Sifting history: Flourville mill changes hands

Gary Baker, who recently purchased the old Flourville Mill, stands underneath the giant millwheel behind the mill building.  Photos by Jeff Keeling

Gary Baker, who recently purchased the old Flourville Mill, stands underneath the giant millwheel behind the mill building. Photos by Jeff Keeling

By Jeff Keeling

Gary Baker steps through some undergrowth not far from where William Bean is thought to have built, in 1769, the first non-Native American settlement in what became Tennessee. Boones Creek’s confluence with the Watauga River is within a stone’s throw, while looming to Baker’s right is a tall, dilapidated wooden building – the old Flourville Mill.

Behind the mill building, Baker points high overhead, to the top of the huge, extant millwheel, where a rusted metal box with a 20-foot length of metal pipe about a foot in diameter sticking out of one end, suspended high above the ground below. Later in its use, he says, the owners likely installed a flume that carried the water to the box and created sufficient pressure to turn the giant wheel.

Underneath are huge gears, just outside the wall of the mill structure. “This is the bull gear, here, which turns the smaller gears there, which turns the belt inside that runs the mill.”

He doesn’t know what he’ll do with it yet, but Baker now owns the mill. It’s the Sevier County native’s first local foray into building ownership and possible restoration outside of downtown Johnson City, but he’s got plenty of experience working inside the city.

Baker’s been one of the main architects of interior renovations at the former East Tennessee & Western North Carolina railroad depot that’s now home to Yee-Haw Brewing Co. He loves to discover old treasures and find ways to reuse them in the various projects he and his son, Yee-Haw owner Joe Baker, have undertaken in Johnson City’s downtown, among other places.

Baker, who purchased the mill at an auction over Labor Day weekend, does know mills. His mother, Jean Maples Baker, came from a family of millers, and he’s been involved in restoration of a mill in Sevier County that is being used to grind corn for another Joe Baker enterprise, Ole Smoky Moonshine. What he doesn’t know is whether there is any chance of salvaging the Flourville Mill building or putting the mill back into use, but he aims to find out.

“I’m just reluctant to see things torn down before you can make the evaluation and say, ‘well, it does or doesn’t have any historical value.’ Some things don’t need to be torn down, and the jury’s out on this one. We just need to do some research and study.”

Baker also wants to know more about the history surrounding the mill – he’s heard varying dates of construction – and the Flourville community.

“As to when the first guy came here, I don’t know. I was told that the same person that was over here was over there,” he says, pointing across Flourville Road to a large old structure. “I’m trying to find out about some other properties around here, but I’m weak on the history.”

Originally, the history books say, that “first guy” would have been William Bean. Already, reports of Baker’s purchase have drawn the interest of a professional archaeologist and historians in the area who are keen to gain access to property near Bean’s original settlement. Baker says he’s interested, too, and open to working with them.

The recorded history of the mill leaves room for plentiful speculation. The History of Washington County book includes varying reports on its construction date, though it appears a family whose patriarch, John Bowman, bought land at what became Flourville in 1799 and established a mill soon after. The same report that mentions that history, though, also refers to the “Flourville Mill” being constructed in three phases, starting in 1890.

Giant pulley wheels near the top of the four-story structure remain solidly in place.

Giant pulley wheels near the top of the four-story structure remain solidly in place.

Leaving the millwheel area, Baker leads the way into the four-story mill itself. It’s an unseasonably hot September day, and the still inside air is hot even on the first floor. Baker steps into a later addition filled largely with the detritus of decades, dusted over by yet more decades. Hubcaps hang from the ceiling, visible through the dust motes suspended in shafts of late afternoon sunlight pushing their way through the grimy windows.

He points to an interior wall with several courses of the well-laid, rough cut stone commonly seen in area buildings that survive from the 18th century. “You’re looking at the front of the original mill.” The courses of stone have an early 18th-century look, leaving open the possibility the later mill was built over the original.

“Look at the size of that beam,” Baker says as he moves further into the mill. “Isn’t that something? That’s what I look at is these beams when I’m dealing with things like this.”

Baker and his crews will have to insure termites haven’t damaged the building, “to where it’s structurally not feasible to restore it. Not saying that I want to do that, but I never like to tear anything down either.”

A milling separator is among many bits of equipment found inside the mill.

A milling separator is among many bits of equipment found inside the mill.

Baker reaches the second floor and stops at a round wooden enclosure about four feet across and several feet high. “The cab and the millstones are right here,” he says. He says the stones probably were imported from a region in France known for its extremely hard stone (French burr stone from the Marne Valley was world famous).

He points to an adjustment wheel that allowed millers to raise and lower the stone to control how coarse or fine the final product would be.

“I’ve been told this was probably a finishing mill,” he says, pointing out the location of a couple of smaller millstones that allowed for ever-finer grades of flour.

Near the cab two sizable posts form a crane of sorts, with the top post parallel to the floor at a height of about six feet. The wood is elm, “because it’s tough and it won’t split on ya,” Baker says. From the top post a huge screw juts down – a wooden one, no less – with hooks sticking out from it. “That is the crane that lifts these stones when you’re sharpening them.”

He says generally, after a certain number of hours of milling, maintenance on the stones would be required. Raising the biggest stones, which likely would have weighed close to a ton, was a frequent chore.

The old mill is chock full of extant material, from the cab and crane for the stone to long, six-inch square wooden “boxes” that housed the cups, belts and other equipment comprising the grain elevators. Various pieces of machinery – sifters, sorters, even a metal piece (one of few in the mostly wood-based works) the use for which Baker has yet to discover – occupy sections of the second, third and fourth floors.

For the most part, heavy as they are, the pieces of machinery seem secure on the massive wooden floors.

As he prowls around the upper story, Baker jumps a little just to feel the solid floor under his feet. He says he always wants the buildings he comes across to be restorable. “When they’re gone, they’re gone, and you’ll never get ‘em back,” he says.

Baker inspects on of many pieces of milling equipment that remain inside the structure. Photo by Jeff Keeling

Baker inspects on of many pieces of milling equipment that remain inside the structure. Photo by Jeff Keeling

Then Baker takes a heavy walk across the fourth floor. “Did you hear it creak? (It didn’t.) Again, that’s got to do with post and beam construction. What’s funny is, we have all kinds of building codes today, and by today’s standards, a 40, 50-year-old building, they’re tearing them down and getting rid of them. Two-hundred-year-old buildings, without foundations, stacked on rocks, built outta timber, lasting three and four hundred years. We probably should take a lesson from that.”

The mills were typically four stories high, Baker says, “because of what it took in order to move the grain and process the grain.” Much of that took place inside the wooden boxes, which ran from the ground to the top floor. “Inside these boxes are buckets, or cups. All elevators had viewing ports, and areas to where you could unstop things. You jam up, you had to unjam it.”

The boxes, which have been cut off at the ceiling of the bottom floor but still rise the rest of the way through the building, jut at strange angles. “Every mill was probably a custom mill.” With equipment scattered all over the place, the owner might decide, “‘I need to send this this way, that’s in the way, so I’m going to direct it this way.’”

The cups, buckets and various containers that whirred through the box/elevators would move raw product and finished product.

“It was a balancing act so the stones could handle the grinding, the output would go in, it wouldn’t flood the bagger. This was like a concert. Millers were very smart people.”

While admitting his complete ignorance of specific historic facts about the Flourville mill, Baker says if it was similar to many of the dozens around in the late 18th and 19th centuries, it could have started as a “tub mill.” A proprietor would simply create a channel for water, hollow out a log, insert baffles and create a rudimentary turbine. The millstone would sit on top of that.

Those who took things a step further technically were able to produce more flour, and nearby farmers would bring their grain for milling and the miller would take a share. The proprietors of the Flourville mill, Baker reckons, would have prospered beyond that level and invested more and more capital. “That big wheel would have been expensive.”

Eventually, the elevators and equipment filling the mill signified a highly successful operation, which was probably one of many in Washington County in the years following the Civil War. The History of Washington County cites an 1874 Tennessee Bureau of Agriculture publication showing the county exported nearly two million pounds of flour that year and had 52 “first-class mills.” The county’s farmers were coaxing six more bushels per acre of wheat than the state average of seven to nine bushels.

“This thing had to be rockin’ and rollin’ to handle the volume of grain that they were putting in,” Baker says of the mill at its height of production.

The prospect of big wheels turning again at the Flourville Mill is probably a long shot, but at the very least, Baker hopes to protect another piece of history and learn a little bit in the process.


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