December 9, 2012

Tennessee man shares his expert knowledge of old mills in Whitfield County

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

— John Lovett may have a millstone around his neck, in a manner of speaking, but he’s not complaining.

You see, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor is one of a handful of experts who has the knowledge to keep the old mills running that were once an economic center of their communities. They were the place where farmers brought their corn to have it ground into meal.

Lovett’s expertise brought him to Whitfield County in early November, where he helped repair the more-than-a-century-old Munson mill at Prater’s Mill.

It’s a labor of love for Lovett, who along with his wife, Jane, owns and operates a water-powered grain mill and museum in Belvidere, Tenn., about 35 miles northeast of Huntsville, Ala.

“I think I’ve been involved in about 54 mill restorations around the country,” Lovett said. “I’ve got to go to Plymouth, Mass., next month if the weather holds out and sharpen a big millstone up there.”

His interest in mills dates back a long time. While he was teaching industrial engineering at UTC in the early 1980s, Lovett dreamed of someday opening a museum that would trace the development of power sources, from animals to water to steam.

“So if we were going to do that,” he said, “we knew we’d have to be at a water-powered site because we could collect animal-powered stuff and gasoline-powered stuff, but we couldn’t collect water-powered stuff unless we were actually there on the site. So that’s how we ended up there.”

“There” is a grain mill nestled in a lush green cove along the banks of beautiful Factory Creek. Built as a cotton and woolen factory in 1873, the mill was later converted to a cotton gin, then a woodworking shop before turning into its present use as a grist mill. The Lovetts bought the mill in the mid-1980s after nearly four years of negotiations and today operate the mill as a commercial enterprise, as well as The Museum of Power & Industry, and a bed and breakfast log cabin.

“The grain milling equipment was already there,” Lovett said. “It was actually operating when we bought it, but the owner had wound the grain milling business way down and we had to pretty much re-establish all that. They were just milling a little bit every month or so just for walk-in customers, but we expanded the line of products and began milling grits in 1986. That caught on and has become our biggest selling item.”

Today, they also sell yellow and white cornmeal, both plain and self-rising, whole wheat flour, pancake mix and cracked wheat bran.

“We also do a lot of school group tours, church and senior citizen group tours,” he said. “We’re open pretty much year round. We live there on site — we moved and reconstructed a big log house there.”

Lovett said he learned about the milling process through the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM), an international organization that was chartered in Maine in 1972.

“At the time we joined,” he said, “we still had a handful of the old millers and millwrights still living that we learned some of this from. We have a miller at our mill now who’s been there 38 years. Then there was an old miller there who had retired before we bought the mill, but he was still living in the area and he would come out and help us with the millstone sharpening and things like that. So we picked it up that way, too.”

Practically all of the old millwrights and millers have passed on now, according to Lovett. “There are not very many of us that do this anymore,” he said. “There are three or four in the country that do millwright work and stone sharpening — one’s in Virginia, one’s in New York, and there’s one in California.”

With the dwindling numbers of such artisans, the Old Mill Society has begun a miller training program.

“We’re trying to instruct people who are involved with this on what we’ve learned and all the mistakes we’ve made over the years and try to help them get to the point where they can maintain the equipment themselves,” he said.

Lovett said there are actually more old mills in the United States than most people realize.

“We maintain a list of mills in all the states through the society,” he said. “I think Pennsylvania has more mills of this type than any other state — they have hundreds up there. I’d say there are probably over 150 in Georgia. And in Tennessee, we’ve got about 100, more or less, and of those, about 12 that are operable and actually can produce something. But only two of those essentially are doing much commercial business — that’s ours and the Pigeon Forge Mill.”

Lovett said just about every community had a mill back in the day “because in, say the period from 1800 through the late 1800s, you traveled pretty much by horseback or horse and wagon and really just a few miles of travel was about the best you could do in a day to get corn to a mill and back home.”

That demand led to mills in areas where water was plentiful and could be used to operate the milling equipment.

“Sometimes you’d have a mill as much as every three to four miles on a creek,” Lovett said. “You know, you’d have another mill just downstream enough to where the water from that dam wouldn’t back up and interfere with the water from the one up creek from it.”

In his county alone, “at one time there were about 30 mills,” he said. “That was pretty much what you found in the regions where you had enough water power.”

Lovett said water-powered mills began to decline in the late 19th century.

“By that time, a lot of mills were converting to electric power or big gasoline engines like the old gins had,” he said. “By about 1900, there were not relatively speaking a whole lot of water-powered mills left compared to mills operated by other means.”

The theme of the Lovetts’ museum has changed through the years.

“After we became involved with SPOOM,” he said, “we were seeing the loss of so many of these mills across the country due to neglect, fire, floods, vandalism, and so on that we really became more interested in trying to preserve what we had left and interpret that and try to save it so that the future generations had some inkling of what their forebearers had to go through to produce a basic food product and survive!”

While Lovett was interested mainly in how the machinery operated and how to maintain it, his wife’s background, on the other hand, is in sociology and anthropology so she was more interested in how technology affected people’s lives.

Ironically, with all the current interest in natural and organic foods, some of the big commercial mills are converting back from steel roller mills to stone buhr milling.

“The nutritionists claim that stone ground products have more nutritional value than roller mill products,” Lovett said, “because stone grinding is a slicing process whereas the roller grinding is a crushing process. From what I understanding, stone grinding runs slower, generates less heat, destroys less of the nutrient value during the actual grinding process. So people are latching onto that again.”