This story was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
West Virginia’s gristmills and sawmills evoke the spirit of early industry.
There is something hypnotic about the rhythmic sounds of an old mill: the creak of a gear wheel turning over and over in steady time and the slap of leather belts setting the pace of production. The sights and sounds of an old mill take us back to an earlier time, when a small industrial building was the heartbeat of a community and before prepackaged bread was ubiquitous on store shelves.
Generally constructed of stone or timber, early mills had distinctive equipment including mill races—manmade paths constructed to divert water from a creek to a mill’s water wheel—mill ponds to collect water, large wooden wheels that turned mechanical gears, and the mill buildings.
Although they may differ in appearance, most gristmills use gravity to produce their products. Systems of pulleys and weights transport raw materials to a mill’s upper floors and, through a system of slow sifting,
grain is separated from its waste material and ground between two stones, allowing fine flour to emerge. In later years, roller mill technology allowed millers to grind increasing amounts of grain, and mills became less dependent on topography when alternate power sources such as electricity and gas were developed.
Throughout the state, travelers will find several mills that continue to evoke the spirit of West Virginia’s early industry. At one time, more than 500 grist- and sawmills ground grain and cut wood across West Virginia. Today, fewer than 20 remain.
Cook’s Old Mill
Cook’s Old Mill is located less than half a mile west of Greenville in Monroe County and was constructed in 1857 on the site of a mill built in 1796. This southern West Virginia gem has all the elements of a 19th century milling operation: the mill building, dam, mill race, mill pond, tail race, stream, and miller’s house. Cook’s Old Mill transitioned from a small operation with a water wheel to using twin turbines to mechanize the mill in 1877 and, just a few years later, it became a rolling mill, using steel rollers to crush the grain instead of grinding meal with stone. The mill actively served its community until 1964, when the building became the new home for Landmark Furniture. The mill’s machinery was removed during this time, although the elevator was retained to move furniture between the floors. From 1987 to 2002, previous owners Jim and Nan Wells began the restoration of the property with a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History to help fund repairs. Current owners Fred and Barbara Zeigler live nearby in the old miller’s house. “A mill is the ultimate in antique machinery,” Fred Zeigler, an antique tool collector, says about why he was drawn to own the mill.
Both are history aficionados and members of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills who take pleasure in their mill and allow visitors to stop by to experience the property. The mill’s serene landscape lends itself to picnics and easy strolls among historic buildings. The Zeiglers have meticulously researched the history of the mill and provided details of its original machinery on their website, cooksoldmill.com.
The allure of history also attracted Cathi and Dan Hartsook to purchase French’s Mill in Augusta in Hampshire County. Located approximately five miles east of Romney, French’s Mill was constructed around 1910 to replace an earlier mill destroyed by fire—flour dust is highly combustible, and wooden mills were often casualties.
Augusta was a small farming community that boasted 50 residents at the turn of the 20th century, yet its location on the old Northwest Turnpike (present day Route 50) made the community a center of commerce for outlying farms. The importance of the mill was evident after the fire: The townspeople and local farmers banded together and created stock for the Augusta Milling Company. One of the investors was Charles E. French, future namesake of the mill, who also later came to own it. Constructed of heavy timbers, the mill was not located on a stream but instead used a woodburning steam boiler to rotate the stone that ground grain. Later, the operators used an automobile battery before the mill fully transitioned to using electric power.
French’s Mill still contains its original equipment. The milling process began when farmers delivered raw materials into the basement through a door on the east elevation to the storage sink, a large cone-shaped wood container that held the grain. The material then traveled through four levels of sifting, cleaning, hulling, and grinding before flowing down a final chute to a galvanized tub, where it was scooped into bags and sold to customers.
After 1940, later owners removed the machines dedicated to processing wheat and instead focused on processing cornmeal and buckwheat. The mill continued to hum throughout the 20th century with operations ceasing in 2000. The Hartsooks purchased the mill in 2013 and began preparing it again for use, and are now looking for new owners to continue to operate the mill and restore it to its former glory.
Lick Run Farm
Berkeley County’s Lick Run Farm also shows the importance of mills as centers of commerce and industry. Major Henry Bedington constructed a limestone mill in 1816 to augment an earlier mill constructed in 1770. Flour milled at the site was shipped throughout Maryland and Virginia via the Potomac River and helped establish Bedington as an emerging mill village. Hoke Creek powered the gristmill’s two large water wheels. Lick Run Farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ailes family has owned this mill and its adjacent property since 1940, and Walter Ailes and his wife inherited the property from his parents in 2001. During his tenure, Ailes has restored an old stone barn and house constructed during the late 18th century.
“The collection of buildings and running water of the mill and the waterfall make all of this a very peaceful setting,” Ailes says. Although the Lick Run Farm mill has not been operational since the 1930s, the presence of the mill still defines the local community.
That same spirit of community is represented through the milling industry of Harpers Ferry. The waterpower from the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, combined with the area’s topography, propelled the small community as an industrial powerhouse. Virginius Island held several mills including a sawmill, gristmill and, later, pulp mills, all using the same waterpower to develop the growing community. Today the National Park Service interprets the ruins of these mills, which provide evidence of the region’s industrial history.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources understood the importance of mills to West Virginia’s development and recreated a mill at Babcock State Park to share that history. Constructed in 1976 from parts of three different mills, including an overshot wheel centered over Glade Creek, the Babcock State Park mill offers an iconic setting. Thousands of visitors tour the mill each year and can even purchase freshly ground cornmeal.
The Easton Roller Mill, owned by the Monongalia Historical Society, is another demonstration mill located in Morgantown. Originally constructed in 1870 to serve as a gristmill and a sawmill, the Easton Roller Mill was instrumental in the development of the Morgantown area. Because it used steam as its power source, the mill’s capacity was larger, which illustrates the transition from small-scale production to a larger-scale industrial
complex. The importance of this mill generated the interest of the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record program which, along with university students and professors from a West Virginia University history and archaeology program, documented this structure with scale drawings and a complete history that is saved in the Library of Congress. Open several times a year, this frame building continues to share its story of Monongalia County’s industrial development.
Though the number of active mills in West Virginia is decreasing, the marks these mills have left on the landscape are permanent. Visitors to historic mills can see and feel the craftsmanship of mill and machinery, each with its distinct sound, feel, and smell. Mills provide connections to our past, to what we consume, and to the effort required to transform harvested grain into loaves of bread. Mills provide evidence of the power of community, of how neighbors can work together to establish centers for commerce to benefit each other, and of West Virginia’s industrial past.
written by Sandra Scaffidi
photographed by Nikki Bowman Mills