Grist Mills were an important part of the development of our region. The vast archival holdings of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC) provide researchers and historians a glimpse into an almost forgotten part of our heritage. Few early mills survive today, but their impact on our landscape is still present today. The most intriguing question is how did a citizen go about establishing, building, and maintaining such an enterprise? The records held by the CRHC help us understand that by today’s standards, we might consider this to be an imperfect process. Damming a waterway in modern times can require an act of Congress with numerous engineering and environmental studies. Not so in the early days of our region.
Grist Mills took their name from their by-product. Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding. The product made into grist is called grits when it is coarse, and corn meal when it is finely ground. Wheat, oats, barley and buckwheat are also ground and sifted into flour and farina. Grist is also used in brewing and distillation to make a mash.
Some were small custom mills where local farmers would bring their wheat to be ground into flour for making bread. Others were merchant mills that bought large quantities of corn and grain, ground them and then shipped their milled products to whatever local markets were available. The miller was paid for his services of milling by collecting a toll. A toll is a portion of the grain brought to the mill for grinding. Local laws and custom set the allowable amounts for corn and wheat. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, the usual toll was one-eighth for corn and one-sixth for wheat. Because milling was also a craft learned through apprenticeship, no one was allowed in the mill when it was operating or when the miller was measuring out his toll.
In the days before electricity, large and small mills operated the same way, by using water to power the workings that ground grist into flour or meal. As the waterwheel turned, it engaged the teeth of wooden gears inside the mill, which in turn caused the main shaft that powered the grindstones (also known as burrstones) to revolve. Grain was dropped from a chute into a hole on the upper stone where it would be split and ground between the grooves of the two grindstones. As the process continued, the ground material would fall through a chute, go through a sifter, and be ready for bagging.
In order for a mill to be successful, water was required. Records at the CHRC tell a story. The earliest official mention of a mill in Spotsylvania County is recorded in DEED BOOK D-1742-1751. The location is not readily apparent.
Feby. 1,1742. Thos. x AlIen of St. Geo. Par., Spts. Co., to his son, John Allen of same par. and county. Deed of Gift. ~ profits, etc., of a grist mill and 100 a. whereon sd. Thomas now lives, etc., after death of sd. Thomas and Elizabeth, his present wife, Land adjoining Hon. Wm. Gooch, James Jones, and Thomas Allen', Junr. Witnesses, Edmund Waller, Henry Pendleton. Feby. 1, 1742.
Another set of records located in WILL BOOK E-1772-1798 indicated a mill close to Fredericksburg…
Roger Dixon, Fredericksburg, d. Oct. 3, 1771, p. June 18, 1772. Wit. none. Ex. my brother, the Rev. John Dixon. Leg. son, Roger, my dwelling house and four lots adjoining in the town of Fredericksburg, my new mill on the Hazel Run, and the Race and lands I am to have of Mr. Lewis Willis, after the death of his (Roger's) mother. Sons, John and Philip Rootes Dixon; daughters Mildred, Eliza, Lucy, Susannah, Mary; wife Lucy.
This merchant mill, after numerous owners became Wellford’s Mill. Today, when we sit in an automobile at the intersection of Blue Gray Parkway and Lafayette Boulevard, we are on the site of the mill. The photograph below shows the mill and in the background Marye’s Heights, where the National Cemetery is located today.
In the early days of our region if one owned both sides of a stream, building a mill was not an issue. However, potential effects on neighbors was often unforeseen. Mills had negative impacts as well. In times of drought, millponds could become stagnated and serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos. Dams also interfered with the passage of anadromous fish, such as herring and shad, seeking to reach their spawning areas. Upriver farmers and residents noted the drop in the available fish and complained to their elected representatives. In 1759, the General Assembly ordered mill owners to provide fish ways through their respective barriers. Passage over dams consisted of an opening or slope in the dam that was a least ten-feet wide. This solution appears to have been satisfactory, at least for a while, but this requirement was forgotten beginning in the 1800’s.
As previously mentioned, if one didn’t own both sides of the waterway, the mill dam and pond could have a potential adverse effects on neighbors. The records held by the CHRC give us an insight into the process. In 1837, Stapleton Crutchfield Jr. (1808-1859), a prominent landowner, petitioned the court to build a mill on his property known as Green Branch in Spotsylvania County. At the time, Crutchfield was also Clerk of Court. As was customary, the court authorized Crutchfield to appoint a group of local citizens, hopefully with some knowledge of the construction process, to review and make recommendations (petition below).
As requested, the group met, and it is noted that among the group members were William P. Wigglesworth, John Holiday and James Coleman, whose families had been involved in mills in the past.
They recommended the mill dam be 17-feet high. It was determined the millpond would cause 3/4 quarters of an acre of the property of George Pollett to be overflowed, which they valued at the sum of $10 and ¼ of an acre of the property of Elizabeth Spindle to be overflowed, valued and condemned for $4. In an early exercise of eminent domain, Crutchfield was ordered to pay the adjacent landowners and his mill soon became a reality.
A research of aerial photographs, and confirmation with the current owner of the property reveal that the remnants of the dam still exist today.