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The Anderson Mills on Middle Fox Creek

Mid – 1800’s 1950

As a child growing up near the Anderson Mill on the Middle Fox, I assumed that the mill had been there in one form or another for as long as Andersons had lived in that country. Andersons had always been miller-farmers, at least in my mind. I had learned rather early that the family had owned the land on both sides of the creek for several generations. My grandfather, Timothy Alexander Anderson, was a miller, as were three of his sons. Family conversations often centered around the mill, for my father, Garnet Edward Anderson, enjoyed telling of things he knew about it, and relating stories he heard from his family.

When I got old enough to separate fact from fantasy, I learned that the first Anderson on the creek, Jacob who came there in the 1770’s, had not established a mill. Apparently he did not live down by the creek at all, but had farmed the land downstream from the mill site a mile or so. If I understand it correctly, he lived in the vicinity of the junction of the present-day roads #658 and #601, at the point where #601 takes off toward Bridle Creek.

His son, Johnny Anderson, brought his wife Feraby and their family to live in a log house in the meadow just below the mill site. My father was never certain that he built a mill on the creek, for his recollections start with stories of his grandfather, Nelson Anderson, and the gristmill that he operated during the Civil War. Dad said that his Grandfather Nelson could have started up his mill using the one his father-in-law, David Cornett, had operated a mile or two upstream. Through I never knew the exact location of the Cornett mill, it was in the vicinity of the bridge (on Road #658) that crosses Middle Fox just west of Central Church. On the other hand, he could have simply combined the operations of his father and father-in-law. Unfortunately, our family did not keep records and journals in those days, and the stories handed down are too sketchy to be relied upon.

Nelson’s mill was located on the north side of the creek, upstream “a little ways” from the new mill later built on the south bank. There is no record of the date the mill was started, but I was always told that it was in operation during the Civil War, 1861-65. Grandfather Timothy was a very young boy at that time, but remembered that men who came to the mill talked of the war. No doubt much “news” was exchanged there. He recalled that one man who came by the mill brought news that both excited and worried everyone. It seems he lived out on Iron Mountain, and he claimed to have heard the guns of battle. probably from the Saltville area. Up to that time, the isolated community on Middle Fox Creek felt somewhat remote from the war, but now it was almost within “hearing distance”! The only road through the community at that time followed the creek for some distance, and passed by the mill. Small boys listening to the story must have wondered if they would soon see soldiers marching up the road.

My grandfather Timothy Anderson moved the gristmill to the opposite side of the creek. Up to that time, he had operated it much the same as his father had done. A gristmill is by definition a fairly small operation that grinds grain for individual customers, a bushel or a few bushels at a time. The products of this mill were cornmeal, buckwheat flour and “chop”, an animal feed.

Once in the new location on the south side of the creek, Grandfather Timothy started expanding the operation. He acquired a sawmill and planer, and was soon doing a brisk business. Lumber was carefully stack to season or cure in every available space around the mill.

Grandfather and his friend and neighbor, Jim Ross, built a number of houses in the community and in neighboring communities. Two notable examples were the Everett Cornett house, later owned by Arthur Cornett, near Clems Branch School (The house was later owned by a Mr. Smith for a number of years, and has since been moved across the meadow to the hillside on the south side of the little valley.), and the Wesley Cornett house a mile or two along the road from Clems Branch towards Comers Rock.

Grandfather added a lathe to his power-operated equipment, and was soon doing ornamental work such as newel posts and banisters. He continued to work at the lathe long after his building days were over. Special orders came in from time to time. He was, in fact, preparing to turn out banisters for a customer the day he died. He had put a piece of wood in the machine, and was waiting for the power to be switched from the milling operation upstairs, when he slumped down by the lathe.

My father told me that Grandfather Timothy could do everything from cruising the timber that went into building a house to the finishing work inside and out. In other words, he could go into a customer’s woodlot, estimate the board feet in standing trees, and tell him how many he would have to cut for the lumber to build his house. He could then saw, cure and “dress” the lumber at his mill, and build or help build the structure.

For some years, the sawmill operation was quite successful, but during that time expansion was going on in the other part of the mill. The millpond was enlarged, another story was added to the building and plans were underway to install equipment for grinding wheat, thus making Anderson’s Mill a near-complete milling center.

All the work from relocating the old mill, rebuilding the dam, putting in the huge waterwheel and building the wooden millrace was done by Grandfather and his son Lee (Levi H,), with some help from his youngest sons, Bill (William R.) and Garnet E. Lee, who with his twin brother Eli R., was the oldest of the sons of Timothy and Sarah Jane, was well into his twenties when the expansion work got underway. He was to become a full working partner in the operation, and for sometime the name given to it was T.A. Anderson & Son.

Dad often referred to the flour mill by its trade name, Midget Marvel. It was a successful part of the Anderson mill from the start. Uncle Lee was kept busy grinding the wheat from farms up and down Middle Fox and beyond. Wheat came in by the single bushel on the back of a horse, and by wagon loads of bushel sacks of that golden grain. After the threshing machine went through the community in late summer and early fall, business was very brisk. Uncle Lee often ran the mill well into the night, by lantern light, to keep up with the harvest.

A fraction of each bushel went to the miller as toll, so surplus grain accumulated. It is not clear whether the mill also bought wheat, but during the heyday of the operation, flour was sold in paper flour bags, usually 24-lbs each, I believe, under the label “Anderson’s White Lily Flour”. I do not know if the volume of wheat taken as toll was sufficient to produce all the flour that was sold. I am inclined to think it was not, so some surplus wheat must have been taken off the farmers’ hands.

During this time, the old gristmill continued to turn out cornmeal, 66 chop” and buckwheat flour. The demand for the latter was waning, but cornmeal continued to be an important part of kitchen staples for many years. This was all stone-ground, and keeping the big round stones “sharpened” or picked and cleaned required time and skill. Grandfather was said to have taken pride in keeping the stones in good working order. The big round stone “wheels” with the hole in the middle always appeared to me to be of the same stone as the granite outcroppings around our place, but I have been told that they were probably of limestone. Perhaps my youthful powers of observation were not finely enough honed to see the differences in rocks. At that age a “rock was a rock”, no doubt. It would be interesting to know where they came from, but I expect that is lost to history.

Uncle Lee, his wife Ruth (Long) and daughter, Mamie Lee lived in the one-story house that still stands downstream from the mill on the south side of the creek. Grandfather came down from his house “up the holler” east of the mill, sometimes on horseback and sometimes on foot.

Sometime in the early 1920’s Uncle Lee sold his share of the mill to his brother Lige (Elijah F.), and moved to Loudon County in Northern Virginia. Later he and his family moved to Taneytown, Maryland, and finally, to Westminster, Maryland. I believe he continued in the milling business, at least for awhile.

Uncle Lige and Aunt Edna (Cornett) and their family of six moved into the one-story house downstream from the mill. After Grandmother died in 1924, Grandfather lived with Uncle Lige and his family in that house.

Around 1927, Uncle Bill (William R.) and Aunt Vella (Hash) took over the mill. By this time Grandfather, who lived with them, had been diagnosed as having angina, and though his health was failing, he continued to do a little work around the mill.

A small shop was built near the mill, and Grandfather spent much of his time working there. He and Uncle Bill made caskets for, I believe, Catron’s Funeral Home in the Comers Rock area. He tried his hand at violin-making. We had one at our house, which unfortunately was badly damaged when it fell from the hook where it hung in our living room. Dad talked of having it repaired, but there did not seem to be anyone around who could do it. I have what remains of it, and in the spring of 1995 my grandchildren used it in a display in their booth at the heritage fair put on by the middle school they attend.

The violin he was working on when he died was eventually finished by Uncle Bill. I don’t know where it is today. It was finished to look more like a concert violin than our “rustic” one. I like to think ours was like the ones played by the old-time fiddlers at Saturday night get-togethers in mountain cabins throughout the region. “Turkey In the Straw” or “Sourwood Mountain” sounded pretty good on it. Our shy, silent neighbor, Enoch Anderson, used to come by, and always with Dad’s permission take the fiddle down from the wall, and render us a few old-time selections. He was pretty good, and the instrument sounded just right for the old tunes.

Grandfather stayed with us for a week or two while Uncle Bill and Aunt Vella painted and papered their house. I recall a very feeble, quiet old man who made his painful way down the hill to the mill and shop everyday. He was in his late 60’s, but hard work had taken its toll. I was to learn later that he had problems with his knees that dated back to his late 40’s. Knee surgery was unheard of at that time and in that place., and so he had to endure the pain. He was not a quitter!!

Another memory of that period was of the junk mail he received. It seems he was on the mailing list of several producers of milling equipment. He would go through his mail, then give all the advertisements to me so that I could play mail carrier. I recall brochures with pictures of flour mills, parts of flour mills, sawmills and parts of sawmills and a lot of other stuff. My favorites were the ones that advertised flour bags, for they were colorful with eye-catching logos in vivid blues, yellows and reds. They were choice playthings for a time, but I grew tired of them and Mother finally disposed of them. I regret that not a single one of them survived to give a little insight into the operation of the mill. It seems a shame that not one of the bags for “Anderson’s White Lily Flour” remains as a keepsake.

It is regrettable that we did not give more attention to when things happened, but as we listened to Dad and the others talk of all that “ancient history”, it did not occur to us to pin them down as to dates. I can give only approximate dates of most happenings, and so I have avoided using them.

Dad was born in July 1901. He always said he was “just a boy” when he helped Grandfather and Uncle Lee with the expansion of the mill. Like his father, he seems to have been born “with his shoulder to the wheel”, so he was probably a mere lad of 7 to 10 years when the work took place. He said that the preparation of the site and the building of the new millhouse on the south side of the creek took place over a period of years. No outside help was used, just Grandfather and his sons working as time allowed.

I do not know when the last grain was ground, for I had left home by then. I do know that wheat farming was on the decline when I left in 1940. In fact, “progress” was dogging the little self-sufficient family farm and making it harder and harder for both the farm and the small supporting industry of milling to remain viable.

If I arbitrarily select the year 1860 as the start-up date for Great-grandfather Nelson Anderson’s gristmill, and the year 1945 as the last year the mill was in use, then the Andersons were in the milling business for 85 years. That much I can say with a degree of certainty. If Great-great- grandfather Johnny Anderson did have the original mill, and I simply don’t know one way or the other about that, then it probably was started up in the 1840’s. We could then claim the Andersons were millers on the Middle Fox for about a hundred years. That is a pretty good run!

Winifred Anderson Huddle
Bellingham, Washington