Big Wheel Keep on Turnin’

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

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 American Woody:The first generation of depot hacks boasted open bodies constructed of wagon-style solid planking. But by the mid-1910s, closed station wagon bodies became more common and lighter construction was required. The rib-and-panel style that is familiar today made its first appearance on these vehicles and allowed for the first partially enclosed wooden station wagons with side curtains, two or more rows of seats, and side doors. These new wagons could still be considered depot hacks, but were now called Suburbans, Combinations and Country Clubs. (Versions of these names still appear today.) The lower halves of these wagonette bodies resembled the earlier versions and were now combined with a flat roof. These designs found favor with non-commercial customers, and an increasing number of firms began building them. Major manufacturers such as Ford started offering woodies through dealerships, although independent body builders performed the actual construction. The Martin Truck and Body Corp. in York, Pennsylvania, made so many bodies for Ford, Dodge and others during the 1910s and 1920s that they billed themselves as "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World." The golden age of the custom wood body maker ended during the Depression, as many of the small independent firms went out of business. Some reorganized and diversified, like the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company, which stopped making wood Ford Model T and Model A bodies (and its own line of automobiles as the Dixie Motor Car Company) and started manufacturing truck trailers. The company is still in business today as Kentucky Trailer. The major automobile manufacturers acquired many others at fire-sale prices during this time. The fortunes of Martin Truck and Body, who called themselves "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World," changed dramatically during the Depression. After merging with failed carmaker Parry in 1919, Martin Truck and Body was acquired by Chevrolet in 1930 and became its first in-house commercial truck body division. Ford, with its vast timber operations near Lake Superior, was gaining experience in woody manufacturing. That experience would be put into practice in 1936 when a plant opened at Iron Mountain that built complete wood wagon bodies that were then shipped to Ford plants around the country for final assembly. While Ford was the only manufacturer building woodies from the ground up, there were still coachbuilt versions available based on GM, Chrysler, Packard, Willys, Hupmobile, Graham, Hudson, Studebaker and even American Bantam chassis. The trend toward luxury continued through the 1930s, although woody amenities lagged far behind those in production automobiles. Pontiac, for instance, did not offer full glazing until 1939. As the country began to recover economically, woodies were increasingly perceived as upscale vehicles and sales rose accordingly. Ford easily maintained its dominance, selling almost 10,000 redesigned Standard and DeLuxe station wagons in 1940 alone. Chrysler introduced its first truly car-quality woody, the Town & Country, in March of the following year. It boasted an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body by Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas. With Willys, Buick, Pontiac and Plymouth all getting serious about passenger comfort in their woodies, things were about to heat up when the manufacturers were told to cease production of passenger cars and contribute to the war effort. A trickle of cars continued for a brief time, but all domestic automobile production had ended by March of 1942. Ford continued to produce a small number of Ford and Mercury woody sedans and ambulances used during the war. We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem. It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing. Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service. The last great year of the woody was, by some accounts, 1949. Handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels was becoming very difficult to justify in the red-hot, new-car market. The epochal Chrysler Town & Country switched to Dinoc vinyl (still available in aftermarket "wallpaper woody" kits today) with ornamental ash framing, and the 1949 Ford used all-steel construction with experimental plywood-like panels that underwent a dramatically high rate of failure. General Motors abandoned wood framing after 1948, and from 1948 through 1951, Packard produced station wagons with window framing and ornamental wood door trim by Briggs Manufacturing. The few coachbuilders that survived the Depression and World War II were again in jeopardy during the 1950s. Despite efforts to make the transition to more modern products such as hearses and other steel bodies, the wood-body manufacturers, steeped in old-world hand craftsmanship, were almost all gone by the end of the decade. Car design and manufacture, as well as the tastes of the car-buying public, were undergoing radical changes and the woody, redolent of 1930s and 1940s country clubs, fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951, and while Fords continued to sell well, they now increasingly used vinyl and paint instead of real wood. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last real woodies from any major American manufacturer. Various wallpaper woodies or "vinylies" are still offered by Detroit to this day, but the age of the real woody ended in 1953. Fiberglass would come to substitute for ash and Dinoc for mahogany. It was a slow death, and the last real wood exterior trim of any kind on an American vehicle appeared on the Dodge Adventurer 150 "Li'l Red Express Truck" option available in 1978 and 1979.By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles–jitneys or hacks–that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, “station wagons,” and you’ll see them turn up. In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A’s with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena’s Rose Parade. Lovely as these ghosts are, there’s nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life–because that day I quit my job and started surfing.