Business profile: Ruth Wellborn, Ely’s Mill

historic-ely-s-millBy Jim Eastin

When the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in Gatlinburg is open, thousands of people each month pass by Ely’s Mill. Those who stop are in for a treat. Ely’s Mill has been the trail’s first sign of “city life” since 1925 when it was built by Andrew Jefferson Ely. He was a Yale Law School graduate and Tennessee lawyer who came to the area for a change after his wife’s death. In the mill, he featured local craftspeople and blacksmithing. By 1940, it had grown to almost 20 buildings and had a grand reputation.

During those years Ruth, his granddaughter, who was his wife’s namesake, entered the story. She was his favored one and spent many hours at the mill and in the little store with her grandfather. Andrew would always tell her to take anything she wanted from the store when she left from visiting. When she was a little girl, it would always be some candy or a trinket. Once, however, she picked out a valuable heirloom. He paused before letting her take it, but just long enough to say, “That’s a fine piece.”

Much changed in the intervening years. Andrew was gone and the mill fell on hard times. By 1970, Ruth’s family had long been relocated to Virginia in search of better wages, but Andrew’s spirit had remained with Ruth. She felt a strong compulsion to return.

“I left Virginia at 17,” Ruth said. “I had lived there, but it was never home. I missed the cool grass and the creatures.” I finished school at UT and returned here in 1974. The roofs had caved in and the windows were all broken out.”

Ruth remembered the place as it once was and saw the potential to bring it back. She had no money. So, she worked at an animal shelter fixing up the mill as she could. “I ate a lot of beans and rice,” she laughs. “Then I got married to Paul and he helped out.” Progress was slow while she cared for parents and children. During that time she learned to weave and spin and met others who made crafts. Eventually, the mill’s little store reopened and kept growing as people would stop after driving the Motor Nature Trail. “Over the last 7-10 years,” she said, “the number of people stopping has increased. That has really helped us.”

A few years years ago, Ruth began landscaping the area by a waterfall and started adding weddings as a reason to come there. She has added some rustic rental cabins and returned bee keeping to the mill. This year Pete Lamon will demonstrate wood turning and furniture making and his wife Stella, a fifth generation weaver will be operating there.

Amid the smell of fried pies and homemade goods, Boogertown Gap will be bringing live music two or three days a week. “It took 40 years to get here, but it is now supporting itself.”

What is in store for the future at the mill? “I want to expand the local crafts and get the waterwheel and the grinding wheel working again,” she said. “I want this place to look like it belongs here again. I want to live here and have a good life and keep on restoring it. And I will because I still love beans and rice.”

Ruth will tell you just as she’ll show you her “treasure” her grandfather let her take from the store, as the heirloom has been returned to its spot.

Ely’s Mill is at the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, but one can also get there in the shorter direction by going up Roaring Fork Road. The address is P.O. Box 73, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. The phone number is (865) 719-4078.

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