Town and developers team up to preserve Vinton landmark – why does Gish Mill matter?

By Debbie Adams

Vinton Town Council adopted a resolution on April 7 approving a contract for the conveyance of 1.154 acres of property known as Gish Mill from the town to developers David Hill and David Trinkle. They have formed Gish Mill Davii, LLC, to redevelop the historic mill, parts of which are well over 200 years old.

The town purchased the property, then known as Holdren’s Country Store, in November 2015 in order to preserve and rehabilitate the property for commercial use.

A painting now on display at the Vinton History Museum representing the original Gish Mill.

The 14,000-square-foot structure was a former gristmill and farm supply retail and warehouse, operated continuously since the 1770s. The mill is so iconic to the town that it is featured on the Town Seal.

Since making the purchase, the town has completed environmental assessments, initiated a historic review necessary for Virginia Landmark and National Register of Historic Place designations, and established a conceptual plan for the property with input from the public.

According to a 1993 Virginia Department of Historic Resources Reconnaissance Survey of Architectural and Historical Resources in Vinton in cooperation with the Roanoke Regional Preservation Office, Gish Mill was the earliest known industry in what is now Vinton, dating back to around 1800.

Photo of Gish Mill water wheel and dam

David Gish, Sr. was granted a permit by the Botetourt County Clerk’s Office in 1798 to build a mill along Glade Creek. It is unclear exactly when the original mill was built, but the Roanoke County Land Book of 1846 shows that David Gish, Jr. had a $5,000 improvement for a new mill on Glade Creek. The gristmill was the source for the area being referred to as Gish’s Mill (and many variations thereof) into the 1870s.

The original structure has modern additions built around it and can be viewed only from the rear or interior. The mill is constructed of brick, is three stories high and at one time had a gambrel roof. A water wheel was once situated at the creek side but was removed and destroyed during an earlier remodeling. The concrete dam has been partially removed, due somewhat to flooding in recent years and lack of repair.

The 1993 report continued, “Holdren’s Country Store occupies the building now and has made several additions. The manager advised that the original belts and pulleys associated with the mill are still in use today. A granary storage area and loading docks have been added and the modem facade hides the historical importance of this building. The mill was the primary industry in the area throughout the 1800s; giving the location its early name as Gishes Mill, until Vinton became incorporated in 1884.”

The report concluded that the mill building has historical significance as the “place where Gish’s Mill began.”

A history of local mills compiled by Alfred Tuck of the Vinton Historical Society states that “David Gish settled on Glade Creek in 1795 and erected two gristmills. One mill was built on Glade Creek in the early 1800s and the other on Wolf Creek in 1839. The Glade Creek mill was sold to Isaac W. Vinyard in 1867, and he continued to run it for a number of years. He is said to have led a group of men from Roanoke out west in covered wagons looking for gold. He returned with so many gold nuggets that he was able to purchase the mill.

A dam across Glade Creek and water from the race turned the wheel that turned the equipment. Later the mill became known as Vinton Roller Mill.

Deedie Kagey wrote in her book “When Past is Prologue: A History of Roanoke County” that “there were two major industries in Vinton in the early 1900s, Virginia Etna Springs and the Vinton Roller Mills. Those mills grew out of the original mills built and operated by David Gish and his brother.

“James William Bowie leased the mill in the early 20th century. Under Bowie’s management the mill produced three kinds of flour in sacks and barrels. By 1924 the operation was re-organized into Vinton Milling Company and Glade Creek continued to supply the major portion of the power, just as in the early days.”

Gish’s Mill became Vinton Milling Company in the 1940’s.

The mill is said to have burned several times and was rebuilt. The last rebuilding was in 1946 when it was known as Vinton Milling Company.

According to “Vinton History 1884 to 1984,” the business was acquired by John W. Eshelman and Sons, Inc. in January 1956. He operated a custom grinding and feed mixing business. The business was eventually purchased by the Holdren family.

Gish Mill finally became Holdren’s Country Store.

Michael Pulice, Architectural Historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, surveyed the mill in February 2015 and described the building as an having an “intact three-story brick core, most of which has not been heavily altered since the 19th century, and not at all modified since milling operations ceased, many years ago.” He noted the exterior brickwork consists of handmade brick. A few windows are original to the site.

“The exceptionally deep, dark basement has not been used since milling ceased, hence it appears much like it always did – the tall, mostly uncoursed stone foundation walls, heavy timber posts and beams, first-floor joists and floorboards, as well as two grain hoppers, one intact piece of milling machinery, and a number of machinery belt wheels, are easily observable,” he said. “A heavy timber window lintel over an infilled void in the east wall exhibits a charred outer surface suggesting a fairly catastrophic conflagration took place at some point in the building’s history.”

The rear exterior of Gish Mill in recent years.

Pulice noted, “The old brick mill at the center of the existing building appears to date to the mid-19th century and might be potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places if some or all of its added appendages are removed, and the modern materials associated with the recent retail business are removed from the first-floor interior space.”

A “cursory structural inspection” of the mill site by Day & Kinder Consulting Engineers in July 2017 pointed out the need for “structural remediation” in many areas of the building, and even removing certain sections.

The town issued a Request for Proposals for the project for the third time in November 2019 and received a proposal from Gish Mill Davii, LLC to convert the historic property into a mixed-use development to include a small restaurant, hospitality (five rental rooms with an Airbnb model), a basement speakeasy (for tasting spirits), and a local retail operation with locally sourced products – similar to a country store.

The redevelopment project will utilize historic tax credits to accomplish the redevelopment with an expected investment of approximately $2 million.

The contract is subject to several terms during a nine-month due diligence period. This includes negotiating terms for a performance agreement with the town and Roanoke County in the form of development incentive grants, applying for an Industrial Revitalization Fund grant ($600,000), successfully securing historic designations to access historic tax credits, and securing necessary private financing and historic grant funding, prior to closing on the property in late 2020 or early 2021.

Town Council appeared to be delighted to approve the purchase, especially since it involved David Hill, who has proven his mettle with his collaboration with the town during the downtown revitalization project and then as one of the developers of the Roland E. Cook Lofts.

Economic Development Director Pete Peters and Hill made a presentation to council on the complex project, which they explained is “challenging” but has the potential to offer a unique dining, hospitality, and shopping experience.

Gish Mill interior

Trinkle says they are approaching the project with “a healthy level of hesitation,” due to structural issues in some areas of the building and possible “hidden obstacles.” Historic tax credits are imperative for the project to go forward financially.

Hill said that he believes the timing is right for the venture given the current leadership in Vinton and the need to begin preservation efforts on the “incredibly important” historic site quickly. When completed Gish Mill will be a unique destination in the valley – where else will you be able to dine outside on the veranda of a 200-year-old mill watching a stream flow by?

A conceptual drawing of potential plans for Gish Mill.


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