It's hard to recognize today, but Shull's Mills was once the most industrious area of Watauga County. Like Todd on the western end, Shulls Mills was a railroad stop with a thriving community around it.
Shulls Mills was the toll road between the Valle Crucis area and Blowing Rock around the turn of the century, with a general store, post office, hotel, and church, with many travelers passing through. But the settlement really came to life when William Scott Whiting located a bandmill site on the Watauga River nearby. Whiting Lumber Company began buying timberland around the region, with operations beginning in 1917. A railway was built to Shulls Mills and eventually on into Boone. A small spur railway ran along Boone's Fork to help with the hauling of timber to the band mill. Still, trees were cut and loaded by hand and much of the hauling was done by draft animals.
The population of Shulls Mills expanded from around a hundred and fifty to more than a thousand, as men moved their families near the mill where they worked. Four dams were built to help collect and route the logs that were to be cut and also to generate electricity to operate the large saws. A railroad bridge spanned the river, and other businesses quickly sprouted to served the workers.
The first railway depot consisted of two boxcars. A grain and feed store, barber shop, hospital and doctor's offices, and a movie theater were built. A couple of churches helped meet the spiritual needs of the sawyers. But fortunes rose and fell quickly as thousands of acres of timber were rapidly cleared, and the bandmill soon cut itself out of business.
Around 1925, Whiting moved his operations to several other mountain locations. Many of the people who had worked in the Shulls Mills plant took jobs elsewhere, leaving the area unable to support all the new businesses. A flood in 1940 wiped out the railroad beds, and there wasn't enough business or interest to justify rebuilding. Today, the remnants of a dam below Highway 105 is one of the most visible reminders of the days when railroads ruled and the timber industry cuts its path across the mountains.
Cooperative Cheese Making
In the era after World War I, corn was declining as the cash crop of choice among High Country farmers, and tobacco had yet to dominate, though more and more people were getting allotments. Instead, some people put their heads together to establish small cheese factories.
The North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service helped set up the factories. The factories were built with water supplied by fresh-water springs. A steam boiler would supply heating water, often heated by coal or wood as electricity had not reached many rural areas. The heat was also used to help process the milk into cheese curd.
The job started in the barns of the region as people drew the milk from their dairy cows each morning. Farmers delivered their milk to the factory by horse-drawn cart or wagon, with the milk in five- or ten-gallon containers. Farmers were paid based on the fat content of their milk. The milk then went into a large processing vat that held about 200 gallons of milk, depending on the size of the factory.
The milk was heated in the processing vat until it "clabbered." A wire screen with a frame was lowered on the curd to cut it into square blocks. The whey that was squeezed out ran into a barrel or trough outside, where farmers could collect it to feed to hogs. The curd was worked up to squeeze all the whey out until the curd began to solidify.
The curd was chopped into finger-sized pieces and placed into hoops. The hoops were over a foot in diameter and six inches deep. Cheese cloth was placed inside the iron hoops, and the curd was packed inside as tightly as possible. The hoops were then placed round-side down in rows along the length of the cheese press. The press was tightened by hand, squeezing the rows of hoops to get rid of the last of the whey. After a day or two in the press, the hoops were removed and the cheese was placed in a cool room for storage and aging.
Before shipping, the rounds of cheese were dipped in paraffin wax for sealing. They were then shipped out to stores and wholesalers across the region. As transportation methods and roads improved, the days of hauling a wagon-load of cheese barrels off the mountain for money began to dwindle. But for all who stood in that room with the rich aroma of milk or who nibbled a handful of warm curd, they must have felt wealthy indeed.
A Hard Road Through The Mountains
Believe it or not, a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper tourists wasn't always the norm in the High Country. Before the 1920's, the area was often called "The Lost Province" because of the lack of passable roads.
With the explosion of the automobile industry, more people began to clamor for good roads. In the latter part of the 1800's, many roads were either built through local financing or through "involuntary volunteer" labor, in which men between the ages of 18 and 45 required to work four days a year in some areas.
Some places used toll roads to generate funds, much to the dismay of poor farmers who were transporting produce off the mountain for sale. In addition to a turnpike at Shulls Mills, and one between Blowing Rock and Lenoir allowed Watauga residents free passage.
The 1921 General Assembly finally established the state highway system, with a one-cent tax on gasoline to help pay for construction. Prominent High Country players in the political scramble to develop roads were Frank Linney, D.D. Dougherty, and Mary Martin Sloop. A $50 million road bond was approved, and even early on there was official recognition of needing to "rescue the hillbillies."
Frank Page, who was chair of the newly-formed State Highway Commission in 1924, wrote: "It does not have to be argued to them (mountain people) that roads have a civilizing influence, that through these means of communication the 'Lost Provinces' of the northwest, beyond their impenetrable mountains and two days' journey from the capital of their state, have been brought within seven hours of respectable speed...The whole state is knit together in this net of highways."
By the end of the decade, the state had assumed responsibility for secondary-road maintenance. Counties gave up their equipment to the state, and allowed use of convicts to supply labor. Many counties leased their convicts to other counties that used chain gang labor. The "Good Roads State" that was a dream in the 1910's became a reality in the 1920's, with state citizens voting for a total of $117 million worth of road bonds in the decade. Over 7,500 miles were built, more than half with hard surfaces such as asphalt, macadam, concrete, or gravel. During that period, only Texas had more surfaced roads than North Carolina.
Remember those lofty words the next time you are sitting in traffic debating whether to clamp down on the car horn.