• Laurel Contributor

This is our Home

by Donna Rhodes


If you know Diane McPhail, you know that everything about her is extraordinary…there’s nothing run-of-the-mill.

Well, maybe one thing. She lives in a mill, a restored/converted mill house, complete with waterwheel and grinding stone. In its heyday, that mill crushed dried corn into meal, which provided many a johnnycake to our Plateau predecessors.

The mill’s power, the Cullasaja, runs right through the middle of Diane’s home, though the wheel no longer turns. Some people have water features in their yards. She, delightedly, lives in one!

These days no corn is ground. Quite the opposite. The soothing rush of water takes Diane far away from the daily grind.

How did she and husband, Ray, come across this find nestled in 23 acres of woodland at the head of Lake Sequoia?

She explains, “When we first saw it, the mill had been abandoned some 30 years prior (oddly enough, about the time in my life I envisioned owning a mill someday). Frequent locals and tourists autographed the house and surroundings with graffiti and carved initials. There was litter galore, from tossed bottles to dumped mattresses. It was a mess.”

Clearly, restoration was a complex, time-consuming project.

“It took us over two years to renovate the mill. I didn’t want to remove anything unless we absolutely had to. Dennis DeWolfe, our architect, was dedicated to historical preservation. He understood that I was determined to turn this structure into a one-of-a-kind forever and ever home.”

According to Diane, “The only things we eliminated were the belt off the big gears and some canvas (corn-conveyor) belts that did a double loop of all 3 stories. We left the grinding stone exactly where it was. We ‘planted’ a tree trunk in the center of the stone, snugging it in, topped it with glass and the wooden collar that held in the corn. Voila! Kitchen table.”

They even transformed a big wooden lever/arm (that shifted the stone into place), into a table light. Below, where gears and working machinery connected to the big water wheel, there was a perfect bent wood hoop attached to the wheel, about 15 feet in diameter. All of that was hiding in a black hole with no real function except as crawl space.

Dennis asked, “Do you want that space?”

Diane said, “Absolutely!”

So he designed a beautiful stairway going to library, bath, built-in beds, and office amongst those wonderful wheels, where she wrote “The Abolitionist’s Daughter,” on sale now wherever books are sold. For information about this exciting novel, visit dianemcphailauthor.com.

While the wheel and interior stream are the most dramatic features of the McPhail home, the remainder of the house provides other unique surprises. Upstairs, in Diane and Ray’s bedroom, there is an interesting fireplace, constructed from handcrafted brick taken from the Mississippi cabin in which her father was born.

Diane asked a potter friend to instruct her in hand-building tiles (which became beautiful panoramas) for all the bathrooms. It’s little touches like a bird landing next to a soapdish nest that make Diane’s interiors so inviting and divine.

The only build-on is Ray’s office. The wood came from Ray’s great grandfather’s barn. Doors from a turn-of-the-century French carousel complement the decor. They trucked in an old hand-hewn barn from Indiana, disassembled it, and combined it with an 1830 two-story Virginia log house to make a guest retreat. Antique wood from a venerable Tennessee cedar pole barn provided the materials for Diane’s inspirational studio.

Every piece of timber, every tile, every beam is handcrafted and steeped in historical significance. Guests are wrapped in a swirl of “Wow” when they set foot in Diane’s door and often comment on the peace they feel there.

While the home, guesthouse, studio, grounds and garden are not open to the public, they have been featured on tours (Historical Society) and HGTV. Reference Summer 2010’s Highlands Historical Society Newsletter for more info.

With all of the McPhails’ accomplishments, the Mill House stands out as one of their best and most dear.

The Laurel Magazine

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