Before this morning I’d never heard of Martha McGee Bell and her famous mill, but by two in the afternoon I was a budding expert on the Revolutionary War heroine. It started first thing, when the assignment manager accosted me at my desk, uprooting me from a comfy slouch with talk of flood zones, map-books and lost treasure. Before I could wrap my mind around what my colleague was babbling about, I was processing through stop lights on the South side of town. Stealing glances at the crumpled printout before me, I dialed the number as I drove. A male voice answered a scratchy connection.
“Hi Mr. Strader, This is Stewart from Fox 8, ya got a minute to talk to me?”
I hurtled down Highway 311, listening intently as the warm and informed voice on the cell phone filled in a few centuries of detail. After scratching out directions on notepad, I convinced the concerned viewer to let me meet him later at his place of employment. I hung up and squinted through the windshield at the TV tower in the distance. Yet another jaunt into the Great Unknown, I thought - a strange way to spend Memorial Day I‘ll grant you, but that’s quite simply the gig I got.
A few minutes later Walker’s Mill road ended abruptly. I parked and unloaded, setting my tripod high on the roadside perch. Across the crumbling asphalt, a wide open expanse of rolling terrain stretched out toward a tree-ringed horizon. Sweeping the vista with my lens, I tried to decide where to start. I settled on a burbling creek to my right , honing in and pressing ’RECORD’. While the laser inside burned the water’s image on optical disc, I kicked at the clay and went over the details in my head. According to my new cell phone friend, this was the location of Bell’s Mill, site of a fabled act of loyalist defiance in the closing days of the Revolutionary War.
Martha McFarland McGee Bell was the wife of a continental Captain William Bell, who owned Bell’s Mill, located near Muddy Creek in Randolph County. While Captain Bell was off fighting redcoats, Mary ran the Mill. In 1781, after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Lord Cornwallis himself rendezvoused with troops there for a two day rest. During their hostile bivouac, feisty Mary approached Cornwallis, and inquired as to whether he intended to burn her mill (as was his habit). Before he could answer, Mary proclaimed she would burn it first to deprive him the satisfaction! Quite ballsy for a woman in the 18th Century, but I suppose fierce patriotism knows no gender. Cornwallis left the mill unmolested that day. It stood for many more years before being lost to history. Only recently had it been uncovered, the hand-stacked stone wall remains unearthed by bulldozers clearing the way for the soon-to-be-formed Lake Randleman.
Scrambling down the ditch bank with camera and tripod, I looked around for things to take a picture of. To my untrained eye, it was all rough terrain, hard-scrubbed land about to be submerged under fathoms of water. I’d covered the Randleman Dam before, knew that engineers were finishing construction on the mammoth wall upstream that would swell the Deep River and create a much-needed water-source for many Piedmont cities. I just never knew it was going to drown a little history in the process. That’s where Gary Strader came in. A Randolph County native with a penchant for history, he’d e-mailed the station with news of the old Mill’s plight. No doubt he’d be able to answer many of my questions when I met him later. For now though, I had a monument to meet.
The heavy granite slab sat bathed in shadows of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Runners passing by just feet away would never see it. In fact several jogged by unknowingly as I hunched over my tripod and wrestled with a tricky focus. Slowly pushing the macro button across the breadth of the focal tube, I forced sharp edges on the wavering shapes in the viewfinder. ’HEROINE’ , it read. Bingo, I thought - just the kind of easily digested visual I needed for my story. When you’re condensing events spanning 250 years in ninety fleeting seconds, you needed all the compression you can get. After bagging a few more iconic shots, I dragged my gear over a low fence and captured footage of all the normal people enjoying their normal holiday off. Some walked family pooches, others jogged to the beat of their iPods. Kid and Grandmas ambled along and teenagers worked up a good hacky-sack sesh. Meanwhile, I loitered in the leafy shade, stalking statues and profiling pedestrians. While I could let that bother me, there’s no time for that now.
Instead, I left the leafy sanctum of the manicured park for the growling exhaust fumes of the urban sprawl strip mall parking lot. At a large garage with a household name on the side of the wall, I found the service technician I was looking for. Gary Strader happily punched out and joined me in the parking lot. Using the only green backdrop I could find, I framed the stranger in front of a verdant slope of fresh cut grass, being careful to crop out the Chik-Fil-A sign in the upper right corner. As the tally light shone from the sanctity of the one inch screen, I found myself liking Mr. Strader as I listened. The self-avowed history buff knew his stuff, using five years of research to answer my series of inane questions.
According to him, I’d been standing on top of the mill during my morning visit to the site. That didn’t make me feel any better about my skills of perception, but from the way he described the location in aching detail, I took his word for it. In the end, Strader was a television journalists’ delight - informed, authoritative, and mercifully succinct. He even coughed up a juicy detail to spice up my copy: Legend had it a band of loyalists buried a gold-filled cannon somewhere around the mill. If the area was flooded without proper excavation, the mythical treasure would disappear forever in a watery grave.
Overall, not bad fodder for an evening newscast feature OR a midnight bloggering, eh?