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Tim Lisk, Regional Manager at Historic Yates Mill County Park, tells us what we can see, learn, and do at one of the most unique parks in the Wake County system.
A graduate of NC State and a Wake County native, park manager Tim Lisk has worked with Wake County Parks, Recreation and Open Space since 1990. Previously, he worked for North Carolina State Parks as a ranger. His assignment with Wake County PROS includes stops a Lake Crabtree County Park, Harris Lake County Park, the American Tobacco Trail and the Wake County Open Space program. Currently Tim is a regional manager at Historic Yates Mill County Park and Crowder County Park in addition to overseeing nearby open space properties.
Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. There’s a lot to be said about Historic Yates Mill County Park, but could you give us an overview of its mission?
This certainly is a good place to start with. Historic Yates Mill County Park is part of the Wake County Parks, Recreation and Open Space system. In the tradition of a great state which celebrates its past, cherishes its heritage and nurtures its resources for future generations, Historic Yates Mill County Park interprets and preserves our agricultural heritage, and its environmental and historical resources.
And at the same time, we also provide cultural enrichment and a sense of stewardship that is only made possible by public and private partnerships.
Many of us who have not yet been to the park still know that its centerpiece is beautiful Historic Yates Mill, if for no other reason than that they frequently pass it on adjoining Lake Wheeler Road. Can you tell us more about this magnificent and historic structure?
I need to start by telling you that Yates Mill served the local community as a water-powered mill for more than 200 years. It was established in the 1760s, and of the 70 gristmills that once served Wake County, Yates Mill is the only one still in operating condition.
This water-powered gristmill was an important economic and social center for residents of Wake County from colonial times through the 1950s when the mill finally closed for business.
Why were these gristmills so important back then?
Well, gristmills like this one provided the important service of grinding corn and wheat into meal and flour for nearby farmers. But in addition Yates Mill is also known to have had a sawmill associated with it. As a result it was able to also provided building materials to the growing community around it.
In rural areas of North Carolina, before towns or crossroad-stores developed, gristmills served as public gathering places for scattered rural populations. Millponds were popular locations for fishing, swimming and picnicking. Yates Millpond is again a popular gathering place, as it once was in the past.
You said that the mill closed in the 1950s. Can you please tell us how this property finally came to be a park?
Yes, mill restoration and the park itself are the results of a collaborative partnership primarily between NC State University, Yates Mill Associates and Wake County. The mill and the property surrounding it were purchased in 1963 by NC State University. Then the mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and was restored to working order through a grassroots community effort by 2005.
The park was actually developed by, and is managed by Wake County Parks, Recreation and Open Space.
The mill, mill pond and surrounding park land are leased to Wake County from NC State, and the nonprofit group Yates Mill Associates is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the mill.
The park first opened to the public in May 2006 and hosts over 130,000 visitors per year.
Is the mill itself open to the public? What can visitors expect to see?
A visit to this historic treasure provides an opportunity to learn about an integral aspect of rural life in the early days of settlement in Wake County.
The historic mill is actually open for guided tours and costumed corn-grinding demonstrations during the months of March through November each year. These are half-hour tours that include opportunities to view the main power drive and milling machinery while also learning about the mill’s history and preservation.
Are there any fees at the park?
While the park, the mill pond, the trails, and the land at the mill are all free, there is a small fee for the mill tours, with the funds going to directly support the nonprofit Yates Mill Associates and are used for maintenance and operations of Historic Yates Mill.
Yates Mill merchandise is also for sale on the third weekend of each month from March to November. And Yates Mill stone-ground cornmeal and postcards are available every day from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the park visitor center.
We understand that the mill isn’t the only thing to see at the park and that you also offer a number of programs throughout the year.
That’s right, Historic Yates Mill County Park offers public, educational programs for all ages year-round, including discovery tables, recreational adventures, summer camps, art exhibits and much more.
A full calendar of events is available at wakegov.com/yatesmill. And all of these programs are free!
And are there also programs available for school groups?
Yes, Historic Yates Mill County Park provides a wide variety of programs designed to enrich children's learning and classroom experiences. All our educational programs are designed to be compatible with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Our highly-trained volunteers and education staff lead groups throughout the historic site and park.
And all programs and tours at Historic Yates Mill County Park feature inquiry-based learning, a variety of interactive group activities and tours, and hands-on experiences that both enchant and educate.
What about trails? Do I need to be an experienced hiker to go exploring?
Not at all. Historic Yates Mill County Park offers three trails—no matter your experience level, you’ll find one you that you love and is right for you.
The Millpond Trail is a mile-long easy-to-moderate hike. This 6-foot wide trail heads past the Finley Center to the mill along a 600-foot long accessible gravel pathway that includes benches and picnic areas. This trail continues past the mill by way of a stone ramp, and then heads across the creek on a low bridge (may be closed during flooding). Hikers then walk up stone steps and through the old miller’s residence area on the south side of the pond and into the woods, passing the Field Classroom before coming to the Pond Boardwalk which leads to the parking lot.
The High Ridge Trail is a strenuous .8-mile hike along the ridges above the pond and through mixed old field pine and hardwood forests and north-facing bluffs. This linear trail extends from the wetlands boardwalk to the south side of the pond. When combined with part of the Millpond Trail, the trail length can be extended to a 1.25-mile loop.
Finally, the Creekside Trail is a moderate one-mile hike accessed from the north end of the Wetlands Boardwalk. It travels alongside Steep Hill Creek’s floodplain and crosses over several wetland areas by way of small footbridges and wooden walk-boards. After a short loop at the far end of the trail, hikers will retrace their steps on the same trail back to the Wetlands Boardwalk area (2 miles total).
A visit to Historic Yates Mill County Park isn’t complete without a stop at the A.E. Finley Center for Education Research. What can visitors find inside?
The Finley Center features a 2,200-square-foot exhibit hall containing artifacts and interpretive panels on local history, agriculture and the environment. There are also fun interactive activities including a historic dress-up corner.
This is a great place to start your visit. Grab a brochure and a park sticker, and say hello to our friendly turtle by the front desk. If you have any questions, staff is always on hand to help you out. You can also enjoy an excellent view of the pond and mill from a rocking chair on the building’s back porch.
Tell us about the role volunteers play at your park.
We like to say that our volunteers “keep the wheels turning.” Last year, volunteers generously donated more than 2,600 hours of their time to the park. We certainly could not provide the well-received programs, events and other services that we do without their help!
Volunteers have assisted mainly in the following areas: mill interpretation during guided tours, corn-grinding demonstrations, selling cornmeal, cooking products made with Yates Mill cornmeal, conducting historical research, making historically accurate period clothing, storytelling, helping with nature programs, maintaining and constructing trails, teaching craft-making, and participating in the Big Sweep cleanup, among other activities.
Anyone interested in volunteering can contact the park at 919-856-6675 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Historic Yates Mill County Park is located at 4620 Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh. It is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to sunset. The Finley Center is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The park and center are closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Dogs and other pets are prohibited. ADA service animals are welcome.
GPS directions can be tricky—be sure to navigate to the entrance of the park at 4620 Lake Wheeler Road.