The Good Old Days - Artist Paul Detlefsen

 

HISTORY OF WASHINGTON COUNTY, VIRGINIA MILLS

Updated April 16, 2007

It has been suggested that the milling of grain is the oldest industry in the history of mankind.  With the development of agriculture, came the need for milling, and the need to make grain reduction easier.  The mill became the community center, serving not only as place to grind and purchase prepared grains, but also as a post office, store, meeting hall and gossip spot.   

Few historic mills exist today intact, and very few are operational.  The shells of grist and saw mills sit dilapidated and rotting along tranquil streams and rivers throughout the United States.  The oversized gears and belts that once ran the behemoth grinding stones have been stripped and sold for scrap.  The wooden hoppers have been dismantled, or vandalized.  The grinding stones that once ate corn and spit out fine cornmeal now sit in people's yards, used for landscape decoration.  

The purpose of this website is to present a brief overview of milling history, identify as many surviving water powered mills in Washington County, Virginia, and nurture an appreciation for a quickly disappearing historical resource.  I hope you enjoy the site and if you have any questions, comments, or historical information you would like added to the site  please contact me at Kalli.Lucas@vdot.virginia.gov.

  

 

 

Evidence of the reduction of grass seeds can be found during the upper  Paleolithic cultures in France 75000 years ago.  The earliest grain grinding consisted of hand powered methods.  The grain was placed on a stone base and a smaller stone was rubbed across the material, crushing the grain into palatable meal.  Meal was then used to make porridge or gruel.  Once baking was discovered the meal was separated, course bran from white flour, and the flour was utilized in baked goods while the bran was eaten in a hot cereal type form.

 

Eventually grinding stones were attached to a rotary handle and grains were ground by turning the attached stone against a lower stone.  These hand mills, or querns, made grain processing much easier and faster, but only small amounts could be produced at a time.  It was found that the finer the flour, the better the baked items, so flour was sifted through fine material such as linen, and hair sieves.  This high quality flour was quite expensive to produce, and was purchased primarily by the elite.

 

Flour and other ground grains were in high demand, and mechanisms that allowed for easier grain reduction began to develop.  Early attempts included spring-pole pestles that would pound within hollowed stumps or logs, and counter-balanced tree trunks that would move the pestle.  Eventually streams of water were used to lift the pestle through a system of the filling and emptying of a water cup or trough.   This early mill was called a "Lazy Jim".  Soon animal power was used for the milling process.  These "horse mills" were constructed from a series of pulleys, gears and grinding stones.  Early American settlers primarily used these grain reduction methods.  However, with the population growth came a greater need for meals and flours, and a greater need for mass production of these staples.

 

 

Tub Wheel   

Overshot Wheel

Breast Wheel

Undershot Wheel

The earliest evidence of vertical water-wheel powered mills was a Roman design described by Vitruvius around 20 B.C.  The Greek Mill, a horizontal, tub type mill, was the model for the improved Roman model.  These early Roman mills are very much like water wheel powered mills that were built in early America.  Little change was made to the simple principle and design for over 1100 years.  The illustration to the left is of the Barbegal Mill, a Roman mill dating from the 4th century A.D.  This large, sixteen building, flour mill was powered by vertical waterwheels.  The structure was built on a slope, and the water ran off one overshot water wheel and dropped onto the next wheel below.    

 

 

 

By the late 1700s small water powered mills were being constructed in the small southwest Virginia settlements, as well as throughout the Colonies.  The mills were placed near streams or rivers, where running water could be easily diverted to power the mill.  Water diversion can most easily be achieved by placing logs in the stream to direct the water into a cut channel. The channel could remain as a dirt ditch, but some millwrights built wooden troughs to carry the water.  These troughs are referred to as the millrace or flume, and could run hundreds of feet before reaching the mill.

 

 

Once the water reached the mill it would power a wheel equipped with troughs, pockets or paddles that caught the moving water, and were moved from the velocity and mass of the water.  The moving wheel was attached to the grinding machinery that turned along with the wheel.  There were several types of mill wheels used to power mills.  The earliest appears to be the tub wheel (primitive turbine), that sat horizontally, and powered grinding stones typically housed in a building sitting above the wheel.

 

 

The four most common grist mill wheel types were the overshot, breast, pitchback and undershot wheel.  The names were based on the location that the water hit the wheel.  In order to power these wheels successfully many millers constructed mill ponds that could store water, if needed, during periods of slow stream flow.  The pond water could be controlled with a dam ensuring mill operations even during droughts.

 

 

Eventually steam, and then electricity replaced water power, and many of the water mills were converted, or abandoned.  

 

Washington County Water Powered Mills

An intensive search of historic maps, county records and literature revealed the existence of numerous historic mill sites within the boundaries of Washington County.  The earliest map referenced, the John Wood Washington County map 1821, referred to five mills including Clapps Factory (Stone Mill) in Abingdon and Gillenwater Mill in the Mendota area.  The C.R. Boyd Map of Washington County from 1890 depicted nearly forty mills, and also noted which streams were best for water power.  The 1850 Washington County Census listed 25 millers, and by 1860 the number had jumped to 85.  These numbers include grist, saw and industrial mills.  The number of water powered mills decreased drastically after the 1940s due to electric machinery and larger factory milling.  The majority of water powered mills were closed and abandoned by the 1960s.  By 1974 seventeen mills remained standing in the county, I found only ten during my research.   

 

Map shows existing mill locations, and Rockhouse Run Mill ruins.

 

It was apparent from the research that historically mills were plentiful throughout the county.  Every discernable location was visited and remaining buildings were documented and are included on this site.  The surviving mills are a minimal percentage of what once existed. 

 

 

Gone But Not Forgotten 

Mill on Abram's Creek, near Abram's Falls.  Photo 1908 by Clarence Kearfott.  Mill has been razed.

 

Clapp's Factory/ Stone Mill

Built prior to 1821 Clapp's Factory sat on Wolfe Creek just south of Abingdon.  The building stood 2.5 stories and was originally used as a woolen mill.  There is some evidence that suggests the mill was to be used for silk but the idea did not flourish.  When the mill was purchased by the Stone family it was converted to a corn and flour mill.  The carved stone mill building, constructed by slave labor, burned in 1964. 

Vance's Mill

Vance's Mill sat near the intersection of current Routes 75 and 670, south of Abingdon.  Vance's Mill was built around 1781 by Samuel Vance, constructed from logs.  A larger mill was constructed on the site in 1821 and included two wheels, three sets of burrs.  A dam was built for the mill in 1904, and the mill was remodeled in 1908 resulting in replacement of the wooden wheels with one constructed from steel.   The mill burned in 1940.

 

Wood's and  Falls Mill

Both Wood's and Falls Mill fell victim to progress and were destroyed by TVA when they constructed South Holston Lake.  Falls Mill was extremely unique being powered by a wheel that sat on a 90 degree angle from the mill, instead of parallel to the building. 

 

Rockhouse Run Mill / Lowe's Mill

Rockhouse Run Mill was located on Route 710, near Alvarado.  The mill was originally constructed around 1840, and stood two stories.  Operating until the 1950s this mill was unique in that it had a female miller.  Mrs. Almeda C. Lowe ran the mill with her husband until it closed.  The mill building itself is gone, destroyed sometime after 1992, however the coursed rubble dam still stands, and the mill footprint is visible.

       

      

 

The Survivors

White's Mill

White’s Mill is located five miles northeast of the town of Abingdon, along Toole’s Creek, at the intersection of Routes 700 and 692.  The original mill at this location was built by John Lewark, a Welsh shipwright, in 1790.  That mill was torn down, and the present mill was built on the site by 1830 by Ab Ireson who agreed to build the mill in exchange for free use for five years.  Ireson’s workmanship was said to be beyond compare, and he could supposedly build a mill wheel with such precision and balance that the weight of his pocket knife thrown into one of the buckets could start the mill wheel turning.  Whether Ireson was this talented is unknown but he definitely constructed a building which has stood the test of time.  The frame building stands three and a half stories high with the majority of the interior being a maze of milling gears and shoots and sorters and sifters.  The entire operation is powered by the large over-shot water wheel.  The structure is equipped with a massive corner fireplace which is common for mill construction.  White’s Mill like most was altered and modernized to improve the working parts within the complicated mechanism, but the mill still houses the original wooden master gear as well as the wooden pinion and shoots and sifters.  A cast iron gear for driving high speed machinery was added during the 20th century.  For  some time the mill also doubled as a woodworking plant.  The mill, for the most part, is still fully operational and open to the public.  White’s Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places and stands as one of Abingdon’s finer historic attractions.  The mill has been finely preserved  over the years and demonstrates not only milling techniques and machinery but also shows the evolution of the typical mill from the 19th to 20th century. 

        

                         

 

 

DeBusk-Widener's Mill

DeBusk-Widener's Mill is located at the intersection of Routes 605 and 733, south of the Friendship community.  The original mill was built around 1812 by Christopher DeBusk.  The property was eventually purchased by William "Squire Bill" Widener, and he rebuilt the mill in 1861.  Squire Bill was a prominent community figure and served not only as a miller but also as a millwright, Confederate soldier, teacher, Sunday School Superintendent, Justice of the Peace, and spiritual advisor.  Widener's mill is strongly constructed, with board and batten siding.  Widener added decorative Greek Revival detailing to the windows and doors.  This handsome three story building reflects the work of a craftsman, and unfortunately is falling victim to neglect.    President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Widener's, once quoted the Squire "Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are".  It appears that Squire Bill followed his own advice and served the community as provider, teacher and friend.

                         

 

 

Holston Mill

Sitting along Route 802, just off Route 19, is Holston Mill, a two story abandoned grist mill.  The original mill had a impressive stone race, the remnants of which can still be seen.   The mill was constructed around 1870, possibly by the Gobble family as a grist / sawmill combination.  The building sits today on stone piers looking over a tributary to the North Fork Holston River.  The building is in disrepair, but would be a fine candidate for rehabilitation.

   

                      

 

 

Parks Mill

Parks Mill sits along Fifteen Mile Creek on Route 672 south of Abingdon.  Parks Mill was originally constructed in 1790 by Oliver Alexander and was sold to the Parks family in 1810.  The original mill burned during the Civil War, but the Parks Family rebuilt the mill by 1865, resulting in the current structure.  The three story mill has an overshot wheel and a picturesque setting.  The mill has operated for over 200 years, and is still used for making grits and cornmeal.  A restaurant was recently built beside the mill bringing more visitors to the old milling site.  The mill is in excellent condition and a must see for mill enthusiasts.

 

     

                     

 

 

Patterson Mill

Patterson Mill sits along South Fork Holston River on Route 875 in the community of Friendship.  The mill is also referred to as Akers and Friendship Roller Mill.  The mill was built around 1777 and unfortunately showing its advanced age.  The deteriorated frame structure has a unique gambrel roof and remnants of the mill dam.  One historical note of interest, in the spring of 1777 Colonel Campbell, the newly elected lieutenant of Washington County,  requested settlers to gather at Rice's and Patterson's Mill to determine their strengths for the militia, and need for protection.  It is not known if this is the same Patterson's Mill, if so it holds an important place in the early history of Washington County.  The mill was once owned by Andrew Patterson, a local Baptist minister, who served as a Captain of the Washington County Militia during the War of 1812.  

 

 

 

Loves / Wilkinson Mill

Upstream  from Patterson Mill, on Route 762, sits Loves Mill.  Loves Mill was constructed in 1837 and is still in very good condition.  The mill once ran three sets of millstones (the corn, wheat and rough grinding stone) and a set of roller mill equipment.  An active animal feed store is still on site.  The river still flows over a large concrete dam behind the mill constructed in the early 20th century.

 

       

                

 

 

DeBusk Mill / Ebbing Springs Roller Mill

After selling the family mill to the Wideners, the DeBusks built another mill along the Middle Fork Holston River.  DeBusk Mill sits on Route 736 and was constructed exclusively as a roller mill.  The mill was constructed around 1870, and historically was called Ebbing Springs Roller Mill.  The three story building still has the interior equipment, the dam is still standing and the mill race is present.  Overall this mill is in excellent condition and could probably be restored easily.  The mill closed in the 1960s and was the original producer of White Rose Flour.  

 

          

    

 

 

Grahams's / Mock Mill

Graham's Mill sits along Route 803 , south of Cedarville.  Graham's Mill stands 3.5 stories tall and appears to be in good condition.  The steel wheel still stands beside the building, and it has been said the interior is intact.  The existing mill is not the original mill on this site.  The original mill was a two-story, log structure built prior to 1829.  The log mill ran solo until 1914 when the current building was constructed.  The new three story structure was equipped with roller mill machinery that produced a finer, whiter flour.  For some time there was a combination grist/roller mill operation at Mock's Mill.  This is the only known site in Washington County where tandem overshot wheels ran consecutively.     

        

 

 

The Davey Gobble Mill

Located in Brumley Gap, at the intersection of Routes 688 and 689, is the Davey Gobble Mill.  This structure is very small, one room, one story, and probably operated as a farm, or several farm, mill.  The milling equipment has been stripped from the building and it is now used as a shed.  The Gobble Mill and Mumpower's Mill, that sat five miles away, were built similarly and may have been the work of the same millwright.  Mumpower's Mill has unfortunately been destroyed.

 

 

 

The Old Mill in Damascus

Compared to the other surviving mills, the Old Mill in Damascus is a youngster.  This three story mill building has stood along the South Fork Holston since 1910.  The building served the community as a grist/saw mill complex until 1965.  The mill has been remodeled and now serves as a restaurant, convention center, and entertainment venue.

   

                         

 

 

I hope you have enjoyed the site!  If you would like to read more about mills and milling check out some of the sites below.

Sites of interest and education

http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/eiSessay_water.html

http://www.woonsocket.org/stone.htm

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/3807/features/watermills.html?20066

http://www.bakeinfo.co.nz/school/school_info/wheat_milling_history.php

http://www.osv.org/education/WaterPower/index.html

http://www.millpictures.com/

http://www.spoom.org/

 

References

1890       Boyd, C. R.  -  Map of Washington County, Virginia

1974      Herman, Bernard L. - Washington County Grist Mills  Historical Society of Washington County, Va. Publication 12

1970      Kearfott, Clarence Baker -  Highlands Mills   B & I Printing, Bluff City, TN

1997      Lucas, Kalli - A Historic Preservation Look at Southwest Virginia Mills

2002      Lovett, John, Jr. & Loretta Lautzenheiser - Historic Context Evaluation for Mills in Tennessee  for the TDOT

1903      Summers, Lewis Preston  -  History of Southwest Virginia, 1746-1786, Washington County, 1777-1870   The Overmountain Press,

             Johnson City, TN

 

1902       U.S.G.S.  -  Topographic Map Bristol, Va. - Tenn.

 

1911       U.S.G.S.  - Topographic Map Abingdon, VA. - Tenn.-N.C.

 

Personal Communications

Andy Doss,   Elizabeth Edmondson