school had a grist mill, and Shelby got his first chance to grind grain.
The mill operates on weekends from late March through mid December, producing whole wheat flour, white and yellow cornmeal and grits, which are sold on-site. Shelby and several other volunteers, all similarly clad in faded denim and flannel, maintain the equipment.
The original mill on the site dates back to 1778, and operated continually until 1942. It was one of more than 30 such mills on the Eno River. West Point was a village on the river long before Durham existed, Shelby said. In 1942, the river flooded, destroying the dam and the building. The land was sold to a development company, but a group of citizens formed to acquire the land. In 1973, the City of Durham obtained the land that forms the basis of West Point on the Eno. The mill building that exists today was constructed, and in 1978, it opened to the public.
The mill runner, or top stone, generally weights more than 2,000 pounds. The grains are crushed between the two huge stones rigged with belts, gears, and a water wheel to harness the energy from the water running in the river. “Mike innately knows this stuff. He understands the mechanics of it,” said Beth Highley, park manager. “He just really likes mills.”
Antiques - genuine artifacts representing North Carolina culture - are displayed throughout the mill. On one wall is a bootleg whiskey still. Another wall displays a corn cob crusher, which popped the kernels off the cob, and nearby is a cornshuck broom.
“Maybe its nostalgia - I don't know,” Shelby says in an attempt to explain his fascination with mills. “I get satisfaction from knowing hot to operate a grist mill - knowing how to do something the old-fashioned way rather than the new-fashioned way,” he said.
West Point on the Eno is located on North Roxboro Road, north of I-85. For more information, go to: http://www.durham-nc.com/planners/group_tours/west_eno.php.