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Park of pleasure



Published: Sat, January 29, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



ASSOCIATED PRESS

THOUSANDS OF VISIT-ors flock to the Old Mill park in North Little Rock, Ark., each year to snap photos and enjoy the scenery and intricate gardens, but few know the site is steeped in history.

Famous for its spot in the opening credits of the 1937 film "Gone With the Wind," the Old Mill was built in 1933 as a replica of an 1830s water-powered mill. It is surrounded by concrete sculptures and bridges that fool many into believing they are walking on smooth petrified wood. Inside are artifacts from the Trail of Tears, local plantations and passenger steamboats.

Locals say they can't recall any grand story or lore as to how the mill was chosen for the movie. They just say they know others were in the running and North Little Rock's was picked. The movie connection resurrects childhood memories for many, drawing them to the park, tucked in a hilly residential neighborhood.

"I remember watching 'Gone With the Wind' with my parents and them saying, 'That's the mill over in Little Rock,"' said David Tate, who came from Cranston, R.I., with his 9-month-old daughter Heather and wife Jennifer.

Tate said he saw the mill in a large picture at the Little Rock National Airport when they arrived in town to visit family and decided to revisit the site. His wife had a camera strap slung over her shoulder and they held the baby girl in a crook of one of the mill's bridges, trying to get her to smile for a photo.

Jack Singleton, the park's master gardener and a former pastor, said the spread of electricity in the South made such mills obsolete, prompting developer Justin Matthews to build the recreation on a patch of land that wouldn't do well for housing.

Even though the two-story stone building is most noted for its spot in cinema history, Singleton thinks visitors today appreciate it more for the gardens that surround it.

Collaboration

Matthews collaborated with Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez, who used a mixture of concrete to create sculptures and foot bridges around the mill that twist and turn, resembling petrified wood.

"He had a secret formula," Singleton said. "He even scraped the labels off of the cans" of the products he used.

An authentic 1828 grist mill sits on the first floor of the building and some of the stones in the walls on the second floor came from an Arkansas plantation. Three parts of a wrought-iron shaft of the stern wheel of a passenger steamboat that traveled the Arkansas River in the 1800s were cut to make parts of the mill as well.

Two large stone wheels, known as milestones, or mile markers, act as benches for visitors upstairs. More than 150 years ago the stones were laid by Jefferson Davis as part of the Trail of Tears that stretched from Dardanelle to eastern Oklahoma. Davis was the president of the Confederacy.

All of this engineering and art creates a romantic spot. Some sunny summer Saturdays bring a half-dozen brides to the park, lobbying for spots to take photos with their new husbands; some 200 weddings were held at the park in 2004. Inside the mill graffiti marks read "4/10/4 Will you marry me?" Below it reads, "Yes!"

Singleton recalls that 10 years ago he found himself pulling weeds from a flower patch at the park when a bride and groom approached, asking if he was a pastor.

"I told them I was, and they stepped away for a second, talking to one another," Singleton said. "They were waiting to get married and their pastor wasn't here. They were ready to go."

The couple asked Singleton if he wouldn't mind. He said he didn't and married the pair in his muddy blue jeans.

"We had the wedding right down there," he said, motioning to a stone path.

The mill draws artists and photographers as well. The rugged terrain offers many lines of sight and different views of the park, Singleton said. Often art classes will line their easels along a gravel path, each making their own version of the mill.

"In the winter time, anytime there's a snow, there's a dozen photographers," Singleton said. "It's a great place for photographers."

Different views

Shirley Stancil of Little Rock walked along a bridge near the mill, looking at different views with her granddaughter, Leslie Skelton of Rogers, who paints.

"I like the scenery," Skelton said, deciding if she should return another day, when the sun would be stronger. "It's different. I'm just wondering how somebody thought of something like this."

Stancil said the pair were driving by when she remembered the mill was in the neighborhood and insisted they stop.

Singleton and a crew of volunteer gardeners take care of the pristine park, littered only by the occasional cigarette butt.

The Old Mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Singleton, who spends hours with a crew of volunteer gardeners to keep up the site, hopes it now is a place where tourists and locals alike can come to forget about the pressures of the surrounding world.

"A lot of people remember this place from a long time ago. They remember soldiers training, doing mock exercises," he said. "But now they like to go to a place where they can just relax and just be for a while."




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