As Ashe County has modernized, much has been gained. Transportation, communications, and education in the county exist at level unimaginable to resisdents of prior centuries. However, some things have also been lost. As the infratructure of the county has grown, the people of the county have become increasingly delocalized and homogenenized. In 1900, Ashe County was home to dozens of postal districts, each one serving a small community of residents who were not easily able, nor especially motivated to travel to other areas of the county with any much frequency. These small communites, usually made up of several closely entwined families, were worlds unto themselves, worlds in which residents were dependent upon one another for the basics of daily life. Although many things helped to bind these small communities together, nothing was as important to the success and survial of this enclaves as local mills.
During the period before World War One, Ashe County residents were amazingly self sufficent. Scanning cenus records from the 19th and early 20th century, it is difficult to find residents who were not listed as farmer. These individual farmers were able to grow and preserve their own food, build thier own homes and outbuildings, and produce their own textiles with little outside assistance. However, they were dependent on mills to produce many of the staple of their day to day lives. Corn meal, flour and dimensioned lumber were difficult, if not impossible to produce efficently at home; it was only with the aid of a mill, usually powered by the dammed waters of a stream, that this vital tasks could be accomplished.
This dependence on mills is clearly demonstrated by their abundance. According to the Branson’s Directory of 1890, there were 43 mills in Ashe County serving a population of 14,436 residents. Many of these operations were small and were operated by semi-professional millers who used the mills to merely supplement their income. However, a few were so vital, so heavily utilized that they grew in to complex operations milling both grain and lumber.
A few examples of these 19th century mills still stand. The large flour mill operated by the Perkins family on Helton Creeks still stands. However, one of the most impressive mills in the county at the turn of the 19th century, the Cranberry Creek Mill operated by Matthew Johnson, was violently erased from history. This mill, and the memories surrounding it, are still etched in the memories of a community that was once literally centered around it.
The Cranberry Creek Mill was begun, as many mills of the era were, on a small scale. In 1848, William Johnson, a resident of Wilkes County born in 1794, bought a tract of land from his father, Robert, along the banks of Cranberry Creek, one of the largest creeks in Ashe County. William subsequently relocated to the county, and by the time of the Civil War was living in the Peak Creek district of Ashe County. The property Willam owned contained an excellent site for a mill, with several huge rocks providing an excellent location for a dam, and soon a mill was in operation.
This early mill must have been as least somewhat successful. In the 1870 census, William was listed as possessing $2000 worth of property, an amount substantially higher than any of his neighbors. By this time, William was in his late 70s and was probably no longer willing or able to operate the mill; consequently, his son, Matthew, began operation of what was then known as the William Johnson Mill.
The period during which Matthew operated the mill saw the site substantially expand. Johnson acquired a sawmill from his neighbor, Issac Shepherd, and moved it piece by piece across the hill to the banks of Cranberry Creek. By utilizing the water power of the dammed creek at the mill site, the mill was soon able to provide dimensioned lumber to his neighbors, fueling a transition from log construction to more modern framed construction that was taking place all over the county during the late 19th century.
By 1900, the Cranberry Mill was one of two being operated in the Furches community (The other mill, located about a mile upstream was operated by John Shepherd). The old road, running along the banks of Cranberry Creek and directly in front of the house, had become the main artery for the transport of raw copper from the mine at Ore Knob to Wytheville. Consequently, houses and stores were springing up, growing the community of Furches, which in turn provided more and more customers to the mill. Matthew Johnson was during this period successful enough to list his sole occupation as ‘miller’ on the 1900 federal census. However, Matthew, who had been born in 1840, was growing too old to continue the full time operation of the mill. The turn of the 20th century would soon seen the mill change hands; not long after, just as it reached its apex, the mill, would be suddenly and violently ended and the subsitence farmling lifestyle it had support for three generations would begin a steady and irrevocable decline.
At the turn of the 20th century, Matthew Johnson was ready to give up his interest in the Cranberry Creek Mill, an expanded and modernized version of the mill his father had begun operating around the time of the Civil War. He found a buyer, and in 1902, the mill was purchased by Newton C. Shepherd for $700. Shepherd purchased the mill, but apparently had little interest in operating it. A mere two months later, Shepherd sold the mill again, this time to Columbus Upchurch. Whether this resale was planned by Shepherd and Upchurch, or whether Upchurch was merely in the right place at the right time to acquire the mill is unknown, but Columbus Upchurch would become the mill’s last owner.
Around the turn of the century the mill house was expanded into a 3 story structure quite similar to the large mill still standing on Helton Creek. Compared to the other two turn of the century mill still standing in Ashe County, the Cockerham Mill on Dog Creek Road and the Ambrose Clark mill on Little Horse Creek Road, this 3 story Cranberry Mill must have been at the time, one of the largest in Ashe. During this period the mill operated without a water wheel, a feature commonly assumed to have been a part of all mills. In fact, many turn of the century mills, which still relied on flowing water for power, utilized steel turbines, submerged under the surface of the water, for power. Given that photographs from the period show no water wheel in use at the Cranberry Mill site, it can be assumed it was powered by these sorts of submerged turbines, no doubt installed as the mill underwent updates and renovations around the turn of the century.
For 14 years, Columbus Upchurch was able to profit from the Cranberry Creek Mill. Although he would have received no monetary payment from local farmers, he like all millers at the time, was paid with a ‘miller’s toll’ a percentage of corn or wheat that was given to the miller in exchange for the use of the mill. This allowed Upchurch, like the Johnsons before him, to devote more time to the expansion and upkeep of the mill, and less time to farming.
By 1914, the Cranberry Creek Mill was at its apex. What had begun as a small enterprise by William Johnson sometime around the Civil War, was now focal point of the community, a three story building housing both a grist and sawmill. Everyday, dozens of people travelling the old road along the banks of Cranberry Creek would have passed in front of this oversized structure. For Columbus Upchurch, the purchase of the mill had indeed been a wise investment.
Unfortunately, operating a mill in the early 20th century was a career with a limited future. The slow decline of subsistence farming as a viable livelihood would eventually cause all the mills of Ashe County to end operations; however, for the Cranberry Creek Mill, and many other mills in the county, this end was hastened by a literal storm brewing on the horizon.
In 1916, meteorology was still in a primitive state. Local farmers often relied on folk knowledge to look for signs indicating changes in weather patterns. Aside from almanacs, long term weather predictions were nearly non existent. As the middle of July rolled around, nobody in Ashe County could have anticipated that two huge storms were about to converge on western North Carolina.
Between July 8th and 10th, 1916, a tropical depression, which had earlier made landfall along the gulf coast, began dumping rain on the southern Appalachian Mountains. This storm produced between 5 and 6 inches of rain in the region. The large scale timber harvesting, which had begun in earnest in Ashe County around this time, magnified this rain total by allowing extensive run off to make its way into the local creeks and rivers. Flooding resulted and the waterways of Ashe County began rising towards homes and businesses, mills were particularly threatened.
Had this rainfall be allowed to fully dissipate, the devastation that was about to occur would likely have been prevented. However, in a stroke of exceptionally bad luck, another, larger storm immediately struck the region on July 15th and 16th. This storm, lumbering inland from the Atlantic Ocean carried a devastating punch. Near Grandfather Mountain 22 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, a record for single day rainfall that still stands today.
The flood that resulted from this unbelievable rain event destroyed everything along the banks of Cranberry Creek. Houses were swept away, bridges were destroyed, and the Cranberry Creek mill was pushed from its foundations, the top two stories of the structure torn away from the bottom floor. Along with the large Cranberry Creek mill, two other mills on the creek, one operated just upstream by John P. Shepherd, were also swept away.
When it was all over, the mill, is valuable machinery, and its dam across the creek were obliterated, leaving nothing but a stone foundation and a fractured cinder block wall, which still stand along the banks of Cranberry Creek as a memorial to the once mighty mill house.
With World War One beginning, and industrial occupations become more and more prevalent around the South, the financial impetus to rebuild the mills washed away in the 1916 flood was gone. Those that had survived the devastation would themselves slowly fade away as the county moved further away from a subsistence farming based economy. Although they are all but ignored or forgotten now, these mill houses, powered by the untamable strength of falling water, were once the cornerstones of every farming community in Ashe County. In many cases these communities still exist today, but the subsistence farming lifestyle that gave birth to them have long since been swept away.
Note: This article was featured in a prior edition of the Ashe County Historical Society newsletter. To receive quarterly newsletters, featuring new articles about Ashe County History, join the Historical Society.