A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

Falls Mill Fall

I have visited Falls Mill many times. Located in Belvidere, Tennessee, it is one of the few mills of its era which is still in operation, powering a host of machinery located on three floors. Built in 1873, it started out as a cotton and woolen factory, then became a cotton gin and later a woodworking shop. It is a beautiful building and I have photographed it many times, but on my visit this time, I decided to focus my attention on things other than the mill itself. There are several other buildings on the property, many of which I have never photographed before, including a blacksmith shop and a cabin which you can rent out for the weekend. There is also the Stagecoach Inn, which was moved to Falls Mill from its original site at Elora, Tennessee. I believe it is used as a residence for the mill owners/operators.

Although the waterfalls right at the mill itself are well worth photographing, I decided to spend my limited time at the dam and upper falls, which I think are more impressive and more photogenic. I was hoping that there would be more fall color, but it was just okay. I did get a bit of extra color, however, from some green ivy and pretty pink flowers in the foreground. A fallen log on the left added a bit of interest to the composition.

There is another reason I wanted to bypass photographing the mill itself on this visit. Basically, the mill is just downright difficult to photograph. It sits in dense foliage at the base of Factory Creek, and a portion of the building is usually in heavy shade while the upper section above the wheel is often in bright sunlight. The range of exposure is off the charts. You have a fighting chance to get things balanced out on an overcast day, but even then it’s a challenge. Additionally, the roof of the mill adds its own shadow and the only way to get things close is during post processing.

The way I usually approach things is to concentrate on only portions of the mill which are in relatively similar light levels. I could resort to using high dynamic range techniques or blend several images together in post, but I resist resorting to those methods. It also forces me to look for other compositions which I might not have seen otherwise.

As photographers, we sometimes put all our focus on the main attraction and miss equally, or even better opportunities for making good images. We often spend so much time shooting the object of our destination, that we miss a bunch of other images lurking in the shadows. We sometimes spend so much times photographing the main event, that we run out of time, good light or both. So, I would advise you to always be on the lookout for those hidden gems that may not be so obvious on first glance.

Above are examples of some of the older abandoned structures on the mill property. They could have been an old equipment shed and possibly a barn of some sort. Although I have been to Falls Mill many times throughout the years, I have never seen these buildings although they are in close proximity to the mill itself. Just one example of being so fixated on the main subject that you may miss things that are in plain sight.

November 15, 2021 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tennessee Color Tour

       What is it about autumn that makes one want to pick up their camera and just head out the door. With no real destination in mind, that’s just what I did this past week. The only thing I was certain of, was that I would head north – to Tennessee. I thought that the fall colors would be better there, as nature’s display here in Alabama has been less than impressive this year. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize that our northern neighbor was not fairing any better than we were. In fact, it might have been worse. I had to wonder if I was too early in the season, too late, or was this just one of those years where Mother Nature sort of takes a vacation, choosing to stay indoors and not display her finest frock. I could have bought that argument except for the fact that my sister, who recently returned from a week in Vermont, could not stop talking about the incredible, vibrant colors she witnessed there. So, was it that Mother Nature only had enough energy this year to glorify states north of the Mason-Dixon line? Did we have too much rain? Has it been too warm? Who knew? All I knew was that I was not going to be able to count on the autumn colors to carry the day. Color would no longer be the overriding element in my photographs, but it could still play a supporting role if I were lucky enough to find any. Now, granted, I did see some patches of color – a lone crimson maple or spectacular golden ginkgo tree, but usually they were located in front of a trailer park or a gas station, not places photographers normally aim their lenses. So, I would have to find things to photograph which offered something other than just colorful fall foliage.

Burgess Falls

Burgess Falls

I thought that I might make water the star of this show. With all the rain we have experienced here in the south, I thought that chances were good that the waterfalls and streams would be flowing well. As it turned out, I was not disappointed. While the rains conspired to wreck our autumn colors this year, they did produce some impressive displays, powering the hundreds of waterfalls, springs, rivers and creeks throughout Tennessee. I only had to count the number of fellow photographers who had taken up positions along the river banks with me to know that this was indeed a unique opportunity, and one I should not pass up. Fortunately, I had brought along my collection of neutral density filters.  I would need those to slow down my camera shutter sufficiently in order to get those wispy smooth, ethereal water shots. I was also blessed with mostly overcast skies which is what you want when you are photographing waterfalls and flowing streams. Dappled light is not your friend when you are trying to capture water. My polarizing filter would help to eliminate reflections and punch up what little color I did see.

Foster Falls

Foster Falls

As I said before, I did not have a route mapped out before I left home. I only knew I planned to stay within Tennessee’s borders. As it turned out, I didn’t really venture far at all in the three days of my trip. I did make it as far as the Kentucky border, but I stayed within what would be considered middle Tennessee. My first stop was Falls Mill near Belvidere, a place I have been many times. The falls themselves were flowing well, but I had arrived too early in the day and the waterwheel was still in shadow. Falls Mill is a working mill and they were grinding flour when I arrived. Thus, the wheel was turning. That’s great for the tourists to see a spinning waterwheel, but it really messes with photographers when they’re needing to shoot at very slow shutter speeds in order to capture the waterfalls in that flowing, cotton-candy way I mentioned. Although the waterwheel turns quite slowly, it would still be a blur in the photo. So maybe, it was just as well that the wheel was cast in shadow. Then, I could concentrate on the falls themselves, which is exactly what I did.

From Belvidere, I headed over to Sewanee and the University of the South. As with Falls Mill, I had been there before, including one time to photograph visiting President George Bush (41) when I worked for the Huntsville Times. Another time, I photographed Bishop Desmond Tutu, the South African activist and opponent of apartheid. He was there to give a speech hoping to drum up support to overthrow the repressive government in South Africa. The university is one of the prettiest in the South, reminiscent of those ivy-league schools up in the northeast. Its granite buildings and open courtyards remind me of Princeton, albeit on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately, without much in the way of fall color, the university just didn’t offer much to photograph other than the buildings themselves. After a quick couple of tours around campus, I left and headed towards the towns of Monteagle and Tracy City, both of which sit high up on the Cumberland Plateau. Coming back down off the plateau at Whitwell, I picked up State Road 28, one of the prettiest roads you will drive anywhere. I headed north past the cliffs of the Cumberland Plateau which were trying hard to make a colorful show but just couldn’t pull it off. I could only imagine what a glorious display that must be when conditions are far better for fall color.

Tobacco Barn

Tobacco Barn

Tobacco Barn Door

Barn Door and Drying Tobacco

Heading north, I began to see more barns, specifically tobacco barns. I think we generally associate Kentucky with tobacco production, but Tennessee is no slouch in growing that burley leaf, even though the crop is no longer king as it once was. I came upon many barns and barn-like structures all full of hanging tobacco. Doors were open to help facilitate the drying of the crop. Most barns in Tennessee are painted red, but not always. Some are left to weather naturally, and many have barn quilts, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. These are usually a single pattern, a geometric pattern that you might see on a  quilted bed comforter. It can be painted directly on the barn itself, but more often is painted on plywood and nailed above the doors. The practice is not often seen in Alabama, but it is quite common in this part of Tennessee.


Rock Island Twin Falls

Continuing north, I drove through Rhea and Cumberland counties ending up in Cookeville where I spent the night. The next morning I continued to head north, past Livingston and Jamestown, until I arrived at the town of Pall Mall. Pall Mall is the home of Sergeant Alvin York, the highly decorated World War I hero whose exploits were immortalized in the 1941 movie starring Gary Cooper. York was one of the most highly decorated American soldiers in WWI.  He led an attack against a German machine gun nest, taking out 32 machine guns, killing 20 German soldiers and capturing 132 more. For his exploits, York received the Medal of Honor as well as the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he returned home to Pall Mall  and kept busy operating a sizable farm, the grist mill and a general store. He remained in Tennessee until his death in 1964.

Alvin York Grist Mill

Alvin York Grist Mill in Pall Mall

While I always love to strike out and explore places I’ve never been, there is one thing that always challenges me. Since I try to avoid major highways and stick to the secondary roads (that’s where the pictures are), I am constantly frustrated by the fact that when I do see something that calls out to be photographed, the road I’m on is usually so “unimproved” that there is absolutely no place to pull off. It’s always a two-lane road with no shoulder. Drainage ditches closely parallel both sides of the road. In order to stop, I’ve got to drive until I come to either a driveway or pull-out, which are not too common this far off the beaten track. When I do find a place to pull off, it’s usually quite a distance away and requires a good hike back to the place where I originally spotted my subject. In some cases, once I finally make it there, I realize it’s not that great after all, so I hike back to the truck without taking a single exposure. That’s the life of a country photographer, I guess.

Rock Island Tree

Rock Island Tree

The town of Pall Mall is close to the Kentucky border and it was as far north as I ventured on this trip. I needed to start heading back towards home, but before I did, I planned to make two more stops. The next day was overcast, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to shoot some more water. After spending the night in Gordonsville, I drove to Burgess Falls State Park near the town of Bakers Crossroads. As I expected, the water on the Falling Water River was flowing well due to all the recent rainfall. While I was the first photographer on the scene, I was assuredly not the last. Before I left my spot on the river, at least six other serious shutterbugs arrived to try to capture an image worthy of John Sexton. I knew they were serious photographers because they all had tripods – a sure sign. Unfortunately, I was unable to photograph the middle falls or big falls at Burgess due to extensive flooding that occurred there in July. The water caused extensive damage to the overlooks and the stairway which leads down to the base of the big falls. It wasn’t until I’d made the hike to both locations that I discovered this out as there were no signs at the trailhead to alert hikers or photographers of this fact. So, the only photos I was able to get at Burgess were of the smaller upper falls.

The last stop for the day and what turned out to be my last stop for the entire trip, was at Rock Island State Park located directly south of Burgess Falls near Sparta. What’s so great about Rock Island is that you can actually see the main falls right from the parking lot. At his point in my trip, that was just fine. A short walk takes you to the base of the falls, which are pretty spectacular. There are really twin falls and each has its their own unique personality. One is strong and powerful, while the other is slower and more delicate offering multiple cascades. They are both worth photographing. The falls powered an old cotton mill over 100 years ago but now are part of the state parks system.

Rock Island Falls

Rock Island Twin Falls

Despite the frustrations of not finding great fall color, I still enjoyed my quick jaunt around Tennessee. It really is one of the most beautiful states, and that’s in any season. The rolling hills, the expansive farmlands, the picturesque towns and villages combined with wonderful natural attractions make the state one of my favorite. I can’t wait until next year or when the urge suddenly takes me to venture forth and pay her another visit. Maybe Mother Nature will be more cooperative next year and produce a display of seasonal color befitting such a spectacular state.

November 7, 2015 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mills and Fords

I found myself up at Falls Mills near Belvidere, Tennessee a few days ago. A friend invited me to go along with him, to check out the place and assess the progress they have made on restoring the old grist mill. I cannot remember a time when the mill was not undergoing some sort of restorative effort. The place has changed hands many times through the years, and each new owner builds upon the progress made by the previous one. Currently, Falls Mill operates as a water-powered grain mill, but it has not always been so. Built in 1873, the mill was originally a cotton and woolen factory, and later converted into a cotton gin and woodworking shop. Today, visitors can watch as cornmeal, flour and grits are produced and sold.

The mill also functions as a museum, and in time, the owners hope to install a working loom on the top floor of the brick building. Visitors will be able to get a sense of what it was like when the mill operated as a textile factory. My friend, also a photographer, spent most of his time on the top floor, capturing images on film with his 8×10 Deardorff camera. Sections of the loom are already in place, and there were parts of machinery all over. Visitors are not normally permitted up here, but my friend convinced the caretaker that he had been granted permission on an earlier visit, and asked if he could bend the rules just one more time. He did.

Loom spindles

While my friend kept busy photographing parts of the loom and wool carding machine, I focused on some of the smaller items, things that once were used in the process of making cloth. Frankly, all those dusty machines didn’t get my creative juices flowing. I did find a few scenes I thought might be interesting to photograph, but my mind was really on this old Ford pickup truck I had seen as we drove up that morning. Located near a caretaker’s shed, and not far from the restrooms, it was calling to me to come pay a visit. My companion had photographed it on his previous visit, so he chose to stay put and continue photographing those old dusty machines. Admittedly, shooting film with a large format camera is a slow process. Film, being as expensive as it is, especially at this size, forces an artist to be very deliberate in his approach. I mean, at $5.00 a pop, one tends to think everything through a couple of times, before making the commitment to snap the shutter. Those of us who work primarily in digital, don’t have those constraints. We can shoot two hundred images of the same inanimate object without any financial consideration. And, we often do.

Oil cans stand ready to silence the squeaky machinery

The Ford pickup was old, but I couldn’t tell you the year. I am just not that familiar with trucks, never having owned one. After 40 years of living in the south, I hate to admit that fact, but at the same time, I’m quite amazed that I have been able to resist that customary rite of passage for so long. The truck was definitely old, and it appeared to have been painted a few times. The shine was long gone, but I couldn’t tell if it still worked. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still did. These old vehicles have a way of lasting far longer than their appearance would indicate. The truck was well protected under the roof of the shed, which would lead one to think that it did, indeed, still run. I mean, who would bother to keep it out of harms way if it was just a junker? Right? But then, I saw all the rust. There was a lot of it. Now, I realize that the presence of rust is not a definitive indicator of a vehicle’s operational status, but it is an important sign. Never matter, I didn’t hope to drive the thing – I wanted to photograph it. To me, the rust only added to the character of the truck. Rust is good.

Rusting Ford

I ended up concentrating on photographing just the front end of the Ford. It was easily the most interesting side, and it was the only portion in bright sunlight, which I needed to properly highlight that glorious rust. I shot with both the Leica M9 and the Canon 5D. The Leica gave me good results, but I stayed with the Canon because the 24-1oomm and 100mm macro lenses allowed me to frame the shots tighter. Besides, I wanted to do an HDR shot, and my Leica wouldn’t fit the one tripod I had brought along that day. HDR images require a rock-steady platform since you have to take multiple exposures in the same exact spot. No hand-holding here. After shooting all different angles, from far away to closeup, I settled on this view above because it included a bit of an old cabin in the background. I thought it complimented the composition and the vintage look of the truck.

Rust is good

You may wonder why I have not bothered to show a picture of the mill itself by this point. To be honest, I couldn’t warm up to the structure. Granted, it’s a very handsome building, nestled in the rolling hills of southern Tennessee . It’s large and constructed of old brick and a lot of thought must have gone into its planning and building for it to have endured for almost 140 years. The problem, I decided, was not with the mill itself, but with the fact that it was the wrong time of year to photograph the place. In early summer, when the trees have finally unfurled their leaves, or in fall, when those same leaves turn vibrantly colorful, are the best times to photograph Falls Mill. At those times, the 32-foot waterwheel is artfully framed by the dense foliage, and the water flows freely. Early spring could only offer a promise of things to come. The trees and vines were just beginning to green-up, and although this winter has been unusually warm, it wasn’t enough to coax the new year’s growth sufficiently for my purposes.

Falls Mill - South Exposure

For those reasons, I decided to concentrate on photographing the southern exposure. I am sure most visitors seldom really see this side of the mill, and give it only a passing glance as they head down to the Factory Creek, the waterwheel and cascading falls beyond. The three-story building also houses the Museum of Power and Industry, a rather lofty name for a collection of antique textile equipment originally donated by another mill in Kentucky. A barn loom and power-loom donated from Scotland are among the artifacts housed inside the mill. Today, as a gristmill, the two sets of grinding stones produce grain for over 85 wholesale accounts. Cornmeal, flour and grits are also available for purchase on site.

Leaning barn

Surrounding the mill are a number of buildings of lesser importance, and even private homes lie within just a stone’s throw of it. At one point, my friend was rather rudely informed, that where he was standing was actually private property. It’s easy to miss the demarcation line between private land and mill property. They butt right up to each other. We had to inquire if the main road running past the mill was private as well, and were told that it was, but everybody used it. We had to scratch our heads with that response and didn’t bother waiting for clarification. Photographers typically go where they please, and wait to see if anyone objects. Generally, if someone does (this is rare), it doesn’t happen immediately. By the time they do, you have already taken the photo and it’s “in the can.” That was the case with this severely leaning hay barn located just across the road from the mill. It looked like it could fall over at any minute, but somehow, I knew it probably still had a few good years left in it.

It’s wonderful to see old mills like this one continue to function. If you like these old mills too, you can help keep them a part of the landscape. They are all too fast disappearing from the American scene. I encourage you to support the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM). This organization is dedicated to preserving historic mills and informing the public about the significance of the milling industry in early America.

Falls Mill is a short drive (35 miles) from Huntsville through some very pretty country. Just head up towards Huntland, Tennessee. You’ll find the road to the mill right off state highway 64. It’s open year-round, closing only from Christmas Eve through the second week in January. The mill is closed on Wednesdays throughout the year.

March 26, 2012 Posted by | Architecture, Historic Tennessee, Photography, Tennessee, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments