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By BECCA OWSLEY
WHITE MILLS — Late one night, a man named Uncle Wes disappeared after eating a late night snack of cornbread and buttermilk. Searchers found footprints in the snow leading to the edge of a cliff. They found Uncle Wes below, wedged between a tree and the cliff just above a cave at river’s edge.
According to the book “From the Cabin to the Cave” by Dan Lee, this is how the first stop on our Nolin River adventure got its name.
Along with guides Henry Morrison, Dot and Spurrier Graham, we ventured to the mysterious “Dead Man’s Cave,” where poor Uncle Wes was said to have met his demise in the late 1800s.
During its heyday, visitors to White Mills would venture down the curvy river by boat to explore the cave.
Photographer Jill Pickett, an avid caver, had no issues getting close to where the cave grew smaller away from the daylight on our recent adventure. The rest of us waited at the entrance.
The Nolin was considered by the 1932 U.S. Geological Survey the crookedest river in the United States.
It is rumored to have acquired its name from hunter and Army scout Benjamin Lynn, who ventured away from his party in the late 1700s and was lost. Each night, searchers would return to camp to report there was “no Lynn” to be found. He later was found, but the incident gave way to renaming the Elk Garden River the Nolin River.
The area was good hunting ground, so various tribes of American Indians and pioneers frequently passed through. Evidence of camps remains along the river, along with stone fish traps where hunters would spear their prey.
Graham next took us to Scott’s Spring, a place where groundwater surfaces near the water plant on the river. Graham remembers swimming, playing and being baptized near the spring when she was young.
As people began to settle along the Nolin, mills were built on the river. Local lore holds that a family by the name of White once owned the mill at White Mills, and so the town was named. However, evidence of the claim, like others, is hard to find.
Not much remains of the mill; it was torn down in the 1950s, but a dam and some of the stone foundation remain. I ventured across the dam, visualizing the mill that once stood tall from its base and hoped not to fall into the river.
Across from the now-vacant mill site sits the hotel, once owned by the Richardson family. The building is the present home of White Mills Christian Camp. It, along with two local churches — White Mills Christian and White Mills Baptist — dates back more than 100 years.
This is where many people vacationed in the early 1900s. They would travel by train to Eastview and then make their way to White Mills where they could swim and sunbathe in the river, dance in the outdoor dance hall, go horseback riding, rent a boat or canoe, visit the cave, and enjoy a luxury uncommon in rural areas at the time: electricity. The hotel was home to the first electric lights in the community — 900 to be exact — a perk of being located so close to the mill.
Visitors also could take a boat ride to our next stop on our “Where in Hardin County?” adventure: Pearl Island.
To get there, we had to drive across a one-lane bridge built in 1899 that hovers over the Nolin. It is said to be the only metal bridge left in Hardin County. While crossing, I had flashbacks to elementary school days at Lynnvalle school, when I was somewhat afraid of the old bridge. I remembered hearing the boards click when crossing it. Because of those memories, I drove unnecessarily slowly on our outing.
A few miles’ drive down the road and we were able to get a peak at the island. Visitors from the old hotel would have traveled to this spot by boat.
The island sits in the middle of the river near Kenneth Anderson’s property. He estimates that the island is a quarter of a mile long and 100 yards wide.
Anderson’s best guess was that the island got its name from the mussel shells that could be found around it. They had a smooth mother-of- pearl surface inside.
With locations such as Dead Man’s Cave and Pearl Island, the imaginations of the early vacationers must have brought forth images of pirates and buccaneers exploring these locations and burying their treasures.
Sadly, there were no pirates or pioneers or hunters on this trip. But the step back into the past reminded us of days of adventure and exploration. The Nolin River in White Mills was a good location for this — our last mini adventure of the summer.
If only Johnny Depp and his band of pirates could have joined us.
Becca Owsley can be reached at (270) 505-1741.