IF YOU GO
Falls Mill is 12 miles west of Winchester, Tenn., off of U.S. Highway 64. Take Interstate 24 to exit 127 for Highway 64 West and continue about 29 miles to a right onto Old Salem Lexie Road. Take Old Salem Lexie north until it becomes Falls Mill Road and the mill site is about a mile on the right.
WHEELING BACK IN TIME
Surveyors laying out the boundaries of Franklin County for the first time designated areas as "mill seats" where bodies of water had a measurable drop in elevation. Falls Mill near Old Salem and Belvidere was one of the first industrial sites in the county, its building built of bricks made on site and timber milled at a water-powered sawmill operating nearby.
The 32-foot waterwheel powers Falls Mill, located on Factory Creek in Belvidere Tenn., which was built in 1873 and currently produces ground flour, cornmeal and grits. The mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours January 20th-December 23 9:00 am-4:00 p.m. (Central Time) It is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. Admission: Adults $4, Seniors $3 and Children $2.Photo by Dan Henry.
BELVIDERE, Tenn. -- For the last three decades Janie and John Lovett have marked their days by the turning of a 108-year-old water wheel.
Green moss clings to its spokes, and cold water trickles down the sides of the buckets and splashes back into the sparkling creek below.
The Lovetts bought the 1873-era mill on Factory Creek in Franklin County from Chicagoan Donald Cunningham in 1984 and began developing the mill as a commercial operation, a historical attraction, bed and breakfast, museum and home.
The 32-foot-diameter, four-foot-wide cast iron and steel wheel rotating today -- the third wheel the mill has had since it was built -- was installed in 1906, replacing the second of two wooden ones. It's one of the largest and oldest operating water wheels in America.
Recently, the massive wheel was turning a full circle in around a minute, generating 32 horsepower and 24,000 foot-pounds of torque to spin the mill stones and mechanisms whirring away inside the three-story brick mill house. The miller since 1974, William "Butch" Janey, on Thursday was making grits, corn meal and cracked corn.
HISTORY GRINDS ON"There were five water-powered textile mills in the county prior to the Civil War, and when the Union Army came through they burned all but ... the one that was here [an earlier mill very near the modern-day site of Falls Mill]," John Lovett said.
Fate somehow preserved Falls Mill's predecessor, he said.
"This was a textile mill originally, then a cotton gin and then a woodworking shop," Janie Lovett, 54, said of Falls Mill's beginnings 141 years ago.
"The water wheel turns the drive shaft and everything inside. Originally it drove the textile equipment like the carding machines we have on the other side," she said as the gears, wheels and drive shafts spun busily overhead.
The creek, originally called Falls Creek for its beautiful waterfalls, had powered mills nearby since the 1840s. Falls Mill was the result of a joint effort by Robert Mann and Azariah David, whose own mill was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War. In 1871, the current stone dam replaced an earlier wooden one.
A cotton gin was completed in 1873 and the gin and textile operation employed young women and children eight months out of the year, 72 hours a week, for a $2 weekly wage, according to the Lovetts.
The mill later passed to the Lucas family, who installed a new wooden overshot water wheel in 1887 that kept the mill operating sporadically until 1906.
That year, owners installed the present 32-foot Fitz steel waterwheel and relocated the millrace -- the waterway built to carry creek water from the top of the dam to the top of the wheel -- as the mill was converted to a cotton gin that operated until around 1930. The Great Depression forced the mill property to be divided and auctioned, and new owner J.H. Walls kept it going until World War II when new owners Harry Dalton and his father converted it to a woodworking factory, scrapping the textile machinery.
The mill evolved again with new owners in 1968.
"It was converted to grain milling by a retired army colonel who restored it back in the early '70s," Janie Lovett said of the mill's time under Col. Woodrow Crum. The Crums sold the mill to Cunningham, who in turn sold it to the Lovetts 30 years ago.
TODAY AND TOMORROWToday, the mill houses the nonprofit educational organization Museum of Power and Industry Inc., and continues to produce stone-ground flour, corn meal and grits that are shipped to restaurants and specialty stores from Key West to Los Angeles, and especially "foodie" havens in Chattanooga, Nashville and Huntsville, Ala.
Restaurant owners in the region who increasingly seek locally grown produce know it's important to know where food comes from, said Robin Fazio, a sixth-generation farmer, Baylor School teacher and owner of Sonrisa Farm in Colquitt, Ga. He was at the mill on Thursday dropping off some of his grain for a trip through Falls Mill's stone grinding wheel.
"As more and more people become interested in local food -- grain is a major staple of our diet -- there's nobody left milling," Fazio said. His grain is processed at Falls Mill to become dough for Lupi's Pizza locations in Hamilton and Bradley counties. Lupi's boasts about all-local ingredients on its menu.
"What they do here is really miraculous, in my opinion," Fazio said. "To take equipment that is this old and requires daily maintenance to keep it running on a commercial scale, it's a local treasure."
The technique makes a difference, he says.
"Our customers say lots of good things about the fact that it's milled using water power and it's milled using a stone mill," Fazio said. "That makes a difference."
The Lovetts don't readily discuss the mill's future when they eventually must retire.
John Lovett said he "can't imagine" living anywhere else. The Lovetts have no children, so they hope that a preservation organization takes an interest in the mill so it can continue teaching people about the past.
"We're both preservationists by heart, I guess, and I can't really detach myself from it," 63-year-old John Lovett said. "I feel like we're all entangled and a part of it, but we understand that we're just stewards of the property."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...