For the September issue of the Gazette, I interviewed the four men of Deep Roots Milling who are now operating their grain business at Woodson’s Mill in Lowesville. Because of limited space, I was not able to go into detail about the mill itself, so this month’s article covers Woodson’s rich history, its innerworkings, past owners, and the millers who worked there.
In the early 1970s, while visiting the mountains and riding the back roads, I came upon an abandoned grist mill in Lowesville and took a photograph of it. Not until I moved here in 1980 did I learn the name of the mill and later interviewed the men who had breathed new life into the 225-year-old structure and were once again grinding grain.
A man by the name of Chris Anderson gave me permission to summarize the mill’s history in an article he and the former owner of Woodson’s, J. Gill Brockenbrough, Jr., co-wrote for the Old Mill News in 1987. It is very concise and gives the reader a glimpse back in time when the mill was first constructed.
A few short years ago, Woodson’s Mill was one of the too many dilapidated-and-dying Virginia water mills. Since 1972, when first we learned of its existence, my colleagues and I have watched this once-proud, four-story structure slump further and further into decline with each visit. Now the old mill has new life and breath again—the only one of its kind operating in Nelson County, and one of the few double overshot grist mills in the nation. Regrettably, five other mills still standing in this same area are fast following the path that, until recently, Woodson’s Mill had trod.
Constructed in 1794 by Guiliford Campbell, the mill was originally called the Piney River Mill. It was rebuilt in 1845, and then purchased in 1900 by Dr. Julian B. Woodson. “Doc Woodson’s Old Mill” as it was referred to locally, became an industrial center through expansion and modernization that began in 1904.
Through the years, flour and cornmeal, feed, lumber, cider and ice were all produced at Woodson’s. Across the road from the main complex were a stable, foundry, and later a steam-powered sawmill. Woodson also owned a three-thousand-tree apple orchard, a 650-acre farm, and a machine shop—all on the same property.
Today, the mill has two overshot wheels, but in Woodson’s time, a third operated the sawmill and, later, the ice plant. The foundation for a fourth wheel, whose use is now unknown, also stands in a creek that runs through the property.
Julian Woodson was a medical doctor and had an office in a room off the main floor of the mill where he became the community’s family practitioner as well as their dentist and veterinarian when needed. Not many came to his office because that was an era where house calls were still the norm.
Dr. Woodson died in 1963, but the mill had been closed since 1957. After Woodson’s death, the mill lay idle for three more years; the wooden teeth having been stripped from the main gear by an inexperienced successor to longtime miller Edd Willis. To repay a loan from Dr. Woodson, Willis, as a young man, went to work as a miller and there he remained for sixty years.
In 1966, Huron T. Campbell purchased the mill property, using the smaller wheel to pump water to his reservoir. Over the years a number of people offered to buy the mill machinery, but the far-sighted Mr. Campbell always refused, hoping that a subsequent owner might restore the place.
In 1983, J. Gill Brockenbrough, Jr., of Norfolk, bought the mill property and began the restoration process.
Originally Gill was drawn to the beautiful rock house located on the property that Dr. Woodson had built in 1929 and bought it along with the derelict mill, which had sat unused for twenty-six years. At that point, he wasn’t sure whether the mill was an asset or a liability. But in the fall of 1984, Gill hired Massies Mill native Steve Roberts to paint the roof of the mill to keep it from deteriorating further. Steve, along with his nephew Peter Balin, began the arduous task of painting the steep metal roof, which took about a week. Steve then suggested clearing years of accumulated junk from the building and doing a general clean-up. A decision was made to proceed with a total restoration and new wood siding was added where needed along with replacement windows and installation of a new sill at the east end of the mill, averting an imminent collapse of that wall. Persimmon wood was used to fashion new teeth for the stripped main gear and the millstones were cleaned and dressed like new. The huge Fitz overshot water wheel, most likely manufactured in Hanover, Pennsylvania, was refurbished. Earlier wheels were made of wood but in the 1840s modernization with steel products was becoming popular and that is when the wooden wheel was probably replaced. Concrete was poured into the original stone-lined race that carried water from a three-acre pond located near the rock house and funneled it through the race and over the water wheels, powering the mill and the house.
Through Gill Brockenbrough’s vision, by 1986 Woodson’s Mill was once again grinding all types of grain and remained a vital part of the community and supplied many businesses with fresh ground meal until Gill’s passing in 2001. As fate would have it, years later Gill’s son Will Brockenbrough bought the mill property from his dad’s estate and reopened Woodson’s in 2012. Will, along with Steve Roberts and David Woodson, continued the gristmill business that Gill had started.
David Woodson, Dr. Woodson’s grandson and the mill’s docent, was kind enough to give a brief account of how grain is ground once it comes to the mill.
Grain is brought in and dropped into a hole in the floor that houses a wooden cone-shaped hopper that goes to the bottom of a bucket elevator, which then takes it upstairs and deposits it into a large metal silo.
From the silo, the grain is then chuted down to a second-floor wooden hopper which, in turn, feeds it into a long fabric sock that empties into another hopper. David designed the removable sock to self-feed the grain into a waiting hopper and to keep it from spilling out onto the floor. It also eliminates much of the dust associated with the grinding process.
The grain drops to a trough called a “shoe,” which is shaken by a vertical wooden rod called the “damsel” that wobbles the shoe back and forth, shaking the kernels downward, into the eye of the runner stone. A bottomless bucket is positioned around the damsel to keep the grain from jumping out on the top of the stone and directing it down between the two millstones where it is ground.
Millstones come in pairs; a convex stationary base known as the bedstone and a concave runner stone that rotates. The movement of the runner stone on top of the bedstone creates a “scissoring” action that grinds grain trapped between the stones. Millstones are constructed so their shape and configuration help to channel the ground grain to the outer edges for collection. Although good millstones will last for centuries, constant grinding wears them smooth, and they must be dressed from time to time. Redressing involves chiseling the furrows in the stone’s surface, removing glazed, rough, and uneven spots and is done when needed, taking about 24 hours for each stone.
After the grain is ground, it comes out of the chute and down to the floor, where a blower picks it up and sends it up a shaft. It goes through the side of a metal cyclone, swirling around until the grain falls out the bottom and goes to a sifter, while the top pipe carries excess air out a window.
The sifter has boxes with different sizes of screen wire inside which, contrary to thinking, sifts the fine meal on top and the coarse at the bottom. Each box is for different things—corn, wheat or buckwheat. The photo below shows corn being ground and the four bags contain grits, corn meal, flour and bran, which is sold to hog farmers as a supplement.
After the meal is bagged, it goes into a cooler, kept until it is ready to be measured into paper bags, and is heat sealed to preserve freshness. Without preservatives, bleaches, or chemical additives, the various meals are best kept under refrigeration until needed.
The mill continued to thrive until 2020 when Will Brockenbrough decided to sell the rock house, the mill and its properties to Bill and Cookie Chinworth of Norfolk, with the understanding that it was to be leased by the men of Deep Roots Milling so the business could continue.
And that is currently where Woodson’s Mill stands today; different owners and operators from 1794 until 2022 but the same time-honored tradition of grinding grain with sustainable water power.
Woodson’s Monthly Mill Race Market
On the first Sunday of each month, Deep Roots Milling at Woodson’s Mill hosts their Mill Race Market from noon until 4 p.m. Visitors can take a step back in history to see one of the last commercially operated water powered mills in action.
They offer tours and milling demonstrations and a chance to purchase their signature Virginia-grown flour and meal along with goods from other artisan vendors on site. Market schedules for the remainder of the year are on November 6 and December 4. Plan on coming to one of these last 2022 dates for a memorable afternoon at Woodson’s Mill and enjoy the rustic atmosphere of a bygone era.
Woodson’s is located at 3211 Lowesville Road, Roseland, VA 22967. Call 804-803-1794 for more information or go to their website at deeprootsmilling.com.