Katy Did It
Rustic charm abounds at a historic mill house in eastern Guilford County
By Nancy Oakley
“Down by the old mill stream, where I first met you . . .” So goes the chorus to the old ditty, an early 20th century chart-topper and a standard among barbershop quartets today. The song’s popularity likely owes something to its nostalgic yearning for place: a stream ruffled by the rhythmic churning of a mill wheel. One can’t help but wonder if a similar yearning stirred the imagination of one Katheryn “Kate” Pettygrew, the daughter of a wealthy Mississippi planter. In 1930, while visiting family in eastern Guilford County, she chanced upon an old sawmill on Little Alamance Creek and decided to make it her home.
“She was a pioneer in sustainability, reclaiming materials,” says Wick Jacobi, owner and creative director of Diesel + Dust Brand Imaging in Greensboro. He lives in the 4,000-square-foot mill house off McConnell Road with wife Sabrina and their teenage son, and recently listed the property. “She used lumber from nearby structures that was likely milled here, in essence, bringing it home again.” Sabrina adds, “She really enclosed the mill.”
Quite a feat, considering the mill was constructed around 1835 and is believed to be the oldest in North Carolina. For years, it was owned and operated by Oliver Boone, who is buried in the cemetery of Alamance Presbyterian Church. At different times, the mill carded wool, ginned cotton and made handles of plows known as Troxler cultivators. Among Kate’s many innovative touches was to use the handles as stair railings. By 1920, the structure had fallen into disrepair, as lumber mills often did, Sabrina explains, because “they were open to weather, unlike grist mills that protected what was inside.”
For anyone to convert an industrial property into a residential one was unheard of in rural, Depression-era North Carolina — unless, like Kate, you had wherewithal, imagination and gumption. “She moved to the property with a helper, a gun and a dog,” wrote Greensboro’s News & Record columnist Doris Dale Paysour in 1990, when the mill was a stop on a house tour. Kate would transform the place, adding a screened porch, installing a large stone fireplace in the 30-by-30 living room, and a second-story bedroom. “[It’s] an incredible piece of history capturing the creativity and care of someone,” Wick noted, reeling off another ingenious detail: “The upper cabinets in the guest house [formerly the mill’s office] were built from shutters of a slave cabin decommissioned from a museum.”
According to local lore, the changes prompted locals to wonder, “Who did what to the mill?” And the response, “Katy did.” Which is how the property acquired the moniker Katydid Mill.
The Jacobis wonder if the mill house were used as a lodge, given its rustic accents, such generous use of pine paneling. “It looks like a hunting lodge, and she had about 40 acres,” Wick notes. And though the house occupies nearly 3 acres today, he says there is still a profusion of wildlife: “You’ll see fox, deer, bobcats, large turtles — like in the mountains around Asheville.”
Certainly, it was quite the hub of social activity. After moving in a dozen years ago, the Jacobis acquired a log filled with signatures of visitors — many of them well-known in the Triad — who paraded in and out of Katydid: Greensboro society columnist Anne Cantrell White; Mrs. William Y. Preyer; Mrs. Charles Vanstory; Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Burnett (who developed the O.R.D. during World War II); Mrs. A.W. McAlister; Mrs. Charles Hagan; Mrs. Frank A. Stith of Winston-Salem. A multitude of guests passed through from farflung places, such as New York, Connecticut, Virginia, even Buenos Aires.
After the Jacobis moved to the mill, some of their elderly neighbors, now long gone, would stop by and share memories of the place. “One lady in the 1940s recalled sitting on the breezeway sipping mint juleps,” Sabrina says with a chuckle. Another old-timer remembered the place before Kate bought it, regaling Sabrina with childhood tales of ice-skating on the frozen mill pond in winter and opening its sluice gates, unwittingly setting millworks in motion. According to his descriptions, Sabrina says, “The mill pond used to be bigger. Kate narrowed it, made it more English, romantic, with stone [mill] races.” The older gent also remembered a glass floor above the mill wheel, after Kate renovated the place.
Today the wheel is concealed and it is a newer one, installed by a previous owner, the late Ruth McCracken, longtime director of the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, who bought and moved in during the winter of 1985. Nearly a decade later, as she recalled to the News & Record, “It was so cold, the dog’s water in the kitchen froze.” McCracken replaced the old boiler, septic system, some siding and, of course, the water wheel that turns underneath the kitchen, which she also enlarged.
By the time the Jacobis moved in, the kitchen was due for an upgrade. They added all the sleek accouterments to it, replaced the roof, pulled up old carpet and linoleum, and did extensive renovations to the guesthouse, where Sabrina’s parents often came to stay. With their two older children still at home at the time, the mill house easily accommodated the family of five, with its casually elegant wood interiors, four bedrooms and three baths. And just as in Kate Pettygrew’s day, the surrounding hardwoods and view of the millpond have provided the perfect ambience for outdoor entertaining, made easier by a number of places to cook. “I have an oven in the guesthouse, an oven-and-a-half, a convection oven-and-a-half in the house,” Sabrina laughs, before pausing. “It’s funny; people ask us, ‘Will you miss the water?’ We only notice it when it’s not running.”
For as much as the Jacobis have loved the run of the mill in their not-so-run-of-the-mill home, the nest is emptying. It’s time to move on. Time for someone else to move in and make new memories in this place rife with fox, and deer and turtles, whose past bears the echoes of grinding of saws, the clink of ice in mint julep cups . . . and the ever-present rhythm of a water wheel.
Vital Details: 4246 McConnell Road, McCleansville
Priced at $949,500
Contact John-Mark Mitchell
Mitchell Prime Properties