Less than 10 minutes from Gatlinburg’s main drag and nestled along the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find Ely’s Mill, a 25-acre property rooted in history. A charming blend of old and new — but mostly old — Ely’s Mill is part nature reserve, part museum, and part artisanal retailer.
Created in 1925 by entrepreneur Andrew Jefferson Ely to showcase the local craft community, the mill still stands as a stop for weary travelers to rest and enjoy nature’s beauty. Today, the mill is run by Andrew’s granddaughter Ruth Wellborn, who dedicates her life to preserving the mill for present and future generations.
From a young age, Andrew Jefferson Ely was a self-starter. After learning the Linotype trade, he enrolled in Yale University and owned his own print shop, which eventually paid his way through law school. After meeting his wife Ruth Maynard, the couple dove headfirst into the world of entrepreneurship. In addition to Andrew’s print shop and law practice, the couple owned an apartment building, as well as a theater and movie house.
Andrew purchased the land that is now Ely’s Mill as a place to spend time with his two daughters when he was in town between business trips, and it eventually transformed into what the mill is today — a place where local artisans show off their work and the “old way” of doing things. “Granddad started [Ely’s Mill] to showcase the mountain heritage, because he knew the national park was coming in and the ‘old way’ of doing things was going away,” explains Ruth.
After her grandfather passed away, the mill was owned by Ruth’s mother and aunt, where it was later transferred to the courts and neglected. Given the nature of the times, it wasn’t easy for Ruth to simply take over the property — especially since she had older brothers before her. “I was born in the early 1950s, so I had to wait on my brothers to choose their life course, because if they had wanted to own the property, they would’ve had the first choice, because that’s kind of how it was,” Ruth explains.
However, her brothers never took over the property, and it eventually left the court system, so Ruth decided it was time for her to take ownership. While she never intended to work in retail, Ruth’s love for Roaring Fork is what ultimately inspired her to restore the mill. “It wasn’t like I set out to go be a retailer. I just wanted to come live on Roaring Fork,” she says. “I was like, ‘Okay, I will do anything. Just let me come live here, because it’s so pretty.’”
Today, many stumble upon Ely’s Mill after traveling along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, a stunning one-way scenic driving loop. Much like the trail, the mill immerses visitors in nature, but it also offers a bit of civilization. “People come down here, and then there’s a live place,” Ruth says of the mill. “We’ve got a bathroom, and we’ve got snacks — which is always a big draw for folks. They come down and here are these funny-looking buildings at the end of the trail and a sign saying ‘Ely’s Mill.’ Of course, just saying ‘mill’ piques people’s interest.”
As soon as you step foot on the property, you feel welcomed by one of the mill’s workers. Ruth says the staff is mostly women, and they sell everything from soaps to cat toys, knitted scarves to squished penny earrings. If you’re lucky, you may even witness one of the crafters giving an in-store demonstration of how they create their goods.
When it comes to choosing items to sell, Ruth describes the process as serendipitous. “Some things work, and some things don’t. It’s not a very big shop, so we’re having to keep things restocked and keep things in the back, because we don’t have very much space,” she explains. “Crafting takes a lot of time, and generally, people on vacation can’t take big things home … so small, practical items have worked the best for us over the years.”
Ruth admits one of the hardest parts of restoring the mill is finding balance between updating structures and maintaining their original charm. She works tirelessly to not only maintain the mill’s original mission — to showcase local artisans and handmade goods — but also maintain the natural beauty of Roaring Fork. “I keep most of the place as a green belt. We’ve got 25 acres here, and I contend that we use two of them,” says Ruth. “The other 23 acres are habitat for the creatures because that’s an important thing, too.”
Ruth also emphasizes the importance of keeping up with modern-day society while still giving visitors that “old Gatlinburg feel.” For example, the shop often bundles items in bushel baskets and still has an open cash box and writes paper tickets, but they also use an iPad to conduct sales. “People come to the mountain looking for that [old way of doing things],” says Ruth. “These buildings are old, but I’m not going to dress up in the garb, because we’re not a dead place. I would like for people to see us as preserving the old ways but having value in a certain amount of modern stuff, too. I think you can get a blend of the old and the new.”
In addition to the shop, the property also offers two overnight cabins for those looking for a relaxing retreat. While the cabins are equipped with modern amenities like central heat and air and Wi-Fi, they serve as the perfect mountain escape that gives off a historic feel. “Someone said it’s like visiting your crazy auntie’s or something,” Ruth tells us. “You come and plug in, and there are some books and games. If you need to sew a button on, there’s probably a little sewing kit in the drawer, too.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of restoring the mill, Ruth says, is watching it take on new life and become a special part of visitors’ lives. “I think Roaring Fork has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts, and for some reason, we kind of have to be here,” Ruth says. “There have been many, many people over the years who have helped out and written their initials in the concrete. It’s fun to see the place be loved by a lot of folks.”
This article is sponsored by the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. All photography provided by the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau unless otherwise noted.