Powell’s Creek: Crozet History from Top to Toe
By Phil James
Cool, clear springs emerge from the steep mountainside 1,000 feet above western Albemarle County’s Mint Springs Park to feed the tributaries that join to form Powell’s Creek. Familiar names decorate period maps of that area: Little Yellow Mountain, Buck’s Elbow, Mad Run, Saddle Hollow, and Beaver Creek Mountain.
The Powell family was settled in western Albemarle by the 1840s, before there was a railroad or a Wayland’s Crossing, much less a village named Crozet. They operated a water-powered grain mill just south of that soon-to-be village, near where Powell’s Creek enters Lickinghole.
Back up on the side of Buck’s Elbow, a tributary named Mad Run was familiar to Rev. David Wayland who grew up in Mint Springs Valley surrounded by apple and peach orchards nurtured by his family and their neighbors. “O’Neill Orchard backed up to Mad Run,” he said, “the creek that seldom is mad, and never runs. It crosses the [Mint Springs] Park road right at the entrance gate.”
Prior to the construction of Beaver Creek Reservoir in 1964, Crozet’s filtered water was gathered from the Powell’s Creek watershed surrounding Mint Springs Park. In 1942 the Crozet Sanitary District was created “for the specific purpose of obtaining a safe and sufficient water system [for] domestic and industrial uses, and fire protection.” A modest filter plant constructed where diminutive Mad Run enters Powell’s Creek handled the household needs of the village. Neither its line pressure nor storage reserves were adequate, however, for firefighting, nor for the growing water demands of Acme Visible Records and Morton Frozen Foods.
Flowing down Mint Springs Valley past bountiful fruit orchards, and then passing beneath the Chesapeake & Ohio (now CSX) railroad, the steady-running creek entered farmlands of Abram Wayland. In 1909, the Fruit Growers’ Ice and Cold Storage Corporation purchased for $500 from the Wayland family “a parcel of land about one mile west of Crozet Station… traversed by a creek… to erect and maintain a dam for water supply.” The deed also allowed for the placing of an underground water main pipe from the dam to their plant in downtown Crozet.
Soon thereafter, the little Powell’s Creek Dam became a popular spot for a variety of activities. Then, as now, it was a magnet for area youth testing their adventurous spirits. The Crozet Boy Scouts made its environs one of their regular campgrounds. In 1915, the Union Mission Church of Crozet purchased land for construction of a church building east of the village. The historically African-American congregation arranged to use the impounded waters of Powell’s Creek for their baptisms.
The Times-Dispatch reported in June 1926: “The Girls’ Auxiliary of the Leigh Street Baptist Church, Richmond, encamped at the cold storage dam near Crozet. The Crozet Boy Scouts furnished the tents and had the camp arranged in admirable condition when the campers arrived Monday afternoon.
“The campers expect to be here for ten days, and are spending their time in swimming, wading, games, songs and hikes.” For those readers concerned for the safety of these sojourners in the wilds of Crozet, the reporter added, “The camp is guarded by ‘Boots,’ a fox terrier, of rare intelligence.”
The Pleasant Green property and home a short distance downstream from the dam was purchased around 1814 by Rev. Benjamin Franklin Ficklin II and his wife Ellen (Slaughter). They had six children. Their fifth child, son Ben, was born at Pleasant Green in 1827. Young Ben’s earliest frontier adventures took place in his own backyard along the banks of Powell’s Creek, with the Blue Ridge Mountains as backdrop. Rev. Ficklin divested of his 1,300 acres in western Albemarle County and moved to Charlottesville in 1832.
Ben, who never married, filled his life with exploits seemingly intertwined with great risk and bravado. One who knew him, the Hon. F. Lawley, published an article in the London Standard in 1895 recalling Ficklin’s exploits in the far west “running stage coaches and pony expresses… including hair-breadth escapes without number… while carrying the first United States mail across the continent to San Francisco, in 1852. He gave you the impression that no moment, either by day or night, would have found him unprepared to go into action right away against any foe that he could be called upon to meet.”
Jeremiah Wayland purchased Ficklin’s Pleasant Green. Several years later, in 1839, Col. Claudius Crozet surveyed for a possible railroad through that area. When Col. Crozet returned to western Albemarle in the early 1850s as principal engineer of the Blue Ridge Railroad, he boarded for a season with the Wayland family.
Abram Wayland (1834–1906) was born at Pleasant Green, and, like young Ficklin, explored the banks of Powell’s Creek. Rightly considered as a founding father of the town of Crozet, Abram gathered signatures from landowners in the region and petitioned the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to establish a station at that place. He was appointed the first station agent for Crozet in 1877 and became its first postmaster in 1878.
As Powell’s Creek flows southward and passes under Jarmans Gap Road near Haden Lane, it passes the site of one of Crozet’s early industries, the Crozet Cider Company, established in 1905. Its plant manufactured “cider, vinegar, preserves, jellies, jams and evaporated and canned fruits.” Operated for 15 years, the business was consumed by a fire in 1922. The disaster was headlined in the Daily Progress as “The Largest Blaze in History of Town”. Owned by Crozet businessmen Russell and E.M. Bargamin, their losses were complete, including business offices, and all manufacturing facilities and equipment. Only the large traction engine used to drive the machinery was saved. The business was not rebuilt.
At the Powell’s confluence with Lickinghole Creek, west of Rockgate Cemetery, another mill dam and extensive mill pond were found. Sold by Powell family members to Rev. John J. Lafferty in 1890, the mill was rebuilt and enlarged with all new works to produce a nutritionally improved product, revolutionary in its day, that would be recognized today as whole-wheat flour. However, it was Lafferty’s mill pond, backing up Powell’s Creek one last time, where the young people of Crozet reveled in the wintertime.
Newspapers in 1895 reported “delightful skating parties on Dr. Lafferty’s Pond” where “happy couples glided like flashes of light over a glassy stretch of at least a quarter of a mile.” Also played on the frozen pond was “the old Scotch game of hocky,” likely that sport’s first introduction to many around old Crozet.
The storied little creek called Powell’s, unknown to many, has many tales to tell of a small village that grew up along its banks.
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