Class of 1939 CALS alumnus Dick Thompson shares a special perspective of the history and ongoing life of Yates Mill.
Dick Thompson ’39 was a sophomore at N.C. State when he first saw Yates Mill off Raleigh’s Lake Wheeler Road. He was visiting the home of his roommate Ted Bailey in Mid Pines, outside Raleigh, and the two stopped at the working grist mill on their trip.
The visit “woke childhood memories of grist mills I saw growing up,” Thompson said. It also inspired Thompson’s lifetime commitment to Yates Mill and the surrounding land, now a historic site and Wake County park. Today at the age of 96, Thompson still drives to Raleigh regularly for meetings of the Yates Mill Associates board of directors.
The picturesque wooden mill that sits right by Lake Wheeler Road is the centerpiece of the county park. One of the best views of the mill is across the pond, from an expansive overlook at the visitors’ center, complete with rocking chairs. The overlook was named in honor of Thompson, who worked so hard to see the mill restored.
In the 1930s when Thompson was a student – and up until 1958 – Yates Mill was still a working grist mill, run by John Daniel Lea, Thompson said. Years later, while working for A.E. Finley at the N.C. Equipment Co., Thompson would stop at the mill for a bag of locally ground corn meal.
After that first visit to Yates Mill, Thompson came to the site for picnics and events with student groups, including the N.C. State’s Agricultural Club and Alpha Zeta agricultural fraternity. After graduating from State with a degree in crop science, Thompson went to work as an assistant agricultural Extension agent in Caswell County but later returned to Wake County to work for Cooperative Extension.
In his work with Extension in Wake County, Thompson assisted the nearby Yates family dairy, which was run at the time by Wilbur Yates. In 1943, Thompson went to work for N.C. Equipment Co., recognized by many N.C. State alumni for its historic yellow bulldozer sign on Hillsborough Street. Thompson became senior vice president of the company, the flagship company of A.E. Finley.
A few years later, in 1947 the 1,000-acre Yates dairy farm was for sale, and A.E. Finley purchased the farm, which became Fin-Crest Herford Farms, with Thompson as a partner and manager. In addition to the beef cattle raised there, Fin-Crest was home to a community lodge, used by the N.C. Equipment Co. for meetings and service schools for equipment customers from Norfolk, Va., to Miami. Many civic organizations and churches also used the lodge for events.
Yates Mill was closed for business in 1958, and Fin-Crest continued to maintain it until 1963, when the farm and all the property, including the mill, were purchased by N.C. State University. The land was to become N.C. State’s Lake Wheeler Road Educational Units.
Flash forward to July 1989. Dr. John Vandenbergh, N.C. State zoology professor emeritus, began to notice the declining condition of Yates Mill on class trips to the mill pond. Vandenbergh and others in the community founded Yates Mill Associates to help restore the old grist mill. Because of his long history with the mill site, Thompson joined the group to help raise funds for restoration.
Thompson was still working with N.C. Equipment Co. His connections to Yates Mill and the surrounding land proved valuable in the search. The restoration effort suffered setbacks, especially in 1996 when Hurricane Fran blew through Raleigh, destroying the millpond dam. It took several years of working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the dam rebuilt.
Throughout the restoration effort, it was clear to the Yates Mill Associates that the mill needed to be part of a park. “We knew it was going to be a park, and we knew we would need a visitors’ center,” Thompson said.
A big break in the effort to create the park and visitors’ center came in 2001. Thompson, who remained connected to the Finley Foundation, stopped by a foundation meeting one day. Foundation chairman Alton Howard asked Thompson, “Do you need any money?” and then offered $1 million for the project.
Thompson recalls how he frantically tried to reach Vandenbergh with the news. Later Vandenbergh penned a letter to the foundation, thanking Howard for the offer. Details of the donation were worked out.
The visitors’ center includes classrooms, a museum, labs and an enormous stone overlook — essentially a porch with rocking chairs, where visitors can enjoy a respite and beautiful views of the pond and mill. As construction of the park proceeded, Thompson said many times of the overlook, “This is my spot.”
Today, the center’s picturesque porch is known as the “Dick Thompson Overlook,” named by the Finley Foundation. And while Thompson is proud of overlook’s name, he says the success of the park and mill restoration was the work of superb community leaders like Vandenbergh, Judge Robert Rader, Willie York and the Finley Foundation.
“A whole lot of people had a big part in this thing, in-kind donations of time and more,” Thompson said. “You couldn’t put a price on all that people did.”
— Natalie Hampton