The rushing water over the stone dam on Wreck Island Creek creates a steady backdrop to the otherwise quiet setting surrounding a mill turned house in Appomattox.
The cold mountain stream has long been a popular fishing and swimming hole for area residents and the mill that once ground corn for farmers now serves as home to Jim and Liz Baker.
The Bakers first saw the property on Mill Pond Road in 2008.
“We came down for a weekend to look at this property and I was just dumbfounded,” Liz said. “I just saw so much potential and so much work.”
The property was so overgrown, the mill itself was hidden from view.
After more than a decade of work, the mill now is open as an Airbnb rental from April through October, and the Bakers live in the mill house perched high above the stream. In the winter, the couple lives in the mill.
In the wooded portions of the 10 acres the Bakers own, Jim has blazed hiking trails with places to rest and contemplate. The couple even created a few tent camping spots.
“You could tie off your kayak out there,” Liz said, gesturing to the center of the pond below the dam, “and you could sit there and read under an umbrella in the middle of the water all day. With your beverage right there. I mean, where can you do that?”
As the Bakers have explored their property, they’ve discovered elements of its history, including slave graves and the remnants of an old moonshine still. Liz believes the extensive bamboo planted on the property was intended to mask the still operations.
The mill that stands today is the third attempt at a mill along that creek, dating to 1860. The first two were destroyed in floods.
The Colonial era mill operator was Jeremiah Whitney, a high sheriff of Buckingham County, which included Appomattox County at the time. The Almonds and the Carsons owned it for a while and, in the 1950s, the mill was operated by Hacker Martin, a legendary gunsmith featured in the Museum of Appalachia.
Martin and his wife Maude and their three children lived in the millhouse. Martin ran the mill until the remnants of Hurricane Camille flooded the creek in 1969 and damaged the mill.
After Martin, a philosophy professor from George Mason University involved in a number of anti-Vietnam War activities established a commune on the property.
“They liked to garden au naturale apparently, and I mean, this is what the locals tell us,” Liz said.
The commune eventually disbanded, but a woman by the name of Penelope “Penny” Shea stayed and raised her four daughters in the mill house without any heat or indoor plumbing.
“She was a tough woman, tough woman,” Liz said. “She came to faith through the ministry of the local United Methodist Church and some of the old timers told me they remember when that church bought her a wood stove.”
That stove now is used to heat the mill.
It was Penny’s dream to turn the mill into a home.
“It was just a wreck of a building,” Liz said. “It was just a shell of a building. We talked to people who lived there as students and they said it was just full of mice and rats, and you know, bags just hanging all over the place and floorboards that were falling through.”
Penny lived out the remainder of her life on the property and after her death, it came on the market.
Liz’s sister, who lives nearby, noticed it was for sale. The couple was in New Jersey at the time, having returned from mission work in Eastern Europe due to a family emergency.
“I prayed to God for a home that we could afford the taxes on and we could afford to live and have a home base for our family and grandkids,” Liz said.
The problem was the couple never owned property in the U.S., had two expired driver’s licenses from different states and a bank account from a state they had never lived in. With the housing market crash, no one would give them a mortgage.
“We saw this property, I saw potential. I saw family. I saw gathering. I saw people. I saw roots and history. I saw possibility, opportunity, potential,” Liz said.
In the end, Penny’s sister provided a private mortgage for seven years until the couple could get conventional financing, telling the Bakers their vision for the mill matched Penny’s.
Owning the mill and mill house hasn’t been easy.
Their first night at the mill, the couple stayed up all night watching the moon’s light reflect off the surface of the water as chunks of ice floated over the dam. That first winter was cold and snowy, and snow from repeated storms collected on the hillside, melting a little by day and refreezing by night.
The couple had a gathering of friends to celebrate their new home, and when Jim walked the last one to their car, the hillside slid down and took out the stairs. They had to climb through snow and debris to make it back into the mill.
A spell of severe cold also froze the well pump, and the water and drain pipes, flooding the mill. Liz cleaned it up with a bunch of towels, then went to launder them only to discover those pipes were frozen too when water started spilling out.
“That year, I had a breakdown,” Liz said. “I mean, my husband was traveling and everything was frozen and I was freezing. ... The wood that we had just bought to put in the fire was wet and wouldn’t light. I spent four hours trying to light the wood stove because it was literally freezing in here. And the wood wouldn’t light. ...After four hours, I just, I was so depressed and so freezing and so tired.”
Liz felt defeated in that moment, but she rallied and now she can’t envision being anywhere else.
Living beside a creek also means floods in heavy rains. Liz planted a nice garden but a heavy rain flooded the yard and left three feet of silt on top of all her vegetables.
So she gave up on that plan and instead began planting water loving plants that help reduce erosion in the creek bottom.
“We’ve seen the water come over the highest part of this dam wall,” Liz said. “Not just trickling over, it’s rushing, angry, throwing full grown trees like toothpicks over this dam. The sound of water so loud you can’t even hear yourself think.”
The Bakers use reclaimed items as much as they can to craft their little oasis, saying they feel as though God has given them stewardship over this land and the waterway that runs through it.
The walkway leading up to the mill is made from reclaimed brick from a demolished building, along with the compass medallion-shaped fire pit beside the pond at the base of the dam.
Strewn artfully throughout the garden are chunks of river pottery found in the creek, along with old farm implements and bits of the inner workings of the mill found on the property. Old millstones are incorporated in the garden.
“We have the original French buhr stone,” Liz said. “These would have been quarried in France because that particular granite was only quarried in France. And, originally, they would have been brought over for these mills from France until they started making replicas here in the United States. I don’t know if that one’s actually from France.”
Inside, a storage unit in the kitchen is crafted from wood milled on the property and the floors came from a century-old home that was being demolished.
“I spent two months scraping by hand this wood and then planning it,” Liz said. “Everything’s a labor of love.”
The decor inside is eclectic, reflecting the couple’s travels during their mission work.
“Over time, we were able to collect our belongings that I had farmed out to many family and friends all over the country,” Liz said.
Liz and Jim married in Kenya, and one room in the mill is devoted to Kenyan artifacts, including a fertility doll presented to them at their traditional Kenyan wedding that Liz joked worked quite well.
A handmade rug the couple purchased in Turkey hangs over the bannister at the top of the stairs. It features one little intentional imperfection, since Allah is the only one capable of perfection.
A hospitality icon of the Russian Eastern Orthodox faith sits beside the bed and a coptic Ethiopian cross hangs nearby.
The bed in the master suite looks out over a huge window over the dam, and windows above the bed look over the wooded hillside the mill is nestled against.
“So you can lay down here … and without moving your head off the pillow, look up and see the stars and see the fireflies or see the rain come down or the snow. It’s like being in a snow globe.”
The mill house still is a work in progress.
The house was believed to have been built around the turn of the century. It’s constructed in a style referred to as a Virginia two over two, meaning the first floor is two large rooms, with two rooms of the same dimensions sitting on the second floor, all connected by a central hall.
“I’ve also been greatly inspired by the McLean home [at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park] of how I set this up because if you notice it’s a very similar layout,” Liz said.
The plaster walls keep the un-air conditioned home surprisingly cool in summer.
The first floor consists of a parlor and dining room with two bedrooms above. At one point, the summer kitchen was connected to the house. The couple has gutted that space and is in the process of crafting a new kitchen.
Liz said Jim is a talented musician and often fills their house with sound.
“My husband picks up instruments from all over the world and learns to play them,” Liz said noting the parlor also is used as a music room.
The second floor landing is lined in bookcases with texts from all over the globe. The bedrooms on each side feature an overarching view of the mill and Liz noted from her bed, she can watch the sun set on one side of the house and the moon rise on the other.
“You get the most amazing moon shadows,” she said.
The couple doesn’t have plumbing in the mill house but turned a closet into a dry toilet and there’s a bathhouse out back.
The four bedroom, two bathroom mill rents for $260 per night and is available on Airbnb from April through October.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Airbnb rental has gone to a self check-in. Liz doesn’t like that much because she enjoys giving guests a tour, showing them all her favorite aspects of the property.
“We have put our blood sweat and tears into it,” Liz said. “...We just we really feel this amazing connection.”
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