Historic Yates Mill Historic & Natural & Cultural Significance

old black and white photo of historic mill from 1890

Yates Mill served Wake County as a water-powered mill for more than 200 years. Of the 70 gristmills that served Wake County, Yates Mill is the only one still in operating condition. The mill was an important economic and social center for residents.

The water-powered gristmill was an important economic and social center for residents of Wake County from colonial times through the early 1900s. Gristmills provided the important service of grinding corn and wheat into meal and flour.

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.

Mill Ownership

1750–1802, Samuel Pearson

1802–1819, Simon Pearson

1819–1853, William Boylan

1853–1863, John Primrose, James Dodd, Thomas Briggs, James Penny

1863–1902, Phares and Roxanna Yates

1902–1937, Robert E. Lee (R.E.L.) Yates

1937–1947, Minnie John Yates

1947, Trojan Sales Company/A.E. Finley Associates

1947–1963, NC Equipment Company/A.E. Finley Associates

1963–present, North Carolina State University (NCSU)

1989, Yates Mill Associates forms and begins mill restoration

1996, Park planning begins – NCSU and the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture agree to let Wake County use 558 acres for the park; Wake County purchased an additional 16-acre property upstream of the millpond

1999, Development of the 574-acre historic and environmental park begins

2006, Park (with the restored mill as its centerpiece) opens to public

The Mill's Long History

1750–1802, Samuel Pearson

Samuel Pearson, the mill's founder, is thought to have first acquired property in the Wake County area around 1750, when he purchased land from John Monk. The earliest known document related to Pearson's activity around Steep Hill Creek and the land that now surrounds the mill dates to 1756. This document, a request for a land survey, appears to include the land where Samuel's home stood. After this 1756 request, Samuel Pearson officially received the related land grant in 1761. In March 1763, Pearson submitted an entry, claiming ownership of the land where he built the mill. No subsequent documents were issued regarding this piece of land because the British land office ceased operation after the Earl of Granville's death later that year. The start of the American Revolution several years later further delayed the issuance of new land. Action was not taken until 1778, when the new State of North Carolina issued Pearson a survey for the same land he claimed in 1763. This survey is the first known document on file that specifically mentions the mill as already standing.

1802–1819, Simon Pearson

Samuel Pearson owned the mill until his death in 1802. In his will, he divided his land among his four sons, and intended the proceeds of the sale of his personal property to go to his six daughters. His son, Simon Pearson, received 340 acres of land that included the old mill. Because of debts owed to the State Bank of North Carolina, Simon Pearson was forced to sell his land, including the mill, in a sheriff's sale in 1819.

1819–1853, William Boylan

The sheriff sold the property for $3,031 to William Boylan, a prominent Raleigh businessman and director of the State Bank. Boylan established Raleigh's first newspaper, The Raleigh Minerva, by the close of the 19th century; he later also established the Raleigh Advertiser. He also served on the commission to build a new state capital. In order for the mill to continue as a successful business, Boylan made constant changes to the mill building and its operation. Architectural evidence shows that major renovations were likely made to the structure between 1820 and 1850. This most likely came in response to a flood in the early 1800s, which probably destroyed the original mill; however, despite that setback, Boylan had a sawmill operating at the mill by the 1840s.

1853–1863, John Primrose, James Dodd, Thomas Briggs, James Penny

Mr. Boylan owned the mill for 37 years. He sold it to John Primrose, Thomas H. Briggs and James Penny on June 30, 1853. In 1859, James Dodd bought Primrose’s share of the mill. Thomas H. Briggs was a prosperous Raleigh businessman who started a building materials business that continues today as Briggs Hardware. Briggs was Raleigh’s most influential post-Civil War businessman. Having converted his Confederate currency into silver before the war’s conclusion, Briggs was one of the few North Carolinians with money to invest during Reconstruction.

1863–1902, Phares and Roxanna Yates

On March 2, 1863, Penny, Dodd and Briggs sold the mill and 94 surrounding acres to Phares Yates. James Penny’s possible involvement in the murder of Hinton Franklin may have prompted the sale. Local legend says Franklin was a northern sympathizer whom Penny reportedly killed for not paying a $700 mill debt. Franklin's widow supposedly told Union troops that were occupying the Raleigh area in 1865 that her husband’s death was a result of his political beliefs. Allegedly, the troops tried to burn the mill by setting fire to the entrance porch. Charred wooden beams from the mill’s underside are possible evidence of the attempted burn. Court records show that Penny was tried for murder in December 1866 but was found not guilty.

1902–1937, Robert E. Lee (R.E.L.) Yates

old black and white photo of historic mill

Upon his death in 1902, Phares Yates left his real estate and the mill on Steep Hill Creek to his son, Robert E. Lee (R.E.L.) Yates, a math professor at North Carolina State College. R.E.L. Yates left the land and the mill to his wife, Minnie Johns Yates, when he passed away on December 28, 1937.

1937–1947, Minnie John Yates

Ten years later, Minnie Yates and her son Wilbur sold the mill to the Trojan Sales Company, a subsidiary of A.E. Finley Associates. The title was later transferred to the North Carolina Equipment Company, another subsidiary of A.E. Finley Associates. A.E. Finley built a retreat lodge for use by his family and employees on the millpond. The mill continued operation until the 1950s, when it closed for lack of business.

1963–present, North Carolina State University (NCSU)

North Carolina State University obtained title to the mill and the pond in 1963. The property was part of a 1,000-acre tract that was purchased for use by North Carolina State University Field Laboratory’s experimental farms and demonstration fields. Shortly after the University obtained the property, John Daniel Lea – the miller who had worked at the mill since 1898 – operated the mill for the last time as a demonstration.

1989, Yates Mill Associates forms and begins mill restoration

Old color photo of the mill  before restoration, with ivy growing on the sides and parts falling apart

After the mill shut down for business, it began to fall into disrepair. In 1989, the nonprofit group Yates Mill Associates (YMA) formed to preserve and restore the mill. In 1996, after stabilizing the mill building, YMA approached Wake County with a proposal to turn Yates Mill into a county park. Park planning between NC State, YMA, Wake County and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began, and the Wake County Board of Commissioners approved the park's master plan in 1997.

1996, Park planning begins

In 2001 N.C. State leased 157 acres to Wake County. In addition, Wake County bought 16 acres upstream and signed a memorandum of understanding with the N.C. Department of Agriculture for the development of hiking trails on 400 acres of land upstream from the pond. Shortly after park planning began, Hurricane Fran breached the dam, drained the millpond and caused the shed to collapse in the fall of 1996. The mill and its pond were badly damaged, but not beyond repair. Restoration of the mill and its grinding machinery was finally finished in 2005.

1999, Development of the 174-acre historic and environmental park begins

Construction of the visitor center for the park began in summer 2003, and was completed in April 2006. Historic Yates Mill County Park opened to the public May 20, 2006. Tours of Yates Mill are available to the public March through November, and corn-grinding demonstrations are offered the third weekend of each month during that time.

Discover Nature at Wake County Parks and Preserves

NRID - Natural Resources Inventory Database

Want to explore the wildlife and plants seen at our Wake County Parks and Preserves from home? Check out the Wake County Natural Resources Inventory Database! Anyone can use it – whether you're a birdwatcher, teacher, student, citizen scientist or just curious about nature. Explore data and photos, print checklists, or discover fun nature facts here.