“Tub Mills” on the 18th Century Virginia Frontier

COVID-19 is sweeping the country. Our politicians are ordering restrictions on our movement and our economy activity. As a result, the present circumstances illustrate some of the major problems of modern life, as compared to ye days of old. For instance, I read about the 18th century grist mill in England, located on an ancient mill site, which once again resumed flour production due to a renewed local need for flour. And so history may be about to repeat itself again, to some extent. Indeed, America’s history of westward expansion is also a story of the growth and development of grist mills, which were absolutely necessary for European style civilization to exist and grow.

18th Century Frontier Grist Mills

Even on the early frontiers, there were trading posts supplying the frontiersmen and early setters at all times. Not everywhere at all times, but generally always close-by or within some reasonable traveling distance. In the last three decades of the 18th century, when settlers flooded into the border regions of Virginia’s mountains like never-before, grist mills popped-up at almost at the same frequency as the people, appearing on creeks, large and small, wherever settlers could be found.

One of the things we, as scavengeologists, see – or rather hear about – when exploring 18th century sites in West Virginia, are grist mills. Looking at any early frontier settlement in Virginia, you are told by those in the know (those with memories of local and family traditions): “there was a mill here;” “there was a mill there;” “there was a mill in location X,Y and Z,” and so on. It therefore seems obvious that the 18th century Virginia frontier was dotted with mills, though you don’t necessarily notice them unless you know what to look for.

The grist mill was an important part of 18th century rural life. “Grist” actually refers to grain, rather than just corn. Many different types of grain crops could be ground into flour. The early settlers grew wheat, rye, oats, barley, as well as corn, which all required grinding to be transformed into the usable final product.

In many cases, I’ve seen records of early settlers, who I know from prior research were farmers or land speculators, but who in some records are randomly referred-to as “Millers,” i.e., owning/operating a mill. I’ve tentatively concluded that many of these early settlers just built their own mill wherever they settled. Or at least the more affluent ones did so. The more affluent the settler, the larger the mill, most likely. As a consequence, the other less-affluent settlers, who built around the mill location, would thereby benefit from their proximity to the little mill. This, in turn, benefitted the more affluent settler as well, who invested the time and money to construct the mill in the first place.

This probably isn’t what you have in mind when you think of a mill, but perhaps it should be:

“Old corn-mill at Pineville” (reproduced from Allen 1886, p. 64); Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 11

A mill is a mill is a mill:

We tend to assume that a “mill” consists of a large wood framed building with a huge iron over-shot water wheel, and a complex interior filled with gears and mechanical machinery. And that may have been the mill you utilized in Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Richmond. However, such an assumption ignores many of the realities faced by the early frontier settlers, such as simple logistics. In settlements where there were no “roads” leading to the settlement area from larger population centers, they’re not bringing heavy iron construction supplies to the proposed mill site, even where they could otherwise afford them. All personal property not harvested from the land itself was imported on packhorses, which have extremely limited – and valuable – cargo space. Ironically, with no established mills in the area, by definition, these early settlers must have built log cabin structures, rather than wooden sawed timber frame structures. Logic dictates that grist mills were, according to order of priority, constructed before saw mills, and as a consequence mill-sawn lumber was not available.

The mill pictured below is located in Warm Springs, Bath County, Virginia. If you’re a fan of the Allen Eckert books, they pretty much began right here at this very spot, with the beginning of The Frontiersman. This is the actual mill site where Simon Kenton (believing he was a fugitive) found out that the miller who operated the mill here was named “Butler” and consequently introduced himself to the man as “Simon Butler.” That ruse turned-out well for Simon, so we were told by Eckert, as he was given a fine flintlock rifle as a send-off from Mr. Butler. This is the exact spot where the story of Simon, the frontiersman, began. But this big waterwheel was constructed much later. The mill operated by Mr. Butler when Simon arrived was probably a log structure “tub mill.”

18th century frontier grist mills had to have been hand hewn log structures – perhaps the best having stone foundations. The only item the earliest water-powered mill builders would be required to import on packhorses would be the millstones themselves – usually imported from England or France. Consequently, this is the reason that today there’s almost no trace of these early mills left today. In contrast, the 19th century mills, such as the one above, leave the remnants of large damns, foundations, and in many cases, they’re still standing. Therefore, they made it to the artists at Hallmark in Kansas City, Missouri.

In some cases, existing larger mills, still being made out of hand hewn logs, can still be found in the mountains of Virginia. This romantic example still stands next to the Second Creek Fly Fishing Area, in the Greenbrier Valley. I photographed this abandoned mill a year or so ago, while riding some back-back roads in the scavengeologymobile:

In contrast to this large log mill structure, the earlier versions of these mills – from the Revolutionary War era and the few decades to follow – were likely much more primitive. And still, there’s nothing left of them. Once there was a bigger and better mill somewhere close by, no doubt the hand hewn logs were repurposed somewhere else, along with the millstone – leaving a very small scavengeological footprint to be observed today.

“Tub Mills”

The 18th century mills on the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontier are known to have been “tub mills,” which likely looked more like this photo below, as opposed to a fall-themed Hallmark postcard. It actually screams moonshine to me, but in the old days, I suppose it screamed “mediocre biscuits.”

A tub mill in western North Carolina (Swain 1913: 122).

In remote portions of Appalachia, many of these little tub mills were still in existence into the early 20th century:

[W]hen you travel in our southern mountains, one of the first things that will strike you is that about every fourth or fifth farmer has a tiny tub-mill of his own. Tiny is indeed the word, for there are few of these mills that can grind more than a bushel or two of corn in a day; some have a capacity of only half a bushel in ten hours of stead grinding. Red grains of corn being harder than white ones, it is a humorous saying in the mountains that “a red grain in the gryste (grist) will stop the mill.” The appurtenances of such a mill, even to the very buhr-stones-them-selves, are fashioned on the spot. How primitive such a meal-grinder may be is shown by the fact that a neighbor of mine recently offered a new mill, complete, for sale at six dollars. A few nails, and a country-made iron rynd and spindle, were the only things in it that he had not made himself, from the raw materials.

Our Southern Highlanders, Horace Kephart (1913) at pp. 132-33.

Instead of a large vertical iron “over-shot” wheel on the outside of the mill building, these little frontier tub mills had smaller, horizontal wooden wheels, much like this one shown below, on the inside of the structure. The water in such a mill would be funneled into this wheel, which would have been inside the structure, and which would sit inside a circular “tub,” creating a vortex of sorts, which spins the wheel, and the millstones on the other end of the mechanism.

Hominy Block Mills:

Joseph Doddridge was a Methodist Circuit Rider, who traveled across the Virginia frontier, including the Greenbrier Valley. Having grown up on the Pennsylvania frontier, he described the method of grinding corn in the absence of a mill, which was tedious and inefficient:

The hominy block and hand mills were in use in most of our houses. The first was made of a large block of wood about three feet long, with an excavation burned in one end, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, so the action of the pestle on the bottom threw the corn up to the sides towards the top of it, from whence it continually fell down into the centre. In consequence of this movement the whole mass of grain was pretty equally subjected to the strokes of the pestle. In the fall of the year when the Indian corn was soft, the block and pestle did very well for making meal for johnny cake and mush, but were rather slow when the corn became hard.

Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 Inclusive, at p. 111

Many settlers found ingenious ways of improving this process, though a water powered solution was surely a welcome idea, as I’d imagine this would get old pretty quickly:

Indians and settlers pounded the grain into a coarse meal using a mortar or hollowed stone. They used closely woven baskets to sift the ground corn, and any grains that did not pass through were again pounded and sifted. Pone was pounded in a hollowed block of wood or in a hollowed stump of a tree which had been cut about three feet from the ground. The pestle for grinding was made of wood and shaped to fit the mortar. It had a handle to one side. They lifted and applied the heavy wooden pestle by attaching it to a young sapling that was lowered over the mortar. The sapling acted as a spring that could easily be pulled up after pounding down on the corn. This was labeled a sweep and mortar mill. Settlers adapted this method that was quite loud and could be heard for miles.

Cultivating Corn during the American Colonial Period, Revolutionary War Journal, Nov. 25, 2013.

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, water powered mills started to replace the reliance on hand and horse powered grinding in the rural and frontier areas, which had previously been utilizing basic hominy block style mill processes. Doddridge next described the first types of water powered mills he observed on the 18th century Virginia and Pennsylvania frontier:

Our first water mills were of that description denominated tub mills. It consists of a perpendicular shaft, to the lower end of which an horizontal wheel of about four or five feet in diameter is attached; the upper end passes through the bedstone and carries the runner, after the manner of a trundlehead. These mills were built with very little expense, and many of them answered the purpose very well . . . .

Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 Inclusive, at p. 112

Civilization progressed rapidly. Around 1795, as the frontiers became more developed, the tub mill began to give way to the water gristmill with country stones. And by about 1820, these highly improved “merchant mills” were found in numerous places. See The Allegheny Frontier, by Otis K. Rice, at p. 320. I wonder of these were essential businesses?

An Old World Tradition

As with many aspects of the Virginia frontier, the Scots-Irish people brought many aspects of their old traditions with them from the English Isles, including the tub mill. There’s no doubt that the old Scots-Irish wouldn’t give a rats-ass what a scientist from New York thought they should do in response to a widespread sickness. They were independent like that. “Tub mills” have a long history in England and Ireland.

These work-a-day mills have a long history and may legitimately be considered as one of the many items of Old World material culture successfully adapted to the landscape of the North American wilderness. They are particularly well suited for use in low flow streams and geographically isolated areas. Similar topographic conditions may be seen surrounding the construction of over 5,000 tub mills in more than 3,000 communities across the length and breadth of England as recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book (Hodgen 1939, 262-263). Numerous examples of this type of mill were in regular use in Ireland until the end of the 18th century (McCutcheon 1970, 72).

Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 3
“A corn cracker in the Black Mountains” (reproduced from Davis 1880, p. 361); Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 12.

First-hand Accounts

In the August 27, 1772 issue of the Virginia Gazette newspaper, the following advertisement appeared, which gives an idea of the value of a tub mill on 1772 Virginia real estate:

To be sold to the highest Bidder, at King William Courthouse, on Thursday the 17th of September, A good and well accustomed TUB MILL, entirely new, lying in the lower part of the said County, adjoining the lands of Mr. William Dandridge, being the Mill formerly belonging to Col. Thomas Moore. There is belonging to the said Mill about one Hundred Acres of well timbered Land, with a good Cornhouse and Miller’s House thereon, which will be sold with the Mill. The above mentioned Land and Mill are the Property of Mr. William Seton, and are to be sold by virtue of a Power of Attorney from him.

Virginia Gazette, August 27, 1772, p. 4, col. 3; cited by Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 3
“Tub mill – Buffalo Creek” (reproduced from Hotchkiss 1873, p. 279); Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 13.

John F. Watson (1870, 563-564) also described his recollections of these early grist mills. He placed the size of the wooden wheels at “4 or 5 feet”:

. . . [T]heir water-mills were tub-mills, made readily with little expense, consisting of an upright shaft, at the lower end of which a wheel of 4 or 5 feet was attached, the upper end passed through the bed stone and carried the runner in the manner of a trundle-head. Sifters were used in lieu of bolting clothes, and were made of deerskins as a parchment, stretched over a hoop and pierced with holes made with hot wire.

Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 5
“The tub mill” (reproduced from Crayon 1873, 825); from Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 10

Another description from Livingston County, New York, circa 1789, gives a timeline for tub mill construction:

Capt. John Ganson, was the pioneer settler following Mr. Berry. Holding a commission in the Revolutionary war, he had accompanied the expedition of Gen. Sullivan. Before the treat was concluded, in 1788, he revisited the country, and selected a fine tract of land on the river, about two miles below Avon. His sons John and James wintered in a cabin in 1788, ‘9, upon the premises; and the father and family came on in the fall of 1789. During the following winter they erected a rude “tub mill” on the small stream that puts into the river on the Markham farm.

It was a small log building; no boards could be had; the curb was made of hewed plank; the spindle was made by straightening out a section of cart tire; the stones were roughly carved out of native rock. There was no bolt, the substitute being hand sieves, made of splints. It was a rude, primitive concern; but it would mash the corn a little better than a wooden mortar and pestle; and was quite an acquisition to the country….

“Foster’s Mill” (reproduced from Anonymous 1858, p. 175). Note the timber dam; Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 13.

Sometimes the wandering scavengeologist can observe the remnants of these really early mills, if one knows what to look for. In the frontier period of the Greenbrier Valley, for instance, you find piles of stone along a small creek – remnants of stone dams which formed the mill pond for these mills.

18th Century Mill Dam Sites

The first couple of sites are located within view of this photo below, showing the fertile limestone “Sinks of Monroe,” as the 18th century Virginians described it, on the grounds of an old plantation, which probably doesn’t look a whole lot different:

I came across this first mill site following the path of an old road which fell out of use in the late 18th century. Literally nothing has been constructed within half a mile or more of this site, in any direction, since the 1700s. Sometimes getting there is half the fun of scavengeology.

You can see a small mountain of stone which formed a dam at one time. There’s no structure, or even foundation of a structure to provide additional clues. Just an ancient looking creek running through a gap in a mountainous wall of old stone. You could easily walk right by it and not see it in these rolling, craggy hills.

To my surprise, I discovered a large stone nearby on which you can still observe 200+ year old letters carved onto it.

There’s been no structure, or even road, nearby this old mill spot since the 18th century. The imagination wanders when finding carvings such as these:

And here’s another old stone dam, not far away:

I found the casing of a pocket watch in the rubble:

Byrnside’s Mill:

There was also an early mill site a couple miles down the valley from the last two old damns, on the Byrnside’s Fort property. The site of that mill is also included on the National Registry of Historic Places, along with the existing structures. Byrnside’s Fort, a.k.a., Willowbrook, sits up on the ridge. And down below, as Indian Creek starts to speed up and wide into a little gorge, there is an old mill-site – though you’d be hard-pressed to find much evidence of it today.

Sketch from the NRHP application for Willowbrook.

Though there’s no apparent evidence of a huge stone wall at our site, such as the one above, there are early 19th century turnpike bridge abutments which are still standing. It could be that the dam stones were repurposed for the bridge. Or, possibly they were repurposed for something else. I’d imagine that quarrying limestone wasn’t something you did any more than was absolutely necessary. Still though, there’s quite a bit of stone still on the site.

The mill is believed to have sat somewhere right around this spot:

Remnants of the old turnpike bridge, long ago abandoned:

Looking from a drone hovering above the fort, and looking generally south, the mill sat just below, where the pasture adjoins the trees:

1783 Byrnside Lease Agreement

Interestingly, local historian, Sam Hale, managed to find an original document in the archives of the Greenbrier County Historical Society pertaining to the Byrnside plantation and the milling of grain. This is contract from 1784, whereby James Byrnside “doth rent one plantation he now lives on which is to extend to the division fence between a certain plantation where one Dawson Wade formerly lived on and the plantation now rented * no farther *” to John Smith and John Ritchey, from Augusta County.

It’s known that around this time, Byrnside moved to land he acquired on the New River at the confluence of the Greenbrier, extending to the site of Farley’s Fort, at the lower end up Crump’s Bottom. This may have been executed because he was leaving for that spot. He would end up staying there and living with another woman. He ended up deeding this plantation, shortly after the end of this lease period, to his son John Byrnside, who lived there until his death in 1816, along with his mother, Isabella Byrnside, from what I can gather. His wife and children would live there until the 1850s. At the death of John’s elderly wife, the plantation would thereafter be owned by the Beirne family.

This lease agreement provided that the tenants were to “leave the said place at the expiration of three years in as good repairs as when they take possession,” and also required them to “keep what fruit trees is set out in [the] orchards on said land from being wasted by creatures” and “to put in what ground was worked (planted in wheat) in said orchards this year in small grain Timothy seed (instead), said Byrnside finding the Timothy seed in said ground to be worked no longer.”

What Wheat in ye ground on said land now [planted] is to have ye one half of said Byrnside, the other also said Smith and Ritchy is to have. Said Byrnside’s mill and mill vessels to mill what grain said Smith and Ritchy doth raise on said land until the expiration of their time they live on said land.

After said Byrnside doth mill what grain he has now raised. If said Smith and Ritchy doth mill any other grain they do pay rent for said mill [at the price of] what two different millers will value it to. Also said Smith and Ritchy is not to kill or destroy any timber on the land except that to which is to reap benefit of said plantation . . . .

[signed] James Byrnside, John Smith, John Ritchy, December 9, 1783.

[witnessed] Matthew Patterson, John Byrnside, James Byrnside, Jr.

This is really a great find by Same Hale, as it provides great information about the plantation and early life there. It shows that James Byrnside was living on the plantation as of December of 1783, and that he thereafter left for a period anticipated to be 3 years, with an implied intention to return. Secondly, it proves that James Byrnside owned and operated a mill, which milled the grains grown on the plantation. This is obviously the mill site pictured, as illustrated in the NRHP materials. This proves that the Byrnside Mill was in operation as of December of 1783, and anticipated to be in operation for the next three years.

It also tells us that on the plantation there were fruit trees in an orchard – presumably apples, and also that “Timothy Seed” was being grown. “Timothy Grass” is a perennial grass native to Europe which was introduced to the American colonies in the 18th century, and which served the purpose of raising grass best suitable for cattle and horses. Still today, it is commonly grown in particular for hay for horses.

Frontier Orchards

I think what Byrnside was getting at with his strict instructions to the new tenants, was that he had orchards of fruit trees, and it better stay that way. The tenants were to keep the fences up around the orchards, and make sure the animals didn’t harm the trees or waste the fruit. He had the ground within the orchards planted in wheat, which requires the ground to be worked – tilled and replanted every spring. Instead, he is instructing them that Timothy Grass will be grown in the orchards instead, likely for hay production, and possibly soil preservation.

Evidently, there was a substantial amount of wheat being grown on the property. Byrnside’s instructions were specific: the wheat was to be milled at Byrnside’s Mill, and the parties were to split the profit. Any additional wheat crops for the remainder of the lease term were also to be milled at Byrnside’s Mill – which was most likely a tub mill – with the value being set by consulting two other millers as to what they would charge. The parties would then split the difference between the two consultant millers in order to determine the going-rate.

While we’re on the topic of documented crops being grown on the Byrnside plantation, we can look to another document found by Sam Hale for answers. James Byrnside was, not surprisingly, also growing hemp. Here’s an invoice from Christopher Bryan (no close relation to me, AFAIK; I understand that he traveled here from Ireland as an adult, as opposed to descending from the other Bryans living in the nearby Roanoke Valley, but they still could have been related, of course), an early merchant in Lewisburg, for many different items, including a metric ton of liquor, and bushels of “hemp seed.” Once again, hemp is growing within site of the fort on an adjacent property, and a couple hemp plants popped up in the yard this spring – or at least I think they were hemp. Don’t worry black helicopter folks, I pulled them out and destroyed them.

Statement of charges for James Byrnside from Christopher Bryan, 1780-81.

I was a bit surprised to read about Byrnside having “orchards” on a frontier plantation, but I suppose I shouldn’t have. Fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who had an extreme dislike for James Byrnside, likewise had an interest in growing fruit. In fact, he was obsessed with growing fruit:

It was not an uncommon practice for eighteenth-century American homesteaders to plant their orchards before beginning construction of their dwellings.

Monticello’s six-acre fruit garden, or “fruitery” as Jefferson called it in 1814, eventually included the 400-tree south orchard; two small vineyards (northeast and southwest); “berry squares” of currants, gooseberries, and raspberries; two nurseries where Jefferson propagated fruit trees and special garden plants; and “subdural beds,” where figs and strawberries were grown . . . .

The fruiters’s broad, sunny southeastern exposure and an elevation that warded off the late spring frosts so devastating to Jefferson’s neighbors were savvy horticultural arguments favoring his mountain homestead. On the other side of his “little mountain,” Jefferson’s north orchard was reserved for three varieties of cider apples and seedling peaches.

The Monticello fruitery (including the south orchard) and the north orchard reflected the two distinct forms of fruit growing that emerged in eighteenth-century Virginia. The north orchard was typical of the “field” or “farm” orchards found on most middle-class farms; it was large, with 200 trees on average, and consisted of only peach or apple trees. the fruit was harvested for the production of what John Smith called “most comfortable and excellent drinks,” usually cider or brandy, or as livestock feed. The universality of fruit liquors in the eighteenth century lends credence to numerous historians’ tongue-in-cheek remark that it was a significant event when Americans began eating their fruit rather than drinking it . . . .

The Monticello fruitery, on the other hand, was reserved for over 170 varieties of thirty-one of the finest temperate species of fruit, cultivated in Jefferson’s words, for the “precious refreshment” of its fancy fruit. In some ways it resembled a gentleman’s fruit garden in the Old World horticultural tradition and was similar to the diverse recreational plantings of other wealthy Virginians such as John Hartnell Cocke, St. George Tucker, and George Washington.

The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello, by Peter J. Hatch, pp. 7-10.
The South Orchard of Monticello

Being that the Greenbrier Valley is a more extreme climate that Monticello, which is about a 2.5 hour drive away, down out of the larger mountains and across the Blue Ridge, I doubt James Byrnside had such a gentleman’s garden as Jefferson. But no doubt he had apple trees. I’d be curious to know what else. I’ve not heard of peaches being able to survive up here, but he probably could have grown types of grapes.

Now that I read the information about Monticello, it does have similarities with Byrnside’s plantation, as far as site locations go. It sits on a ridge top, which helps with wind and frost, and it’s entirely South facing. The house faces south; the gently sloping terrain directly around the house facing due south as well. It gets hammered by the sun. This would actually be a perfect location to grow an orchard in that vicinity. It makes sense. Then the mill was right there in the gorge below the fields.

There’s still one big apple tree in the yard at Byrnside’s Fort. Here’s a photo of it flowering a few weeks ago. I wonder if it’s descended from original apple trees in Byrnside’s orchard?

Right next to the apple trees are the massive catalpa trees, which I’ve heard was a popular tree for early Virginia settlers to plant. I wonder if they could have been plated by Byrnside in his orchard, or one of his orchards? Now if those were apple trees, I’d be utterly convinced that Byrnside planted them himself….

As an interesting aside, I looked into the name Dawson Wade and discovered that Dawson was James Byrnside’s brother in law, having married Byrnside’s sister, Rachel Byrnside, which leads us down a brief rabbit hole which is a far more exciting discussion than one about mills or orchards.

The Wade Family

It appears that for a period of time, Dawson Wade came to live on the Byrnside plantation and operate a plantation thereon. I did find in an old land grant in a survey book describing that Dawson Wade at one point settled on the waters of Turkey Creek, a branch of Indian Creek, which would have been the southwest portion of Byrnside’s land, or thereabouts (see Greenbrier County Survey Book Z, at p. 145-47).

Around 1784, consistent with James stating in the agreement above that Dawson formerly operated the plantation, the Wades moved to Kentucky, where one of his sons was killed by Indians. Dawson’s other son, James Wade, survived to give a personal narrative about his life and his father to the Reverend Shane, and which can be found in the Draper Manuscripts. Ancestry magazine did a feature on the family, which is how I found it.

In the 1840s, a minister by the name of Reverend Shane traveled through central Kentucky conducting interviews of early-Kentucky pioneers . . . . [S]hane was an informant and co-worker of Lyman Draper who devoted his life to collecting information on the lives of early pioneers.

One of the most remarkably detailed interviews of the Shane series was of James Wade, an early Indian scout in post-Revolutionary War Kentucky. The major topic of the interview was Wade’s life experiences in two early Kentucky settlements, McGee’s and Morgan’s Stations, his service tracking marauding Indians, and his duty as a lookout at the local iron furnace.

Validating an Ancestor’s Firsthand Accounts, by Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ancestry Magazine, Jul-Aug. 2001; citing Draper 12CC11-30.

In the words of James Wade, who apparently was born on the Byrnside property in 1770 (though Byrnside’s own son, John, also claimed to have possibly been the first white child born in the area, having been born on the property in 1763 – though they both are likely bested by Michael Swope, born in the 1750s on Wolf Creek):

I was born in 1770 on December 10. I was said to have b the first white child born in Greenbriar. My father was Dawson Wade, an officer, ensign or lieutenant in Pauling’s Company during the whole war.

The land was rich but full of sink holes. I think it was in 1770 that [my father] went there. The people that first moved out into Greenbriar and spread over the western declivity of the Allegheny took no precaution to form stations but settled all promiscuously though out until the Indians became so bad that in the course of two years . . . most of them went back thirty miles or upwards, over the mountain (1763 Pontiac’s War).

At this time (circa 1773), my father moved ten miles down into the lower part of Botetourt on Glade Creek (Roanoke area) . . . . After spending a little over eight years there, in the spring of 1780, he returned to the spot where I was born in Greenbrier. He stayed there four years (the Indians being all quiet then) and in the fall of 1784, [he] came to McKee’s Station in Kentucky.

Validating an Ancestor’s Firsthand Accounts, by Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ancestry Magazine, Jul-Aug. 2001; citing Draper 12CC11-30.

James Wade discussed the murder of his brother, John Wade, by Indians in 1791, while they were based out of Morgan’s Station. John Wade was born in 1768, and must have traveled to the Byrnside property as a two-year-old.

On the 2nd day of March 1791, my brother was killed a short distance this side of the Beaver Pond . . . He was going . . . to set traps at the pond, intending to stay only the one night and then come back again. The traps were taken and when I went to see, I could find my brother’s trace no farther than to the point mentioned, and then supposed that he was killed as he was going . . . . The traps had never been set.

Validating an Ancestor’s Firsthand Accounts, by Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ancestry Magazine, Jul-Aug. 2001; citing Draper 12CC11-30.
Site of Morgan’s Station: Near intersection of Harper, Spencer and Slate Creeks southeast of Mt. Sterling. “Site of last Indian raid in Kentucky, 1793.”

John Wade was apparently quite a frontiersman in early Kentucky. His frontier exploits were discussed at length, including his death, as related by his close companion, William Sudduth, in the Draper Interviews. Sudduth was an early surveyor in Kentucky and left a detail description of frontier life and warfare in 1780s Kentucky.

On the next day about sundown there came an express from Morgan’s Station stating that John Wade and Reuben Coffer were wounded, had got into the cabin and were surrounded by the Indians. The express passed on. I was the only man at home; the women would not agree that I should leave the that night . . . .

In 1791 the Indians were very troublesome on the frontiers. In the month of March that year I went to Washington in Mason county to make some surveys on the Ohio . . . . The night after we finished our work we encamped in a thicket & some time in the night there were twelve guns fired near us, which no doubt were Indians as it was a custom with them to discharge their guns in the night in wet weather. We started before light & pushed for home & escaped safe to Washington (Maysville, KY).

I then returned home by myself & had to lay out one night. During my absence from home my old woods companion John Wade was killed on Licking (River). . . .

In March, 1791, he went out on Licking to hunt & trap for beaver, and the Indians killed him at a pond now called Wade’s pond. So died as brave man that I knew; but he lacked caution. David Serency & John Relly were so near when he was killed as to hear the guns. They went to the place, & Serency informed me Wade & his mare lay close together, and both of them [had been] shot in the head. the Indians had left, & they buried him.

Daniel Boone and Others on the Kentucky Frontier: Autobiographies and Narratives, 1769-1795, by Darren R. Reid McFarland, 2009, p. 129.; see also The Early Adventures of William Sudduth.
The supposed site of Morgan’s Station, near Mount Sterling, Kentucky. That’s the site of the later historic stone home.

I ended up finding the site of Morgan’s Station, which surprisingly wasn’t easy, but I couldn’t locate “Wade’s Pond.” I did find a “Wade’s Mill,” I believe some miles away – but no obvious natural pond in close proximity. This is the general vicinity of Morgan’s Station, on the Licking River. There is a “Greenbrier Creek” nearby – now a reservoir. There can be little doubt this was named by the Wades, having moved there from the Greenbrier Valley.

But the description given for the fort site was on the Licking River at the mouth of the adjoining creek, coming in from the left. So I suppose it could have been closer to that spot. The site of the stone house is on top of a hill, so that very well may be it.

In 1793, Morgan’s Station was attacked and overwhelmed by a 35 member war party of Shawnee and Cherokee, in is known as the last Indian raid into Kentucky. Some historians suggest that a young Shawnee named Tecumseh may have been on this raid at Morgan’s Station (Henry G. Enoch, 1997). But that’s not the most interesting member of that raiding party, as far as this story is concerned. This is where it gets really bizarre, and things come full circle.

Also on that raiding party, was James Ward (not Wade), whom I’ve written about previously – the younger brother of William Ward – another frontiersman and business partner of Simon Kenton, who also was from the Greenbrier Valley. They were pursued all the way back into Ohio by a party of frontiersmen following the raid at Morgan’s Station. There they engaged at a place called “Paint Creek.”

The other noteworthy participant in this incident was one of the Indian wounded named John Ward, who died a few days after the battle. Ward was a white man. He had been captured by the Shawnee from his Virginia home in 1758 (around Fort Dinwiddie, near Warm Springs, VA), when he was three years old. He was raised by Indians and fully adopted their way of life.

Ward, known as White Wolf, married a Shawnee woman and had 3 children. He was one of the leaders of the band returning from Morgan’s Station. One of Kenton’s men, Captain James Ward, was the brother of John Ward! It is not known who fired the shot that took John’s life.

To add to this peculiar coincidence, the two Ward brothers had unknowingly opposed one another nearly a year before. The circumstances were similar—Kenton and his men had a skirmish with a party of Indians they had been pursuing. On that occasion John Ward’s family had been present. James Ward had drawn a bead on one of the Shawnee but held back upon seeing it was a woman. He later learned she was his niece, John Ward’s daughter.”

(Henry G. Enoch: 1997); see also http://thefreedomskool.blogspot.com/2014/08/chapter-7.html

Here’s the post I wrote about William Ward and the document I found with his signature:

William Ward signature.

Another interesting aside: in the same county as Morgan’s Station, there was another famous Indian vs. settler battle which took place, also related to the Greenbrier Valley; and not just the valley, but specifically Indian Creek. About 7 or 8 miles downstream from Byrnside’s Fort on Indian Creek, is the Estill stone blockhouse, which is still standing. Here’s a post I did on it:

Members of the Estill family moved from Indian Creek out to this same county in Kentucky, where they were involved in “Estill’s Defeat,” a.k.a., the “Battle of Little Mountain”:

Thrilling adventures by land and sea. Being remarkable historical facts, gathered from authentic sources (1852)

On . . . March 22, 1782, Captain James Estill is killed at the Battle of Little MountainJames Estill had moved to Boonesborough, Kentucky in 1778 at the age of 28 with his brother and his slave Monk, an imposing, but smart man. Estill quickly became a militia captain and built an outpost called Estill’s Station north of Boonesborough where he moved with Monk.

1782 was called “The Year of Blood” by Kentucky settlers due to escalated attacks from Indians allied with the British at Fort Detroit. In March, Estill received an order to assemble a search party after signs of a Wyandot war party were noticed near Boonesborough. Estill quickly gathered 40 men who galloped off to search for the Indians, leaving Estill’s Station completely unguarded and full of women, children and a few slaves. Estill was still nursing a wounded arm shot by an Indian bullet the year before, a fact that would be crucial in the battle to come.

That same night, 14 year old Jenny Gass had a dream of climbing a ladder to heaven, which she shared with the other settlers. They were all Christians and took the message as a blessing from heaven. Meanwhile, the Wyandot war party surrounded the station in the night. In the morning, Monk went out to gather firewood, while Jenny and her father’s slave, Dick, went out to gather syrup from maple trees.

The site of Estill’s Defeat today.

The Wyandots quickly captured them. Monk persuaded them not to attack the fort, telling them it was fully guarded. Dick managed to escape back to the fort, but Jenny was scalped and killed in full view of the fort, while her horrified mother watched from the ramparts.

The Wyandots left the fort and two boys were sent to tell Estill what happened. When they found him, several men were sent back to guard the fort, while the rest pursued the Indians. On the morning of the 22nd, Estill located and attacked the Indians as they were crossing Little Mountain Creek, near present day Mount Sterling, Kentucky. The two sides began fighting one on one through the woods. 

The Wyandot leader was quickly killed, but his men pressed forward. Estill divided his men into three groups and put the left flank under Lt. William Miller. Miller and his men, however, fled when his gun was damaged by an Indian bullet. The loss of the flank exposed the center, which was quickly overcome. Estill ordered a retreat, but was soon attacked by a Wyandot warrior. They fought hand to hand, the Indian trying to stab Estill with his knife. Estill’s damaged arm soon gave out and the knife plunged into his chest. As soon as he was dead, Joseph Proctor shot the Indian dead.

7 settlers were killed and approximately 20 Indians. Estill’s slave, Monk, escaped during the fray and carried a wounded man 25 miles to safety. He was later rewarded his freedom for his bravery in the battle, becoming the first freed slave in Kentucky. The losses at the Battle of Little Mountain, sometimes called Estill’s Defeat, were blamed on William Miller by most for abandoning his post. His life was threatened for years by survivors of the battle. He lived to be 95 years old, while James Estill and six others died, partly due to his cowardice.

“Monk” the badass. The 2nd famous former slave Indian Fighter turned free man out of the Greenbrier Valley – the first being Dick Pointer.

And… back to tub mills:

Here’s a first hand account of a period tub mill out of the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia:

Fifty years ago (i.e., circa 1800), the settlers on the Kanawha river were subject to many privations which are unknown to the present generation there . . . . Neither flour nor corn meal was kept for sale any where; and there were no mills nearer to Charleston than the Falls of Coal river, twelve miles distant, where somebody was enterprising enough to erect a little, rickety grist “tub-mill,” for the accommodation of the surrounding country. To this mill, the good people of Charleston were want to resort to get their wheat and corn ground.

To reach the mill, they had the Kanawha river to cross, and then pursue a bridge path “over the hills and far away,” crossing in their devious route the mountain ridge dividing the waters of the Kanawha from those of the Coal. Many a time have we taken our three-bushel bag of wheat or corn to this mill, from Charleston, on horseback, and mounted on the bag; and well remember with what difficulty we saved our bag from being drawn off by the numerous trees standing close to the path; and then, perhaps, have to remain at the mill all night to get our grist, or leave it till another time. Kanawha river were subject to many privations which are unknown to the present generation.

Autobiographic account of West Virginia native (Anonymous 1852, 222); cited Notes on the Use of Tubmills in Southern Appalachia by Donald B. Ball, Material Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2008), p. 7.

The Noah “Bud” Ogle Mill:

Here’s a surviving example of a little log tub mill: the Noah “Bud” Ogle mill in the Smoky Mountains. This might provide a comparable view of something built on the early Virginia frontier. The Ogle Place was a homestead located in the Great Smoky Mountains of Sevier County, Tennessee, built by Noah “Bud” Ogle in the late 19th century. The surviving tub mill is the Park’s last surviving operation tub mill and one of the few operational tub mills in the region.

Ogle’s tub mill is the last of at least 13 tub mills once located along LeConte Creek. The millhouse is an 11-foot (3.4 m) by 11-foot (3.4 m) building resting on mudsills and round log supports above LeConte Creek, about a half-mile from Ogle cabin and barn. The walls consist of logs connected with saddle notches, and the floor consists of hewn puncheon logs. A vertical shaft beneath the millhouse connects the grindstones with a “tub wheel” turbine. An 80-foot (24 m) hollowed-log flume diverts water from the creek to the turbine. The mill was restored to its operational condition in the 1960s. (Wikipedia).

Or here, the Alfred Reagan Tub Mill, in the Smoky Mountains:

Simple stud frame building covered with lap siding. The foundation is stone and log post. The roof, originally wood shingle on shingle laths and rafters, has been replaced with modern construction covered with roll roofing. The building and the mill machinery are similar in design and size to other small mills throughout the Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill

With no exception, the main crop was corn. In many respects, Roaring Fork was a twentieth-century frontier, and corn retained its position as foremost of the frontier crops . . . . from tender roasting ears to flinty, dry grain it was highly edible. As a tender, milky grain it could be roasted in the shuck, piled under live coals and ashes and then gnawed from the cob; more mature grains were grated from the cob on coarse pieces of perforated iron and pounded into journey cakes or ‘gritted breas’ . . . . One of the grain’s greatest virtues was the fact it could be crushed into coarse meal . . . by water mils. 

Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill

Reagan was a hunter, and the one tale told about him in the interviews had to do with a bear hunt. Herb Clabo recalled, “Alfred was quite a hunter. Best I remember, he killed the first bear on Roaring Fork. He was a tellin’ me one night that I stayed all night with him. He was a great talker. He was a tellin’ me about shootin’ this bear, and he didn’t kill it dead at the time, but he follered it on until it went on and he found it in a sink hole, where it had made it to the sink hole. It had got wounded so bad that it couldn’t go on, but he said it’d just chewed laurels off, you know rhododendrons stalks off and just sort of piled them in there. He was a usin’ what they called an old hog rifle, and you only shot them once till you took time to reload which was a matter of, I’ll say, five minutes, owin’ to, I’ll say, how bad you needed to reload. He follered it on and found it in that sink hole and shot it second time, which killed it. Fur as I know or remember, that’s the only bear killed up in there . . . .”

Alfred provided other services for his neighbors. He built and operated a tiny “tub” or grist mill across the road from his house, and ran a small general store. The store building was apparently located between the grist mill and the house.

Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill
Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill

All of the mill machinery that remains in place is the cradle, hood and stone seat:

Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill

The grist mill was a turbine or “tub” mill, the most common type found in the mountains. Water was channeled to strike a primitive horizontal wooden turbine wheel, which turned and provided direct drive power to the mill stones. The only unusual feature known about the mill is that it had a hand-powered, homemade bolting machine. Apparently some wheat was ground there, and the bolting machine was needed to remove the chaff and separate the ground wheat into different grades. Herb Clabo recalls that Reagan’s mill toll was one gallon to the bushel of corn. This was not the only mill on Roaring Fork, but according to Wesley Reagan, it was so well constructed that it would operate when other mills were shut down due to lack of water. Wesley credited this to a special type of small vaned turbine wheel constructed by his father. One of the other mills on Roaring Fork was owned by Alfred’s brother, Aaron, and was located a short distance downstream. Aside from grinding his own corn, Alfred was able to “pick up a few extra gallons of meal a week as toll.”

Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill
Great Smoky Mountains Historic Structure Report, Alfred Reagan House and Tub Mill

Last of the Mohicans Tub Mills….

So you see, when we hear that a mill once stood in an early spot in the Virginia frontier regions, we should visualize a small log cabin tub mill with a crude stone dam. Something inefficient and primitive, like everything is at the very beginning of an isolated settlement. I think I’ll send a link to this to Hallmark so they can get started on some new artwork.

1 thought on ““Tub Mills” on the 18th Century Virginia Frontier

  1. I found your site searching for information on tub mills and was delighted to find you referenced the source of my inquiry – my 5th great granduncle, Capt John Ganson, and the tub mill he built in 1789 about 25 miles south of Rochester, NY. I’m blown away by your video, your research, and how you’ve presented it. I now know what a tub mill is and so much more. Thanks, very much!

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