Photo courtesy of Kentucky State Parks
On the banks of the Little Laurel River in the Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park, just south of London, Bob House grinds corn into cornmeal. Park visitors can purchase 2-pound bags of the cornmeal for $3 at the campground’s grocery store, and House says the product is really tasty.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when House’s occupation would not have been a state park attraction, but as he works in McHargue’s Mill—a bona fide grist mill that utilizes the flow of the river’s water to spin a water wheel, which, in turn, powers the mill’s grinder—lots of visitors stop by to watch House work at his bygone profession and leave with his cornmeal. House has been working at McHargue’s Mill for the past seven years and is a longtime park employee. Being one of the few millers in Kentucky is something in which he takes a considerable amount of pride.
“I love it. I was retired, and I came out of retirement for the opportunity to operate it. I knew a little bit about it because I’ve worked at the park for so long, and the mill has been there ever since I’ve worked here. I took the job when the last man retired,” House says. “One of the big pluses is being able to work with and speak with different people. There’s a surprising number of people from other nations that wind up in southeast Kentucky at the mill.”
McHargue’s Mill was a Civilian Conservation Corps project built in 1939, a few years after the park’s facilities were constructed. And while McHargue’s Mill is a relic in its own right, it is actually a replica of a much older mill built in 1805 by William McHargue, who constructed a number of mills along Lynn Camp Creek about 5 miles southwest of the mill’s present location. When the state park was formed, members of the McHargue family donated original mill equipment, including the water wheel, mill unit and millstones, to the reproduction project.
House says through the past 70-plus years, the milling operation has had to be repaired only twice. Along with grinding the cornmeal, one of his duties is performing basic upkeep on the system. “Which is very seldom,” he says. “It’s pretty well maintenance-free.”
He also fields a lot of questions about the engineering behind the mechanism. While most people, when they think of watermills, envision the large, iconic paddle wheels slowly spinning from the force of a flowing current of water, McHargue’s Mill utilizes an old-fashioned turbine system mounted horizontally on a shaft beneath the building. As the submerged water wheel rotates, it turns a shaft connected to another wheel, which spins another belt-driven shaft under the mill. This second shaft turns the millstone, which grinds the corn. House just has to pour in the grain and bag the meal when it comes out.
The most frequent questions House encounters pertain to the mill’s authenticity.
“Is it really water-powered, or is there a hidden engine—that’s the No. 1 question. It kind of surprises them that we’re still water-powered.”
Societies have been harnessing the power of water to reduce the amount of manpower needed for various jobs for thousands of years, from the early Romans and ancient Chinese to the modern day. The principle has always been the same, but the devices became more sophisticated and efficient as time progressed. During the Middle Ages, as many scientific pursuits were stifled and ground to a halt, innovations in watermill and agricultural technology continued to advance. When Europeans first came to the New World, they brought their knowledge of these devices with them, and the contraptions moved west along the waterways with intrepid settlers.
Charles Hockensmith, president of the Kentucky Old Mill Association, says that by the late 1700s, a number of mills already existed in Kentucky, as evidenced by looking at some of the first issues of the Kentucky Gazette, the state’s first newspaper, which began publishing in 1787. “They quickly start containing ads and other news items for mills because people had to have a way to grind their grain,” Hockensmith says.
Though mills are typically associated with producing grain, Hockensmith is quick to point out that they had many more industrial purposes. “Mills are much more diverse than just grinding grain, because you are using them for many other products that people needed: wool, cotton, lumber, even gunpowder—they had special mills to grind saltpeter for that,” he says, adding that there used to be a gunpowder mill at McConnell Springs, where the settlement of Lexington originated.
Because of an abundance of waterways, there was a time when watermills flourished in Kentucky. “Oftentimes, settlements grew up around mills because it became a central point,” Hockensmith says. “People needed a place to get their grain or [get] their wheat or their corn ground, and it became a place to socialize. People would gather together and catch up on local news, then other people would build businesses, and eventually, little communities would sprout up.”
Many watermills eventually became obsolete with the advent of newer technologies, such as steam engines, and larger, industrial companies, such as Pillsbury. Hockensmith says watermills faced a similar demise as the corner grocery store, which fell victim to the proliferation of supermarkets.
“They reach the point where they can no longer compete with chains, and they basically went out of business,” he says. “I’m sure mills are similar. At a certain point, it was very difficult to compete with larger corporations that were selling flour from other areas. Still, some [watermills] persisted in some more rural areas, especially in portions of eastern Kentucky that were extremely remote and the roads were bad.”
Along with providing a variety of services, early watermills displayed a great variety of size and architecture—from primitive log structures to large, sophisticated stone buildings. Grimes Mill, in eastern Fayette County in central Kentucky, is a perfect example of the grandeur a mill house could achieve, even by today’s standards. The impressive two-story stone structure, which was constructed in 1813, still sits on Boone Creek on the border with neighboring Clark County.
Philip Grimes first erected a mill on the site in 1803, and it quickly grew to prominence in the area, affording him the means to build his stately mill house. The mill also played a role in the early bourbon industry, as a former distillery on the site made another use of the ground corn. The bourbon was then shipped down Boone Creek to the Kentucky River.
Since 1928, Grimes Mill has been the headquarters for the Iroquois Hunt Club, one of the oldest still-operational fox hunting clubs in the nation, after the organization purchased the property. Now the rustic but elegant lodge, decked out with a large kitchen, dining room, bar, parlor and patio, parallels the pageantry of the club’s traditions and holds weekly dinners and other events for members, who emphasize preservation of the building and its surrounding agricultural region.
A preservation effort is currently underway on another Kentucky watermill. Wolf Pen Branch Mill, the centerpiece of a 400-plus-acre farm of the same name, was constructed in the 19th century just northeast of Louisville, and the three-story stone mill house has avoided the fate of so many other mills of its day. The site was included on the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1970s. In the ’90s, author and Louisville native Sallie Bingham, who owns the property, granted a conservation easement to River Fields, a Louisville-based river conservancy, and the Kentucky Heritage Council.
Wolf Pen Branch Mill also is in the process of being restored, with a new overshot water wheel being constructed and refurbished mill machinery put in place. In an essay on her website, Bingham writes that, when the big wheel turns, it shakes the whole building, and it’s “as though the past has come alive,” though it’s been more than 20 years since the wheel has spun.
There’s a chance the mill could be operational by this fall. “Stream water will gush over the wheel, and it will turn, and the stones will grind, and the old building will shake, just as it was all intended to do more than 150 years ago,” she wrote in the essay. They may even grind corn at the mill once again.
Over in southern Scott County, on the bank of South Elkhorn Creek across from Woodford County, they’ve been grinding corn and wheat for more than 150 years at Weisenberger Mill, one of the last commercially viable watermills in the state. A Weisenberger has run the operation since August Weisenberger emigrated from Baden, Germany, to Midway, via a number of other U.S. cities, and purchased the existing mill in 1865. Today, Mac Weisenberger (the only member of the family not named August or Philip to own the mill) is the fifth generation to operate the mill. His son, Phil, is one of the five employees working at the mill, making him the sixth-generation Weisenberger associated with the business.
The mill that August initially purchased was torn down in 1912, and his son rebuilt the current structure the following year, using rock from the original mill. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “new” Weisenberger Mill, and Mac says they’re considering marking the occasion with some kind of event. The majority of the milling equipment is as old as the mill.
Much of Weisenberger Mill’s longevity, and current relevance, is due in no small part to the company’s ability to adapt and flourish with the changing economic and agricultural landscape. More than a half-century ago, Mac’s father came up with many recipes for mixes, using flours and meals made at the mill, and began diversifying the inventory the family was producing instead of just flour and meal. Today, the company offers 50 to 60 different products, from funnel cake and pizza crust mixes to flours, grits and corn meals.
Mac says he can remember when he was younger and delivered Weisenberger flour to small area grocery stores, which the company stopped doing in the 1970s. Today, Mac says nearly 75 percent of the mill’s business comes from selling products to restaurants and other businesses in the food service industry that use the Weisenberger Mill name as a selling point on menus.
“People don’t buy flour anymore. That’s just the way it is,” Mac says. “We got into food service because people were making less and less at home, and food service was getting bigger and bigger.”
Similar to McHargue’s Mill, Weisenberger Mill uses a turbine system, though the system connects to a generator, which produces electricity that powers the mill. The apparatus isn’t completely self-sufficient, and the business is on the grid to make up for the shortage of power needed to run the operation. This ensures that the mill isn’t beholden to changes in the water level of the Elkhorn and is always capable of producing. “If you’re depending on the water all the time, one day it might be too high, the next day it might run too low, and you couldn’t do anything,” Mac says. “So we’ve had electric motors, and we can run any time.”
Looking around Mac’s office, which overlooks the mill dam, it’s obvious the company has been the victim of water levels. Nothing but the metal desks are on the floor, and a few marks high up the wall indicate instances when the offices flooded, such as in 1997 when the room was almost filled to the ceiling with water.
“But as long as the water stays 30 inches or less, we just clean it and go back to work—it [typically] takes three or four days—but when it got that high, it took about six weeks,” Mac says, adding that the company practically had to start over after that flood.
This past summer, another of the Weisenberger clan was spotted at the mill—Phil’s son, and Mac’s grandson, Jacob. He’s only 9, so it’s hard to say if he’ll take up the family business, but if he does, he’d be the seventh-generation Weisenberger working at the mill, and the second not to be named August or Philip.
Kentucky Old Mill Association
The Kentucky Old Mill Association was founded 12 years ago by a group of mill enthusiasts around the state. Today, the organization has about 50 members who range from people with a general interest in mills to authorities interested in doing detailed research about former or existing Kentucky mills, mill technology or mill equipment.
One of the organization’s founders and current president Charles Hockensmith, who served as a staff archaeologist for the Kentucky Heritage Council for 27 years, says the association focuses primarily on mills that were constructed in the 1800s or early 1900s.
Along with producing The Millstone, the organization’s bi-annual, 52-page journal, the Kentucky Old Mill Association also holds various programming opportunities throughout the year. “One thing we try to do is have a field trip to a mill in the fall,” Hockensmith says. “We’ve visited a number of different mills in Kentucky through the years.”
For more information about the organization, its publications or upcoming mill visit, go to kentuckyoldmills.org.
An estimated 150 locations across the state contain vestiges of mills, according to the Kentucky Heritage Council. There are more than 20 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places—Wolf Pen Branch Mill and Grimes Mill are among them, as are:
• Gullian Gerig’s Mill, Barren County
• Martin-Holder-Bush-Hampton Mill, Clark County
• F. Taylor Mill, Clark County
• James Pettit’s Mill*, Fayette County
• Garrard Mills, Garrard County
• White Mills, Hardin County
• Doe Run Mill*, Meade County
• Payne Mill, Pulaski County
• Robinson Mill, Pulaski County
• Paul’s Mill, Woodford County
• Mill Springs Mill*, Wayne County
• Adkins-Hurt Mill, Wayne County
Other mills of note include: Green Brothers Mill*, Grayson County; Smithfield Roller Mills*, Henry County; Bagdad Roller Mills*, Shelby County; Model Mills*, Scott County; and Guyn’s Mill*, Woodford County.