Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Mill Stones and Dusty Millers

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William Jarman’s c.1790 mill at Mechum’s River prospered at its location alongside Brown’s Gap Turnpike and, later, the Virginia Central/C&O railroad. Converted from waterpower to diesel, it was destroyed in 1951 when its aged wooden bearing surfaces overheated and caught fire because of increased speed produced by its more modern power plant. Photo courtesy of the Horton family.

Albemarle County mills were once as ubiquitous as country stores and rural post offices. Some millers served their communities in all three of those capacities, all while keeping up a small farm and minding livestock. The most efficient operators, of course, were aided by an industrious wife and a full quiver of children.

Mills performed a diversity of functions. In the mountains and foothills, most used waterpower and an overshot wheel to turn the gears that spun the shafts that enabled runner stones to grind grains, steel blades to saw lumber, or heavy hammers to crush stone ore or assist a blacksmith.

A variety of mills could be found locally in differing shapes and sizes, depending on the tasks for which they were designed. Sassafras mills ground up the roots of that tree so their oils could be extracted by steaming for use in food and medicines. Stave and heading mills were a type of sawmill that produced the rough wood pieces later shaped by coopers to make barrels.

Sorghum mills generally were portable, and horse or mule powered. Their gearing squeezed the raw juices from sorghum stalks to be distilled into molasses. Bark mills, also powered by beasts of burden, were used to grind tree bark and roots for the production of tannin used in processing animal hides. A carding mill, like the one operated at Fray’s Advance Mills location, separated and aligned wool fibers for further processing, such as spinning.

The invention of each of these machines was a great labor saver and helped to further the industrial revolution. None, however, has been more beneficial to mankind than the grain mill, that producer of the flour and meal for our staff of life: bread.

The engine-powered mill at Doylesville was typical of smaller community businesses. Robey Shifflett, seen in the background, recalled its operation in the days of his youth. Photo: Phil James.

Bettie Via Gochenour, daughter of George Rice and Cornelia (Duff) Via, was born in Rockingham County in 1882. “In 1888 we moved to Sugar Hollow in Albemarle County near Grandfather Hiram Via,” she wrote. “We lived on Bernard Carr’s place. Later, his son Tom Carr [a tanner by trade] lived where I spent the best part of my happy childhood. Father bought some land and built us a home right close to the gristmill. Before we moved in, one Sunday afternoon the mill and the workshop burned down. I went way up on the hill above the mill and cried. Father built it back.

“Sometimes Father would have to be away and he asked Mother to grind the corn when people brought it. Mother never liked to do it, so when I got older I learned to grind it as well as Mother could. I remember one customer, Ernest Sandridge, would come with two bushels of corn in a wide sack. I would have a time getting that sack off and back on the horse but I did it.”

Lynnwood Clarke was the miller at Decca on Mechum’s River from the early 1900s as well as postmaster for that small community. Patrons who dropped off modest quantities of corn in a basket or gunny sack knew to cover it well before they left the mill yard, as Clarke’s free range chickens always had a sharp eye out for a quick snack. “Those who weren’t careful,” said Steward Walton, who married Clarke’s niece Natalie, “might leave a bushel but only get back a peck.”

Mill names on the 1866 Albemarle County map produced by Jed Hotchkiss included the following: Baker, Ballard, Barksdale, Barrow, Bowen, Branham, Brown, Carr, Cowherd, Dettor, Digg, Dillard, Fray, Garth, Gooch, Harman, Harris, Hydraulic, Jones, Maupin, Minor, Perry, Rio, Snead, Timberlake, Walker, Walnut Grove, and Yancey.

Some of the more progressive millers, such as Ballard at Millington and Maupin at White Hall, operated enlarged facilities that had been converted to more efficient and robust turbine power. Using a taller race and a tower through which the falling water spun a turbine wheel, multiple sets of millstones could be maintained for different grains. With the addition of a hydro-generator, electrical power also could be created.

However, the same source of “free” power used at mills proved to be the undoing of many of them. Although the dry, dusty conditions in mills made them susceptible to fire, floods damaged or swept away many more. Very few of the old establishments remain to remind us of that era when “stone ground whole grains” were the norm and not a marketing angle aimed at the health-conscious. The most typical reminders seen by passersby today are the once mighty millstones that rest silently alongside driveway entrances.

The following simple recipe was among several shared by the makers of “Your Grandfather’s Meal,” a brand produced with overshot waterwheel power near Ivy in the early decades of the 20th century. The recipe did not need to include the matter-of-course details, which every able cook of that era would have already understood.

Dinner Pone:

1 pint “Your Grandfather’s

Meal” (sifted)

1 teaspoon salt

Enough cold water to make a stiff dough, knead thoroughly, mould into smooth pones and bake in oven.

Why, just the thought of fresh warm bread straight from the oven is almost enough to make one want to split an armload of stove wood and pull out Great-granny’s old rocker churn.

“Come, butter, come!”

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James

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