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Grist Mill Restoration Begins at Virginia's Explore Park

Grist Mill Restoration Begins at Virginia's Explore Park
Historic Franklin County Mill Finds New Home and New Life At Explore

There's something about a grist mill that evokes romance, tranquility and nostalgia. Grist mills, with the sun hitting water as it spills over the turning wheel, are favorite spots for picnickers and photographers. But more than that, grist mills recall a time when towns grew up around and economies relied on the mills.

At Virginia's Explore Park, a grist mill project has been in the works for three years. Those first years focused on research and inspection of area mills, and the dismantling of a mill from Calloway, in Franklin County of Southwest Virginia.

This summer, for the first time, the restoration in its beginning construction phase will be available for public viewing twice each day during limited times. At these viewings, park experts will answer questions and describe the restoration process. The goal is to have the completed structure under roof by November. Then, work will begin next spring and summer on the exterior 150-ft. wooden, elevated sluice box (where water flows to the water wheel) and the upper mill race (ditch used for diverting the water).

When the historic grist mill is up and running, guests will be invited to walk through and see corn and grains milled by stones, powered by a tributary of the Roanoke River. And they'll be walking through almost four centuries of Franklin County history, a time when nearly 50 mills found homes and purpose throughout the hollows and bottoms of the county.

Allen McGrady, Historic Structures Supervisor at Explore Park, says of the project. The time period we're interpreting is 1850 and we spent considerable time researching the mills of the region through historical records and oral histories of Franklin County.

The Grist Mill

The mill that was dismantled and soon to be restored was the Esom Slone Mill, built circa 1880-1890. This is the third mill that the Slone family owned in Franklin County. Esom Slone's Mill incorporated parts from the families earlier mill that was built a half-mile down Turner's Creek Road. In other words, the internal machinery of mechanism came from Esom's father, Samuel's mill, circa 1840-1850. The last Slone Mill to operate on the South Prong of the Pigg River was later known as Beckett's Mill, Cannaday's Mill and the Jones' Mill.

The Explore Park grist mill will be a post and beam frame structure with horizontal lapped siding and a shingle roof. It will be reconstructed next to the park's historical area, close to blacksmith shop, near a tributary of the Roanoke River.

The original mill boasted two sets of millstones. These were circular 42-inch diameter stones. Grain was placed between the stones, and the revolution of the stones crushed the grain into flour. The reconstructed mill will follow that guideline. Along the way, some modifications will have to be made, including the replacement of nails, hardware and gears that were missing or damaged , and of lumber too old or damaged to restore.

The water wheel will be a hybrid that incorporates a metal shaft and metal hubs with wooden arms and wooden buckets. For comparison, Mabry's Mill, another popular stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, is an all-wood water wheel, which was common up until the mid-1800s. After the Civil War, all-metal water wheels were also common, but a period in the mid-1800s offered this rarer, hybrid metal/wood water wheel.


To ensure accuracy, millwright Theodore Hazen was called in to assist in the project. Hazen specializes in the repair and reconstruction of mills. His grandfather was a millwright and Hazen has worked in a number of mills. He also knows the history of mills, in the United States and abroad. (Hazen's web site: Pond Lily Mill Restorations provides terrific information:

There's a big fascination with mills, says Hazen. "Mills represent a tangible technology. Many towns were built as a result of mills. And unlike the so much of our rapidly advancing modern technology, mills are of the earth. For example, the farmer takes love and care to plow the fields, plant the grain and watch it grow until it is time to harvest. Then, the farmer takes the grain to the mill, where the miller has taken such love and care to keep his machinery tuned to work. Then he places the grain for the millstones to grind. After the flour is ground, the miller can tell just by feeling it between his fingers, whether or not it will make good bread."

Hazen adds, "Virginia is a particularly rich area and the mid-1800s were an important time. In 1860, Richmond was the largest flour milling center in the United States and Virginia was the grain belt of the South. This was especially important during the Civil War when it was a big center for exporting flour. Mills at that time were six- seven- eight stories high. Flour was packaged into barrels and transported to seaports. In the mid-1700s, mills played an important role in the economy of Franklin County. Local farmers would mill their harvested grain into flour and meal and then take it, along with produce, to markets in Roanoke and Danville. As a result of that history, Virginia is left with many mills, many of which have been abandoned and forgotten. Historical societies would rather restore a home than a mill."

Esom Slone's Grist Mill
All photos of grist mill
by Perry L. Forbes, Goodview, Virginia

Please join us at Explore Park during the restoration of the grist mill as we explore the rich history of grist mills of the region. We'll be happy to provide a personal hard hat tour, should you wish to visit and/or photograph the construction phase. For more information, call 540/427-1800.

Virginia's Explore Park

Where the Living Past Comes Alive along the Road through History.
Learn about Life along the Road that Connects us all to Our Past.
Outside the Ordinary.

Blacksmith Ted Hazen and his apprentice Caleb Pierce,
Virginia's Explore Park, 1850's Historical Area , the Blacksmith Shop, 1997 season.

Virginia's Explore Park, milepost 115 off the Blue Ridge Parkway, along the Roanoke River, between US 220 and State Rote 24, Roanoke, Virginia.
Dismantling And Restoring A Historic Structure (Virginia's Expore Park style)

History of Esom Slone's Grist Mill, Part 1.
History of Esom Slone's Grist Mill, Part 2.
Slone's Grist Mill Update: 2000.
A Sectional Model of Slone's Grist Mill's New Water Wheel
Franklin County's History comes alive with Water Wheel at Explore Park 

Editorial: Save Virginia's Explore Park from the Developer & Development!

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen