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Community Heritage

Old mills cornerstones of area’s roots

December 16th, 2013 10:07 am by Nathan Baker

Old mills cornerstones of area’s roots

The Bashor Mill, also known as the Knob Creek Mill, was built around the 1820's

Even before Tennessee attained statehood, in the days during the Revolutionary War, settlers traversed the Unaka Mountains and formed Washington County, establishing Jonesborough as its seat.
The agrarian settlers needed places to process their grain crops, and the rivers and streams in the region gave suitable locations to build water-powered mills.
One such mill was built in the Watauga community in 1778 on Brush Creek, near the Watauga River, by Jeremiah Dungan, who was granted land by the Watauga Association, the first independent governing body in America.
The original structure of 234-year-old mill still exists today off Watauga Road, although additions through the years have obscured the stone foundation.
Since built by Dungan, the roadside mill took on a number of family names, from Houston to Bashor — a well-established milling family at the time — then to St. John, finally purchased by Betty and Ronald Dawson.
Through its history, the Dungan-St. John Mill saw prosperity, especially in the period after the Civil War, but the gradual decline of the need for locally ground products led Dawson to close the business in 2011.
Before its closure, the enduring mill earned the title of the oldest business in Tennessee, bestowed by then-Gov. Don Sundquist in 1996.
But while the Dungan-St. John Mill may be called the most famous mill in East Tennessee, it certainly wasn’t the only one, nor is it the only one still standing.
The Bashor, or Knob Creek Mill, still stands in north Johnson City, a remnant of the past in the middle of spreading modern-day development.
The simple mill was built around the 1830s by Henry Bashor, a man of Dutch descent who also owned the Dungan-St. John Mill and another that bore his name on Little Limestone Creek in Broylesville.
The Bashor Mill still sits on its limestone foundation on Denny Mill Road, now swallowed by the city that was only half the size of neighboring Jonesborough when it was built.
While the Bashor Mill could be called a simple structure, the imposing four-story Flourville Mill in Boones Creek, near the intersection of Flourville and Cedar Point roads, demonstrates the sprawl of advancing industry with its distinct additions.
Records show three building phases starting in 1890, and current co-owner Donny Martin said family history indicates it was part of the fur trade as well as flour and meal that were ground there.
Martin said years before his father, Raphael, and his grandfather bought the mill in 1949, part of the lower structure was a cooler where horse meat was kept to feed foxes raised nearby for their pelts.
“Fox fur was really popular back then — a lot more than it is now,” Martin said. “They’d raise the foxes down on the river bottom and keep the meat for them up here in the freezer.”
The cooler was later converted into a two-bedroom living space.
Martin, born in the mid-1950s, said he doesn’t remember much of the mill’s operation, his father having shut it down around the time of his birth.
But the mill has become a major part of the family’s lore, and he said he and his brother would like to find a buyer for it able to preserve its historical significance.
In Johnson County, in the thrust between North Carolina and Virginia, iron ore deposits brought about more blast furnaces than industrial grist mills, but a few did survive into modern times.
The Wills Mill, built in the 1930s on the site of an earlier mill, was put to a unique use after its grain production days ended.
The mill owner’s son, Jim Wills, said the grinding wheels processed movie film remnants in the 1960s and ’70s for a Mountain City-based Kodak recycling company.
“They’d put it through a chemical process that stripped the silver off until they just had the plastic strip left,” Wills said. “They hired my dad to run it through the hammer mill to break it up. From my understanding, the ground-up film was shipped overseas and used to make paint.”
The Wills Mill deteriorated significantly over the next two decades and was demolished a few years ago, Wills said.
Still, his memories of working there with his father remain.
“He stopped grinding around 1955, when food safety regulations started to change,” he said. “But before that, when we came home from school, we’d help him buy corn or wheat, sack up the flour or whatever needed to be done.”
For the boy Wills, working at the mill was another family chore, like cutting tobacco in the nearby fields, but his time spent at the family business sparked an interest that carried over into later life.
If the name Jim Wills sounds familiar to History Channel watchers, they may remember him from an episode of “American Pickers” where the show’s hosts, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, purchased a millstone from Wills to help decorate actor William Shatner’s Kentucky home.
“They hired me to take it up there to his house, but they didn’t tell me who the buyer was,” Wills said of Shatner. “He wasn’t home at the time, but I met his wife, she’s a really nice lady.”
Wills, a collector of old millstones, said his formative years in the family mill primed him for the hobby.
“We worked there, and it was a chore, but I guess I found it interesting on some level,” he said. “There aren’t very many mills left in the country, and they’re worth preserving.”

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