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Esom Slone's Grist Mill

Esom Slone's Grist Mill, circa 1840,
south view-water wheel, Sheet Number 2,
drawing by T.R. Hazen, 1996-97, Virginia's Explore Park.

Information Collected
Theodore R. Hazen

This mill was constructed in the Pigg River-Turner's Creek Valley in Western Franklin County, Virginia, in the latter part of the 19th Century. The Pigg River-Turner Creek area was named for John Pigg (who never lived in present-day Franklin county), and Roger Turner (who came in the first wave of settlement in Franklin County filed his entry for land on 22 April 1748) whom Turner's Creek was named. Sloan's were among the Scotch-Irish who settled in southwestern Franklin County. James Sloan operated a Mill on Maggodee Creek near the present day Writz in the Old Bonbrook area beginning in the 1750's. After the American Revolution Patrick Henry, the first Governor of Virginia, deeded him the tract of land where the mill stood. James Sloan had come down from Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley along with the early German Settlers. He was descended from one of the transplanted Scotsmen moved to Northern Ireland in the 1690's by King William. In James Sloan's Mill he ground corn and wheat produced by farming in the fertile area around his grist mill.

James Sloan's Mill passed down to his son Clifford Sloan and then it passed down to Clifford's son Samuel. When Samuel Sloan fell upon hard times it forced Samuel to sell his mill and land to pay his debts and he moved to the mountains of Franklin County. Samuel Sloan (1813-1885) perhaps then built a mill along the South Prong of the Pigg River around 1830 to 1840. Samuel Sloan's son Esom (1838-1910) rebuilt the mill during the 1880's to 1890's, using parts which came from another mill. Besides the mill there was also the Esom Sloan's store. Esom Sloan bartered with his customers for his store items. He then sent butter, eggs, apples, dried fruits, vegetables, walnuts, cabbages, potatoes, pumpkins and other things from the farms by wagon to Roanoke and Danville. The mill became sort of a social center and a gathering place of the area. Esom Sloan's mill was operated by his son Thomas while Esom was busy at the store. The store became so busy that it was latter enlarged after 1895. The money taken in by the mill was hidden in a small box placed in a safe place in the mill. One day Esom said to Thomas: "I'm always having to make change when people buy meal, so let's fix a box with coins in it and hide it somewhere here in the mill."

One half mile down stream from Esom Sloan's Mill was the Viar Mill. It was torn down 50 years ago. There is no evidence of the mill which remains at the site today. Esom Sloan and Mr. Viar did not like each other. Esom was thrifty and who knew him said he was stingy. A road went up hill in front of store and back over hill next to mill race. Then it went through Day Spur Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, south of Five Mile Mountain. Mill race came down over hill and collected into a mill pond before it went into sluice box. Mr. Leslie Stubbs removed the mill pond. The mill dam is long gone. There were once houses up on the hill, along the old road from the mill. There are still chimneys standing up on this hill today.

In the late 1890's Esom Sloan converted from the Brethren faith and built a small church and Episcopal Mission school, later known as Saint Peter's-in-the-Mountains. Esom Sloan and his wife Eliza Jones Sloan family consisted of three sons Thomas, Dorman and Lee, and two daughters, Lillie and Laura. Thomas took pictures in the neighborhood with his big box camera which his father bankrolled. Dorman was in charge of the farm while his brother Thomas and father looked after the mill and store. Dorman played the banjo at parties, dances and corn shuckings. He would often tease his father by making up songs about the mill. In the process sometimes fights would break out among some of the local roughnecks.

Some of the Dorman's verses went like this: "If you want to get your eye knocked out, If you want to get your fill; If you want to get your corn tolled twice, Just go to Esom's Mill." This song has a traditional origins found in the ballad, "The Miller and His Three Sons." Where a dying miller asks his three sons what toll shall they take when his his gone, in order to determine which son to leave the mill to. The first son says, "I'll take a peck, and live fine." The second son says, "I'll take a half, and live most fine." And the third son says, "I'll take it all, and swear the sack." "Your are the man," the old man said, "You have learned the art of trade; For by that means a man can live: And I to you my mill will give." Dorman Sloan also mixed in a little bit of Chaucer's miller who had a thumb of gold. Interpreted by some to refer to his stealing of other peoples grain. In Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," it says, "Well could he stole corn and tollen thries." This proverb about the miller who takes double his toll to be sure, and tolls more than once to be sure. Chaucer describes the miller again, "And yet he haddle a thumb of Gold." This is a parody of the miller who has not only a thumb skilled in testing grain and flour, but more important it was self aggrandizing, by giving false weight and measure by using his thumb to gage the size of a kernel of grain. In "Canterbury Tales" we are reminded of the folk tale of the double cheating miller who then confesses, when challenged that he has an over sized measure and agrees to get a sampler one. He then measures back the flour from his bin. Then the second time uses the smaller measure or scoop. Stories of the dishonest miller go back to the late middle ages, when the craft was associated in the public mind with dishonesty. It was common for a peasant to believe a miller takes hefty portions of his grain after visiting his lord's mill. The miller doing so with the lord's "Soke Rights." Corn is the English generic word for all grains, most of the time a "Corn Mill" in England means a mill that grinds wheat. The American Revolution caused Americans to disassociate themselves from English terminology.

Many early mountain people had to be their own millers using century old methods of grinding corn into meal. Milling your own grain with a home quern was the first way many people had of getting their grains ground before a mill was set up. This was because locating milling facilities in many isolated areas were mills practically or virtually nonexistent. Often mountain people had to drive a team of horses many miles to the nearest mill, often waiting several days for their turn to have grain ground into meal or flour. So many millers rather that using the old "first come, first served" method used, "those that came the farthest, we grind out their's first." Some mountain folk would drive all day to get to the mill. The millers would grind their grain that night so they could start back the next morning. It would often be a familiar site to see as many as 15 to 20 wagons, sleds, horses, oxen and mules lined to to get their grains ground. Those people who lived close to the mill would set their grain off at the mill, and could come back to get it. Many smaller mills operated 6 days a week grinding 24 hours a day. Many millers would make a little bit of money, and turn right around and use it to buy more grain to grind. There was not a lot of money at being a miller but most millers made a good living, along with the added benefit of being exempt from military service.

Millers often ground all types of flour and meal. People would bring "turns" of grain to have it ground at the mill. For the local trade the millers would do custom grinding and collect a toll for their services. The traditional toll was a half a gallon for a half a bushel of grain, or a gallon for a bushel of grain. During colonial times the toll was set by local laws. This was often one-eighth per bushel for wheat and one-sixth for corn. In some areas at one time there might be 8 or 9 mills in a square mile area. Many of these mountain mills were built right on the creek, so when floods came they would be washed away. These small grist mills were slow grinding, not like the modern larger merchant mills. Since World War 2 the household per capital consumption of flour has gone down. The smaller mills found it harder to compete with the larger mills in the commercial business of producing flour and meal. Since World War 2 most of the smaller grist mills have gone out of existence. In the 1960's and 1970's half of those remaining have also disappeared. Today many people have never seen an old mill, let alone be in a mill when it operates.

There is much yet to learn about Esom Sloan's mill, and there may be a lot we may never learn about it. The diagonal boards (under the tin) used on the water wheel side of the mill were common place on mills in the 1840's. Along with the metal shaft and hubs holding a wooden water wheel rather than a wooden wheel built on the old troublesome wooden shaft. They dug their mill race so far to get the water to the top of the 20 foot water wheel. Many of the Mountain mills had large diameter narrow water wheels thus to take advantage of the fall of water for power, since there was not great amounts of water in these streams as compared to midland and lowland mills, where the flow was greater and water wheels could be constructed wider. Some of these water wheels were as narrow as a foot wide. We do know that water power operates slower as compared to the modern mills. Grinding with millstones did not burn up the natural nutrients in the grains as with the modern roller system with its extensive milling and sifting process. Overheated milled grain was avoided, because it affected the taste. The millers judged their water by the speed and feed of what they wanted to grind. Once the miller got his millstones set it would grind steady all day as long as his millstones were well balanced. Many of these mills produced unbolted flour and meal. Boulting or flogging were the old terms for sifting what the miller ground. Often the sifting apparatus were simple, a hand held "teme" or sieve, thus sifting by hand over the meal bin. Modern millers would say, "You don't want to eat millstone ground flour as you might bite down on a piece of millstone rock." In reality you got as much stone in your flour as you do steel from your butter knife when you butter your bread, that much!

Mills in the mountains became the subject of early folklore and legend. Many children were treated by placing the infants in the mill hopper to reduce or prevent whooping cough, or by the folk belief it corrected young people afflicted with stuttering. The rugged mountain pioneer millers made their own equipment by hand. Millstones were often cut from local stone, shafts, pulleys and gears were cut from local woods and leather belts were made from home tanned cowhide. The idea of anyone buying store bought meal was virtually out of the question when you could go down to the mill and get it. "Waterground" flour and meal was an assurance of quality, it was cherished because it was the best we could find. Young children were often sent with "a turn of corn" for the miller to grind into meal. One traditional story in particular tells of an impatient youth waiting for the miller to grind meal for his supper. He tells the miller, "I could eat that meal faster than your mill can grind it." The miller asked the boy, "How long could you keep up eating it?" The boy replies, "Until I starved to death at this mill!"

In the local mountains a "corn cracker," would be a small grist mill with a tub wheel, and a single pair of millstones grinding small amounts of meal. This is an early grist mill made of logs, usually equipped with a tub wheel or small over shot water wheel and only a single pair of millstones. When it operates one can say it barely grinds grain. In the terms used because of the Great Wagon Road the whip-cracking wagoners of the region earned the name "cracker," which came from the smacking of their wagon whips.

In latter years the mill changed hands into the Beckett family when one of the Sloan girls Laura Sloan married a Mr. T. J. Beckett and the mill became known as Beckett's Mill. Esom Sloan's store remained open until the 1940's when it was closed.

The old Pigg River Post Office was in the home of Elder Wiley V. Via a Primitive Baptist preacher who became the postmaster of the old Pigg River Post Office. Besides delivering mail by mule, he set up a cabinet in his home furnishing space for the mail in pigeon holes until it was called upon by the neighbors of the old Pigg River area. Elder Wiley Married Elizabeth Janney in 1865, she died in 1897, and he then married Lizena Sloan in 1898. At the time of his death November 26, 1902 he had four daughters and one son from his first marriage, and two daughters and one son from his second marriage. Pedro Thomas Sloan married his daughter Kitty Via on April 27, 1902. Mr. Sloan was a school teacher and taught Sunday school class and a Bible class at the old Saint James Methodist Church in the village of Ferrum. Mr. Sloan retired from the Post Office Department in 1943.

Pedro T. Sloan was born in the Pigg river area of Franklin County in 1879. He wrote of life in the Turner's Creek Valley in the 1870's. It detailed the story of his father Samuel Henry Sloan (1843-1934 a Confederate veteran who survived Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, son of Samuel Sloan (1813-1885), and brother of Esom) and neighbors which he grew up. Pedro Thomas Sloan unpublished typescript February 1943 was entitled, "The Way of Life in Turner's Creek Valley Sixty Years Ago." After his retirement in 1943 Mr. Sloan pursued his hobby of locating old landmarks, old mills and mill sites, old churches and graveyards. He took many pictures and was active with the Franklin County Historical Society. Mr. Sloan wrote many narratives about Ferrum and Franklin County before the turn of the Century, along with making tape recordings for the Franklin County Historical Society. They talk of the old days, and of the era of the ox cart. His stories tell of early pioneers who would still "cradle" their wheat during the wheat harvest. Farmers in the area used the "Hartman" cradle and the "Johnson" cradle which was a much superior product and manufactured at Salem, Virginia. Harvesting of wheat in Franklin County was done cooperatively which involved much more labor than corn. The reaping of wheat is done during the hottest days of summer. Besides the community threshing and corn shuckings, local residents would gathered for apple butter, molasses and "candy pulling" which is mentioned in the stories of Pedro T. Sloan.

The Great Wagon Road went southward through the county and swing westward towards Callaway and over the Blue Ridge. Originally the road was the Warrior's Path or Great Warrior Trace, in latter decades it became the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to the Carolina back country. It first led Native Americans, then latter white settlers southward through Franklin County. The Great Wagon Road entered into northern Franklin County through Windy Gap. The road then swerved to the west of Rocky Mount then east again and south to the Carolinas. The road went south across the Blackwater River ford in a place called Carolina Bottoms, then crossed the Pigg River, south of Warwick Road and over several streams it passed the old mill race of Rengfro's Mill. The first mill in Franklin County was Rentfo's Mill built in the 1740's built by Joseph Rentfro near Callaway. Wheat, corn and oats were the main grain crops grown the the county. Farmers also at times grew rye, buckwheat and barley. One of the early mills in the county was constructed by Jacob Boon, first cousin of Daniel Boone, in 1782 on Maggodee Creek. From that beginning the town of Boone's Mills grew and flourished. Boon's corn and flour mill operated until the 1920's. Even George Garst, son of Jack Garst, who operated Garst Mill three miles west of Roanoke and Cave Spring on Mud Lick Creek moved to Boone's Mill to operated a mill there until he died in January 1941.

In 1850 there were nine "manufacturing mills" in Franklin county that ground corn and wheat into meal and flour. By 1860 this number increased to thirteen. Also in 1850 there were also four grist mills which only ground corn into meal in the county, then by 1860 this number increased to sixteen. In 1870 there were 33 operating grist mills in Franklin County. This number grew to a high of 67 in 1897, and began to decline to 16 by 1917. These numbers were also reflected in the number of millwrights living and working in Franklin County. In 1871 Franklin County had one millwright and twenty by 1897. Then it declined to two in 1911, and none by 1917. Women also operated mills also in Franklin County: Mary Callaway operated a grist and saw mill in Callaway; Mrs. M. A. Martin a corn and flour and saw mill in Bonbrook; and Mrs. S. L. Saunders a corn and flour mill at Bruce.

Beckett's Mill, a.k.a. Esom Slone's Grist Mill,
South Prong Pigg River, Turner's Creek area of Franklin Counth, Virginia,
drawing by T.R. Hazen, Drawing Number 1, 1996.

Esom Sloan's Mill is a small one and a half story wood frame grist mill is 18 by 24 feet with a lean-to addition for a miller's office. Within the miller's office was a fire place like found in early mills of the 1600's and 1700's, when fire places were located in a basement corner not so much for warm the miller but to heat branding irons to brand the heads of flour barrels before metal stencils became accepted or commonly used to label heads of flour barrels. Later the miller's office was subdivided for addition grain storage. Openings were cut in the west wall of the mill to pour sacks of grain into these bins. Normal grain storage was in open bins running along the eaves in the loft. Additional grain storage was also under the landing of the loft steps. Originally the two millstones were located near the south wall and later moved towards the north end of the Hurst frame. Both millstones are 48 inches in diameter. One millstone in the mill was used for grinding corn and the other was used for grinding wheat, oats and rye. One of the millstones is a French Burr stone from France. This pair of millstones is a rare example of a solid French Burr stone. During the period of 1775 to 1825 the size of pieces of fresh water quartz being quarried in the millstones quarries diminished. There after all of the French millstones were always made in pieces cemented together. The practice of making French millstones in pieces before this date made it possible to easily ship them to other countries and economy of manufacture. 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 a 8 foot bolting reel which sifted the flour. A bolter was a vital piece of machinery if the miller wished to produce white flour, grits, buckwheat flour, and to sift off the course bran and terribly indigestible hulls of buckwheat and oats. Another elevator was perhaps used to lift grain to grain cleaning machinery which would of consisted 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 grain before it is ground. White flour was packages into wooden flour barrels and early in the 20th Century the flour was chemically bleached. This is evident because of a barrel of chemical bleaching agent still found on the loft of the mill.

The mill contains many usual mill furnishings some of which include: a unusual shaped "trammel," which is used to test the millstones spindle for true, upright running; a wooden millstone crane screw which was in common used in mills during the 1700's. In the early 1800's most mills adopted metal millstone crane screws; and an usual hopper feed system were the hopper was directly placed over the eye of the millstones, rather than being off set back from the eye over the back end of the wooden shoe.

In latter years there was a change in the mill machinery removing the vertical shaft which sent power to the loft and the loft machinery was removed. It is are very fortunate that some pieces of the bolting reel, elevator, pulleys, screw conveyor remain shattered throughout the mill. So that these items can also be restored as they once were found in the mill. The one millstone spindle and gearing may have been removed because there was not enough water to successfully operate two pairs of millstones. For this reason and in combination with the changing demands of locally produced white flour the additional attic machinery may have been removed. Beckett's Mill in the last years of its operation more than likely ground only corn meal for local needs. The grist mill continued to operate until the 1950's and possibly into the 1960's.

Esom Slone's Grist Mill, circa 1840,
interior of south wall view, Sheet Number 6,
drawing by T.R. Hazen, 1996-97, Virginia's Explore Park.

The mill had an wooden overshot water wheel 20 feet in diameter by 42 inches wide on an iron shaft. This is 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 wooden water wheel shafts. Before eventually turning to the construction of all metal water wheels. 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 which engaged small metal pinions or stone nut gears. This system is only found in restored mills in the original wooden form of this type. Two-step gearing was developed to permit larger water wheels to operated 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.

Esom Sloan's Mill still exists today, and it reflects the slow evolution of Franklin County, as a predominantly rural community, its history and architecture. 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 millstones adjustments were close at hand. The mill also has the traditional loft 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 and to allow natural bleaching and aging the flour after it was ground by returning it to the loft spreading it on the floors to cool and dry after milling.

Esom Slone's Grist Mill, circa 1840,
interior east wall view, Sheet Number 7,
drawing by T.R. Hazen, 1996-97, Virginia's Explore Park.

Esom Sloan's Mill also reflects the change and addition of Oliver Evans "automated milling system" of 1787 with the addition of elevators and conveyors which became the outdated method of milling 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, Esom Sloan's mill continued to used the long and true millstone method of grinding. Most mills in the area and in the state of Virginia converted to the modern I-X-l Overshoot Water Wheel manufactured by the Fitz Water Wheel Company of Hanover, Pennsylvania which install over 900 wheels just in the state of Virginia. Esom Sloan's mill maintained a satisfactory balance between using natural water power along with the traditional methods of flour milling.

NOTE: The name of "Sloan" is spelled a number of different ways by related family members within Franklin County. Sloan is also spelled Sloane, and Slone. There also is not a consistent spelling of the name by different authors of these same individuals within the Sloan family. This is also evident in the spelling of first names, some family members insist "Esom" is spelled "Esom," while others will insist it should be spelled "Easom."

History of Esom Slone's Grist Mill, Part 2

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen