History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

An account of the travels of John Muir, recorded in his journal beginning in September, 1867, includes a history of his travels through the less settled parts of Tennessee and North Carolina. Included in his profile is a short history of his observance of a grist mill. The journal goes as such:

"September 17, 1867. Spent the day in botanizing, blacksmithing and examining grist mills. Grist mills, in the less settled parts of Tennessee and North Carolina, are remarkably simple affairs. A small stone, that a man might carry under his arm, is fastened to the vertical shaft of a little home-made boyish-looking back-water water-wheel, which, with a hopper and a box to receive the meal, is the whole affair. The walls of the mill are of underessed poles cut from the seedling trees and there is no floor, as lumber is dear. No dam is built. The water is conveyed along some hillside until sufficient fall is obtained, a thing easily done in the mountains.

"On Sundays you may see wild, unshorn, uncombed men coming out of the woods, each with a bag of corn on his back. From a peck to a bushel is a common grist. They go to the mill along verdant footpaths, winding up and down over hill and valley, and crossing many a rhododendron glen. The flowers and shining leaves brush against their shoulders and knees, occasionally knocking off their coon-skin caps.

"The first arrived throws his corn into the hopper, turns on the water, and goes to the house. After chatting and smoking he returns to see if his grist is done. Should the stones run empty for an hour or two, it does no harm.

"This is a fair average in equipment of a score of mills that I saw in Tennessee. This one was built by John Vohn, who claimed that he could make it grind twenty bushels a day. But since it fell into other hands it can be made to grind only ten per day. All the machines in Kentucky and Tennessee are far behind the age."


There are two main types of water wheels, the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical wheels include the two most familiar types, the overshot and the undershot. The amount of work which an overshot water wheel can do is controlled by the weight and distance of the water that falls on the wheel.

The overshot waterwheel has many buckets around its edge. The weight of the water falling into these buckets causes the wheel to turn, reaching perhaps 80 per cent efficiency. This method is constructed on the principle of applying the water vertically, and thus utilizing all its power. The common overshot wheel, carries the water upon its upper surface nearly a quarter of its circumference before the water obtains its maximum power. This occurs when the water has descended to a position with the chute of the wheel.

The undershot water wheel is built so the water from the stream strikes against the buckets of the wheel at the bottom. This type of wheel has such a low efficiency that it was rarely used.

A brief description of a mill is as follows: Water is directed into the wheel through a chute. The wheel is mounted on an axle, which is connected by belts or gearing with the machinery it is to operate. The wheel has many curved blades. The force with which the water strikes the blades causes the wheel to rotate, which makes the shaft turn. This rotates the shaft of the machinery being driven which is extended to the production source. An excellent example of a mill still in operation is the mill near Norris Dam.

There was a type of mill called a "floating mill." The mill was not placed in a building but it was an apparatus with its machinery placed on two boats and the water wheel between the two assemblies. One early account referring to a floating mill says:

"I will recollect that in 1791 so scarce and dear was flour that the little that could be afforded in families was laid by to be used only in sickness, or for the entertainment of friends, and although corn was then abundant, it was built in a small flat boat tied to the bank, its wheel turning slowly with the natural current running between the flat boat and a small pirogue anchored in the stream, and on which one end of its shaft rested; and having only one small pair of stones, it was at best barely sufficient to supply meal for the local inhabitants and neighboring families; and sometimes from low water and other unfavorable circumstances, it was of little use, so that we were obliged to supply the deficiency from hand mills, a most laborious mode of grinding."

Many of the grist mills were small, rather crude structures, built of logs and with only a single run of stones. The dry seasons were particularly hard on the smaller streams that accommodated the mills. The cutting away of the forests lessened the water supply and many of the mills were abandoned. A grist and sawmill, sometimes along with a fulling mill, were sometimes operated at the same site.

Obtaining flour and meal was decidedly a hardship for the early pioneers. The mills were "a far piece" from the scattered homesites. Maize was the stable crop in which they depended. It was not uncommon for the early white inhabitor to go off to the mill in the morning with a large sack of corn and return late in the day (much of this time was spent in waiting to have the corn ground) with a much smaller bag of meal. The grinding capacity was very small.

The main or principal crop of the early pioneers was Indian corn. Meal was acquired from the early mills much more as a rule than flour. The difficulty of getting corn ground at a mill proved to be such a hardship that huge quantities of maize were eaten minus the grinding process. Parched corn was a common food to these trendsetters and when on long journeys they tended to stuff their knapsacks full.

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