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Esom Slone's Grist Mill

History and Architecture
of Esom Slone's Grist Mill

    James Slone (1725-1808) moved from Pennsylvania and settled in western Virginia along with other early German settlers. In 1750, Slone operated a mill on Maggodee Creek near the present day community of Wirtz, Viriginia, in the Old Bonbrook area. After the American Revolution, Patrick Henry, the first governor of Virginia, deeded Slone the tract of land where the mill stood. Slone ground the corn and wheat produced by the local farms in the fertile area around his grist mill until his death.

    In his will, Slone wrote: "I, James Slone of Franklin County, in perfect sense and memory. First, I want all my just debts paid. To my wife, Sarah Slone, during her natural life or widowhood - 150 acres whereon my grist mill now stands, and half the net profits of the mill. At her death or marriage, the land and mill go to my son Clifford Slone. I also give my wife Negro woman Eady, and at the death or marriage, to be equally divided between my 2 sons, Clifford and Reuben Slone. Also to my wife, 1 riding horse, saddle, and bridle, and 2 cows and calves, 4 sheep of her choice, and all my hogs, together with all the household furniture and working tools. To my son Clifford Slone - half the net profits of my grist mill, and at the death of my wife, the whole to revert to him. To my sons Patrick, Thomas, & William Slone & my daughter Milly Kelly - $5 each & no more. Executors: my son Clifford Slone and my wife Sarah Slone."

    Upon the death of Clifford Slone, the mill passed to Clifford's son Samuel. When Samuel fell upon hard times, he was forced to sell his mill and land to pay his debts. Samuel then built a mill along the south prong of the Pigg River between 1840 and 1850. The mill passed from Samuel to his son Esom who rebuilt the mill during the 1880's to 1890's. In later years, the mill came into the possession of the Beckett family when Esom's daughter, Laura, married a T. J. Beckett. Manfred Cannaday of Callaway, Virginia, ran the mill from 1924 until about 1934. Banks closing in 1933 resulted in foreclosures and Cannaday lost the mill. The final operator, Posey Jones operated the mill up until the late 1940's.

    The property on which the mill stood was purchased in 1996 and the mill was sold to Doug Minnix of Callaway, Virginia. Virginia's Explore Park purchased the mill and the mill was dismantled down to its foundation in early 1997. 

    When the gristmill reopens at Virginia's Explore Park, the new waterwheel should average six revolutions per minute which should be enough to turn the millstones at 125 revolutions per minute. The mill will grind flour with 19.76 horsepower using about 500 gallons of water per minute, according to the distance the water falls. One horsepower is required to raise 33,000 pounds of water one foot off the ground. The mill will be a post and beam frame structure with horizontal lapped siding and a shingle roof. 

    Slone's Mill is a small one and a half story wood frame grist mill, 18 feet by 24 feet. Originally the two millstones were located near the south wall and later moved to the north end. Both millstones are 48 inches in diameter. One millstone was used for grinding corn and the other was used for grinding wheat, oats and rye. 

    One pair of millstones is a French Burr stone from France. This pair of millstones is a rare example of a solid French Burr stone. The norm had been for millstones to be made in pieces, although some solid stones were manufactured until around 1775. The practice of making French millstones in pieces was done for two strong reasons: easier to ship to other countries and the greater economy of manufacture at home and abroad, especially if a mistake was made on some part of the stone. There are only two other examples of these solid French Burrs found in America today.

    Ground flour and meal could normally fall by chutes into meal boxes in front of the Hurst frame. The second millstone's flour could also be sent up to the loft by an elevator to an eight foot bolting reel which sifted the flour. A bolter was a vital piece of machinery if the miller wished to produce white flour, grits, or buckwheat flour. It was necessary to sift off the course bran and indigestible hulls of buckwheat and oats. Another elevator was perhaps used to lift grain to a grain cleaning machine that would consist of a rolling screen and a smutter. A sack hoist could lift sacks to the loft where it was dumped into bins for storage and tempering of the grains before ground. White flour was packaged into wooden flour barrels. 

    The mill contains usual mill furnishings but there are three items that are of an unusual design or appearance. The "trammel" is unusually shaped. This was used to test the millstones spindle for true, upright running. 

    The wooden millstone crane screw in a 19th century mill in uncommon. This is more of an 18th century appurtenance. In the early 1800's, most mills adopted metal millstone crane screws. 

    The hopper feed system is unusual because the hopper was placed directly over the eye of the millstones, rather than being off set back from the eye over the back end of the wooden shoe.

    The mill had a wooden overshot water wheel 20 feet in diameter by 42 inches wide on an iron shaft. This was in keeping with the period of the early 1840's when wooden water wheels were being replaced by all metal water wheels. Iron shafts and hubs first replaced the old troublesome water wheel shafts. The mill has a unique system of metal counter-gearing where a leather belt drives a pulley which engaged a shaft with two lesser face gears that engaged small metal pinions or stone nut gears. The system is found in restored mills in the original wooden form of this type. Two-step gearing was developed to permit larger water wheels to operate more than one pair of millstones at faster speeds than smaller diameter water wheels. 

    Water flowed down the head race and collected in a mill pond above the mill where the water flowed down a sluice box to the wheel. The mill remained water powered until it ceased operation. The water control gate arm was adjusted by a lever which came through the wall on the platform at the head of the steps. More than likely, the entire flow of the south prong of the Pigg River at that point was diverted down the mill race to operate the grist mill.

    The mill is laid out in the traditional pre-settlement European technology of flour milling where the millstones are on a platform and the ground material falls into bins below thus found in "low milling," "flat milling," or "American milling" technology. The miller only went on the platform to dress his millstones or fill the hoppers with grain. Otherwise his work station was at the meal boxes where his millstone adjustments were close at hand.

    The mill also has the traditional open loft bins running under the eaves similar to a traditional English country mill when the miller and his helpers carried sacks on their backs up stairways or hoisted them up trap doors to the level above. This method was used to store and temper grains. It allowed natural bleaching and aging of the flour after it was ground by returning it to the loft and spreading it on the floors to cool and dry after milling.

    Slone's Mill also reflects the changes and additions of Oliver Evans' "automated milling system" of 1787 with the addition of elevators and conveyors. This new method became outdated after the mid-1800's. The mill did not convert to the modern roller mill system and continued to operate using the traditional millstones and wooden water wheel.

    While most mills in the area converted or added the roller system, Slone's Mill continued to use the long and true millstone method of grinding. Most mills in the area and in Virginia converted to the modern I-X-L Overshoot Water Wheel manufactured by the Fitz Water Wheel Company in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Slone's Mill maintained a satisfactory balance between using natural water power along with the traditional methods of flour milling.

 Information compiled by Theodore Hazen