Darden Mill: Recent Progress

Darden Mill - old photo with train

Darden Mill Restoration

by Eva Gutierrez, AFHA AmeriCorps

The final phases of the Darden Mill renovation are on the horizon for C-HOPE (Community for Historical Opportunity, Preservation and Education in Randolph County) and AFHA (Appalachian Forest Heritage Area). These organizations have a vision for the adaptive reuse of the once dilapidated grain mill that was “Jack the King” junk shop, a vision which includes the AFHA headquarters, a forest heritage museum, and an artisan studio space.

With recent funding provided by a USDA Rural Development grant and with labor continued by a new AFHA AmeriCorps teams, the non-profits’ enthusiasm is at an all-time high. Phyllis Baxter, AFHA Director, expects to have the bulk of the renovation completed within two years. She says she can finally “see the end of the tunnel financially,” with the $99,500 grant in hand. Private donations to match the grants are still needed, but the amount still needed is “achievable.”

This month concludes the service of AFHA’s pioneer AmeriCorps team, as a new batch of workers settles into town. House painter and local activist, Joe Sabatino headed up the Mill Crew which included archaeologist Joan Pitts, and myself, Eva Gutierrez. I look back on my unheated winter at the mill with a sense of humor.

An average lunch-break around the work-bench found us with faces covered in soot, fingers stuck together with paint, clutching cups of Kissel Stop coffee like they were our last links to the world of the warm-blooded. The coffee was graciously provided by Ed Devine, free-wheeling on-site contractor, who taught us non-carpenters more than a thing or two about construction.

Darden Mill Workers 2008

Some of the projects we collaborated on include demolition of all false walls and ceilings, lifting a sunken column, concrete pours of a structural nature, and erecting interior walls. Long forgotten geometry skills and newly raging biceps came to the forefront of volunteerism.

Hidden caches of old whiskey bottles and dated risqué postcards spurred on the AmeriCorps team as we sorted through broken windows and old mattresses left behind from the Jack the King days. In addition to the over-abundance of stuff, an almost unwarranted amount of dust begged our attention. We spent three weeks cleaning the exposed ceiling which was charred from two previous fires in the building, and painting it with shellac primer to seal in the cinder dust.

One of the most rewarding projects we worked on is the construction and installation of freight door replicas. We modeled the cedar Z-frame doors off of existing parts that we found in the building. Sabatino is particularly proud of the doors: “Every time I drive by them I think, ‘Look at those doors! We built those doors! The AmeriCorps.’ And I’d bet that the rest of the team does too.”

New Darden Mill Doors 2008

“The work from AmeriCorps,” says Grace Sundelin, C-Hope Vice President and Secretary, “jump-started our engine and helped us move forward in a very noticeable way,” -- a feat for such a “long-term project.”

Exciting new tasks in the mill restoration await the coming season. With heat infra-structure ready to go, the incoming volunteers will be able to forge through those harsh winter months without any nasty caffeine addictions to boot.

Sabatino plans to serve a second term with AmeriCorps and will continue to coordinate the service at the mill. In his younger days, he left West Virginia “in search of greener pastures when the coal mines closed,” but despite economic hardships, he has returned to his home. According to Sabatino, the mill project could “help us keep our most valuable resources here at home – where they belong.”

How does a lot of paint and sweat in an old grain mill on the tracks affect such noble causes? Other than the renovated train depot, the Darden Mill building is the only original building left in the Elkins rail yard. The building itself shows the connection between railroads and industry in West Virginia. In fact, the west wall is made of railroad masonry, and several freight doors face the tracks.

Attractions in the Darden Mill building will showcase the cultural and natural heritage of the area to promote a local identity that is marketable. The goal of this project is to engage the local community and create a path to economic development based on the tourism of what makes this particular region unique.

Spinner O’Flaherty, president of C-HOPE, hopes that the educational opportunities at the mill can invest people in the area, which will in turn benefit the local community. The business-owned excursion train rides, a new railroad-themed restaurant, and the family-themed Mountain Theater, all in the rail-yard, have O’Flaherty concerned that Elkins needs to provide a balanced approach to tourism development. He says Elkins might become “a Branson of the East.” Branson is a successful tourist town where tourism has overwhelmed the local community - which he describes as “a Disneyland for Middle America.” O’Flaherty believes that museums and cultural attractions like the AFHA Discovery Center in the Mill and the planned railroad museum can help to “keep that in check” so that what is special about our town is not lost in the commercialization.

When asked about promotion of local attractions to tourists, Amanda See, director of the excursion train rides, said, “That’s what people are here for – to see what the area’s about.”

Jim Schoonover, director of the West Virginia Railroad Museum being developed near the Train Depot, says that as Elkins “matures as a tourist area,” attractions will be marketed in packages. He recognizes a “commonality in history” between railroading and forest industry in West Virginia, but says that what it boils down to is “C-HOPE needs to find a way to make their museum sexy to tourists.”

Darden Mill Bridge View

“It’s gonna draw people who’ve come to West Virginia looking for small town heritage experiences,” says Sundelin of the forest heritage museum. She thinks that such a museum is important because “the forest has been the economic back-bone of the area.” “The tracks wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the timber industry.”

One of the main goals for the proposed facilities in the Darden Mill is to contribute to “the whole attraction of Randolph County as an arts and tourism destination” in a non-competitive manner. $9,500 of the USDA grant awarded to the project is designated to local artisan business development in the Mill.

Judy Van Gundy, a local white oak basket weaver and long-time supporter of the Darden Mill Renovation, is enthusiastic about the new facilities’ potential. As a founding member of the Elkins Wood-Workers’ Co-op, where artists pay dues of $25 a month to use the tools and facilities of the Wood Tech Center, she would like to see an artisan co-op with demonstrations and a gift shop housed inside the mill. One of Van Gundy’s main concerns is that the gift shop feature local goods – anything from wild edibles to carved bowls – rather than “knick-knacks made in China.”

“Elkins is recognizing it as part of a whole package,” says O’Flaherty of the adaptive reuse of the Darden Mill, C-HOPE’s initial endeavor. “We’re hoping that this is not our last project as C-HOPE.”