RALEIGH — Just as the millers who ground corn and wheat at Yates Mill might have kept a portion of each job as their pay, Wake County now relies on a portion of donated labor to help keep the mill running as the centerpiece of Yates Mill County Park.
They especially need volunteers who might commit to serving as interpreters at the historic site, telling visitors about the mill and its place in the development of agriculture and technology.
“We couldn’t do some of the things we do without our volunteers,” said Chris Snow, director of Wake County Parks, Recreation and Open Space. “It’s just amazing what they do.”
With a budget of $2.4 million this year and the equivalent of 33 full-time employees in eight parks, the county relies on the more than 6,000 hours of labor provided by an army of volunteers each year. Like their counterparts in city, state and national parks, they pick up trash from waterways, clear debris from trails, hand out information to visitors, and help with games and activities such as those to be held at Yates Mill’s annual Harvest Celebration, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Volunteers in 1860s-era costumes will be running the mill, and other helpers will lead children in making corn-husk dolls and leaf puppets, painting pumpkins, weaving ornaments from wheat, making harvest-time bracelets, and playing games such as hobby-horse races and Colonial hoop-and-stick races.
The celebration also will include musicians, a storyteller, food vendors, and displays of old tractors, farm equipment and vintage cars.
Volunteers have their reasons
Snow said volunteers come to the parks for different reasons. Many are scouts or high school or college students looking to do community service. A few are performing court-ordered community service work, and others are there because they have a special affinity for a particular park.
Some volunteers, such as hikers and off-road cyclists, just want to make sure the activities they enjoy will continue to be available, so they help maintain what they use. Area businesses also organize groups of volunteers to work in county parks.
The park a volunteer loves enough to work in for free, Snow said, “is the one where you visit. It’s where you take your kids, where you go to walk your dog. Whatever has brought you to that park initially, eventually you’re like, ‘Well, I’m up here all the time anyway, couldn’t I do something?’ ”
That’s how Jenny Haase came to lead tours at Yates Mill, on Lake Wheeler Road. The Cary resident visited the park one day a few years ago and noticed it was looking for volunteers. Haase does a lot of work in the community, generally in the field of social services, such as working with inmates at Women’s Prison.
At Yates Mill, she said, “I volunteered without really knowing what I would be doing. But when the volunteer coordinator asked, ‘Would you like to be an interpreter?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try it.’ ”
Tours of the mill are organized by the nonprofit Yates Mill Associates, which uses the small fees it charges to do maintenance on the mill. Recently, the group replaced the roof, and this winter, will rebuild the box that water flows into when it’s released from the pond and allowed to run over the wheel, bringing the mill machinery inside to life.
While park employees can lead mill tours, most are done by volunteers who are trained on different themes. The 30-minute Little Red Hen tour, for preschoolers and kindergarteners, teaches children where wheat, milk and eggs come from, and how the Little Red Hen’s grain is ground into flour.
The hour-long History Detective tour, aimed at elementary school children, lets students solve mysteries and discover how people lived in Wake County’s farming communities more than a century ago. And the Mill Heritage tour, for middle school and up, is 60 minutes of the global history of mills and their importance to their communities.
The last mill standing
At one time, Wake County had 70 gristmills. Yates – which operated until the 1950s and was bought by N.C. State University in 1963 – is the last one standing. It is now leased by the county, which opened it as a park in 2006.
Jennifer Miller, park technician and volunteer coordinator at Yates Mill, said it’s relatively easy to get volunteers to work occasionally in the park; she has about 100 who will be there Saturday. It’s more of a challenge to get people to commit more for the long term, such as the mill’s regular grinding weekends, held every third Saturday and Sunday from March to November, or for the school group tours, nearly all of which happen during the week.
Haase enjoys taking children through the mill. She also has been trained as a mill operator, which means she gets to open the gate to let the water run onto the wheel.
“That’s a very dramatic moment,” she says, and she loves to see the children’s faces “when the water rushes out over the top of the water wheel and the water wheel begins to turn. When they come inside, the wheel is still turning, so things inside the mill, gears, are moving. It’s loud. It’s a kind of clanking, crude mechanical sound.”
Margaret Lillard, president of Yates Mill Associates, which raises money and recruits volunteers for the park, knows that moment and relishes it, too. A former reporter for the Associated Press, she says she is a natural as a tour guide, which she volunteered to do not long after buying a house within walking distance of the mill.
“I’m a big blabbermouth, and I love to get up and tell what I know,” she said.