Happy 200th Birthday!

Published 11:22 am Friday, April 29, 2011

GATESVILLE – From the hands of Kenchen Norfleet to the State of North Carolina, Merchants Millpond has transformed itself from a staple of life back in the early 1800’s to what is today an area of abundant natural beauty and recreational activities.

The historic millpond, now a North Carolina State Park, will celebrate its 200th birthday during a free event open to the public on Saturday, May 7. The celebration is scheduled from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The day’s activities include live music, canoe and hiking trips, kid’s art contest, a bounce house, health screenings, the unveiling of two new cultural exhibits and many more activities for the whole family.  The celebration will also include many local vendors and food.

Merchants Millpond State Park is located at 176 Millpond Road off US 158 east of Gatesville.

For further information call 252-357-11191 or e-mail merchants.millpond@ncdenr.gov

The following is an article written in 1999 by Paulette Wester concerning the history of Merchants Millpond:

One of the most scenic and tranquil spots in the county, Merchants Millpond is located near the community of Gatesville and encompasses 2,918 acres in the center of Gates County.

In its day, the area around the Millpond consisted of several thriving businesses.

Archaeological finds set the date for the earliest known occupation of the area to be around 4000 B.C. The inhabitants were Indians of the Middle Archaic period.

Then came the Indians of the Woodland Period (600 B.C. – 1700 A.D.).

The first European settlers in Gates County arrived around 1660.

By 1754, most of the Indians had been killed or moved onto a small reservation south of Bennetts Creek.

Three farmsteads have been located within the area surrounding the pond. They were used from around 1650-1780 A.D. The only remains today are scattered brick rubble.

The principle crops in the area were corn and wheat.

The first mill and dam was constructed around 1811. The Millpond’s first owner was Kenchen Norfleet and it was known as Norfleet’s Millpond.

In 1812 the first corn was ground at the gristmill. That same year a wheat mill and a sawmill were built as well. About 1856, Norfleet sold the mill to two partners by the last name of Williams, so the name became Williams Millpond.

It was next owned by Leroy Smith. About 1910 Charles M. Lawrence acquired the mill and millpond.

A 19th century house and farmstead known as Merchants Mill was the most active site.

Historians tell about earlier days at the millpond. There was a sawmill, a wheat mill, the gristmill, a post office and a store.

All of these businesses were located around the millpond area – thus the name Merchants Millpond.

Every now and then a flash flood would come and wipe out part of the dam.

The dam was very important in that waterpower was required to run the sawmill and millstones in the gristmill.

When the dam would break, the entire community would come out and repair the dam. Sometime there would be 25 to 50 mules and carts loaded with dirt, boards, and other supplies.

When the dam broke, not only the mill stop, but also you couldn’t get your mail or go to the store because the road was closed.

Keeping the mill going was a community project.

The millhouse, which was approximately 25 to 30 feet was built over the water and supported on pilings.

Planks nailed to the millhouse formed the base of a covered bridge to handle the traffic in front of the millhouse.

Along the bridge was a long bench where people would sit and talk. There were very few cars during this period, but plenty of mules and carts or horses.

Since the first mill and dam were constructed the mill has been replaced several times.

There have also been several owners as well but now the State Park is the home to one of the most beautiful ecological treasures in the state and one of Gates County’s finest treasures.

Last year, Merchants Millpond was named by the Land for Tomorrow, a coalition dedicated to supporting the preservation of North Carolina’s land and water resources, as one of “North Carolina’s Ten Natural Wonders.”

Of the 1,300 nominations detailing special places across the Tar Heel State, Merchants Millpond made its way into the prestigious top-10.

Hailed as an “enchanted forest” – Merchants Millpond State Park is where coastal pond and southern swamp forest mingle, creating one of North Carolina’s rarest ecological communities. Together with upland forests, these environments create a haven for wildlife and humanity alike.

Canoeing is popular at the millpond. Individuals and groups can drift along the smooth, dark surface of the millpond and savor the many sights and sounds that come alive in the stillness of the forest.

Fishing is another key drawing card at the park, as well as an assortment of camping opportunities. There are picnic areas as well.

The park recently opened a new 6500-square-foot Visitor Center, one that boasts of exhibit space, an auditorium, classrooms, workspace and administrative offices, plus a 600-square-foot outdoor classroom. A trail leads from to the outdoor classroom at the edge of the pond.

Park officials have moved the canoe rental area to the Visitor Center. The old canoe rental space now serves as a boating access area for the millpond.

The Center also features a working classroom used for environmental education. Teachers and students from throughout North Carolina and Virginia are invited to use the classroom. There is no fee for this service (call 252-357-1191 or toll-free, 1-877-722-6762 or visit www.ncparks.gov to make reservations).

A short walk from the Center is an outdoor classroom/picnic shelter, which is open to the public. There are other short trails leading from the Center to the millpond, including one that is handicap-accessible.

Merchants Millpond, which attracts over 220,000 visitors a year, is open daily (except Christmas Day). Park hours are 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Fall and Spring); 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Winter) and 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Summer).

Camping reservations can be made by calling 877-722-6762.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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