News: Public get historic treat at Corps gristmill
Story by Leon Roberts
MILL SPRINGS, Ky. – A bit of history is preserved here on the banks of scenic Lake Cumberland where volunteers at Mill Springs Mill grind corn today similar to when settlers first built the gristmill in 1817.
After more than a century of commercial use, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired the historical mill in 1949 as part of the Lake Cumberland Water Resources Project. The Corps renovated the grainery in 1962 and completed a full-scale restoration in 1976.
Administered today by the Corps Nashville District, Mill Springs Mill is located off Kentucky Highway 90 between Burnside and Monticello. The Monticello Women’s Club operates a gift shop on the site where the public literally can buy cornmeal and nibble on the goodies that are still produced and sold at the mill.
Brett Call, the Corps’ Lake Cumberland resource manager, is responsible for the historical preservation of the gristmill and oversees Corps rangers, contractors and volunteers that keep the grainery open to the public.
“The history of the mill over the past two centuries is very significant and one that the Corps employees enjoy highlighting,” Call said. “Visitors that include special groups and school children get to see the millers grind corn similar to how they did it in the 1800s.”
According to historical records, the mill began when Charles, John and Dr. James Metcalfe settled near Prices Station. They erected a cereal grinding mill to grind corn and wheat. A sawmill was probably also built in conjunction with the gristmill to process an abundant supply of timber cleared for farmland.
Flour and cornmeal were custom-ground for families who brought their grain by wagon or horseback on “milling day.” The Metcalfes also shipped meal and flour on flatboats down the Cumberland River to customers as far away as Nashville, Tenn.
A fire in 1824 destroyed the Metcalfe Mill, but two of the brothers erected a second Mill Springs Mill around 1839. In 1856, Lloyd Adison Lanier and Thompson C. Brown purchased the mill and surrounding farmland. From 1859 until 1877, they sold the mill but retained ownership of the spring. In 1877, Lanier repurchased the property.
During the Civil War, Confederate troops used Mill Springs as a defensive position on the Cumberland River. Brig. Gen. Felix Kirk Zollicoffer established a headquarters at Mill Springs in November 1861 and fortified the south bank of the Cumberland River in December. He later fortified the north bank of the river at Beech Grove.
The Confederates at Mill Springs attacked Union forces at the Logan’s Crossroads Camp Jan. 19, 1862 but were defeated. Zollicoffer died during the battle and Confederate forces retreated back to Beech Grove, across the Cumberland River, and through Mill Springs to Tennessee.
From 1877 to 1907, the mill changed through various owners before being purchased by Bolan E. Roberts who operated the mill as the “Diamond Roller Mills.” He replaced the cedar wheel with a huge 40-foot steel wheel in 1908.
In 1949, the government purchased the mill, then owned by Roberts’ son Thomas.
Today, people tour the gristmill and gift shop and enjoy the beautiful waterfall nearby. A paved walking trail extends out from the mill to a Cumberland River outlook where a Civil War cannon is exhibited and a gazebo is available for public rentals. A dock is also available for boaters that want to tie up and visit the mill.
Lonnie Girdler, who lives in Somerset, Ky., and visited the gristmill Oct. 27, 2010 with his mother and nephew, said he’s glad the Corps maintains the facility so generations to come can see and learn about the local history of Mill Springs.
Girdler’s ancestor John Shelby Smith worked at the mill in the early 1900s for the Roberts family, so his family visits often.
“This is history of our forefathers,” Girdler said. “This is wonderful that our kids and grandkids for years to come can come and see this and know that our ancestors had a part in grinding the corn to cornmeal.”
Corps officials say the mill has unique features and is a local historical treasure to locals such as the Girdler family.
Corps Ranger Judy Daulton said the mill has the largest overshot wheel still in existence in the United States and because of its historical significance to the local area the Corps takes its responsibility as stewards seriously.
In the past year, Daulton said, the Corps replaced the lighting, refurbished the wheel, painted the mill and surrounding buildings, and installed a number of cedar railings that help add to the beauty of the park. The cedar bridges were also replaced. “We do periodic maintenance like this on the historic mill,” Daulton said. “It was needed as it still grinds cornmeal.”
The mill operates and grinds cornmeal from Memorial Day through Labor Day annually on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays at 2 p.m. The mill is open to the public at no charge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday.
“Since 1963, the Monticello Women’s Club has operated the gift shop,” Daulton said. “They actually sell the cornmeal there. They buy the corn, the mill grinds it, and then they sell it in their gift shop.”
Groups and school classes may request tours at any time during the week. Special programs are provided by request and may be arranged by calling the resource manager at 606-679-6337.