Originally in Cades Cove, families ground their own corn in small inefficient tub mills at their home. The tub mills were only capable of processing a bushel of corn each day. And the only grain that tub mills could process was corn. A handful of enterprising residents in Cades Cove built water driven mills to grind grain. Their hope was that other Cades Cove families would prefer paying them to grind the grain. The beauty of the waterwheel driven mills was that they could not only grind other grains, but the waterwheel could also be used to power a saw mill. Now residents could have their wheat ground into flour, and biscuits could be eaten some of the time instead of just cornbread, and their logs turned into lumber.
One of those people who developed their own mill was John P. Cable. He built his water-powered grist and sash sawmill around 1870. A sash sawmill used a heavy reciprocating blade that cut a short distance into a log with each downward stroke. This was not the most efficient way to saw logs, and a very slow way to turn logs into lumber. But this is what was available until around 1900 when circular disc saws with toothed edges, powered by steam engines came into use.
In the history of Cades Cove, the saw mills were important because they changed the way people built houses. Before the saw mills, homes were built of logs. Once sawmills came more into general use, people stopped building log cabins. the homes were built almost exclusively of lumber and frame construction. Also, most owners of the log homes in Cades Cove bought lumber for siding to cover the fact that they were living in old fashioned cabins.
John Cable was not only a miller and operator of a sawmill, but also a farmer. A large bell was mounted on a poll for customers to ring when he was out in the field. Payment for grinding grain did not always mean money exchanged hands in Cades Cove. Sometimes money was paid, but it was not unusual for a miller to be paid with a portion of the resulting flour or meal.
John’s son, James, helped his father run these operations, and eventually inherited the mill, too. James Cable operated it well into the twentieth century. But he ceased to run the sawmill when it became very evident he could not compete with the steam engine run mills.
The Cable Mill is still in operation today, run by The Great Smoky Mountains Association as an historical exhibit. You may watch the corn being ground and buy a bag or two to take home with you! The grinding stone in operation today is said to be in it’s 110th year. It is the same stone that John Cable ground grain with for his community!