Appalachia’s Abandoned Grist Mills: A Forgotten Epicenter of Life

Photo: Graham’s Forge Grist Mill, located on Major Graham’s Road, Max Meadows, Virginia.

Tucked away in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, the County of Wythe is a transitional locality that is home to two interstate highways and serves as a national manufacturing hub.

Yet it is not until one travels far beyond the factories owned by Fortune 500 companies and well past the dinner theater and newly built breweries that they will find the true heart of Wythe County: Lost somewhere along the Appalachian byways that course through the countryside.

The country roads of this western Virginia community are not unlike most backroads in the region, as they reveal treasures awaiting to be discovered at every turn.  Sometimes these treasures come in the form of a bright pink church, other times they are seen in a long abandoned one room school house, whereas at other times they are felt deep in the soul of the viewer who takes the time to pause long enough to watch a John Deere tractor unroll a hay bale to hungry cattle.  This is Wythe County, Virginia, and its backroads are a heaven to the amateur photographer or someone simply seeking the solace found only in a drive through the country.

I grew up in this community and if you can’t tell, I’m a little partial to this place I know simply as home.  Especially to the southern region of the county, as my childhood had me driving farm tractors down those old backroads at an age way younger than you would believe if I told you.

Of all the sights and sites of the county that have long captivated my attention, the chiefest of them all is undoubtedly the Graham’s Forge Grist Mill, located on the banks of Reed Creek.

From as early as I can remember, this massive building always fascinated me and the giant “No Trespassing” sign seemed to illicit even more curiosity in the site as I grew older.  Eerily beautiful, the abandoned five-story structure has often generated many questions but few answers.

Who built this place?  What did they do here?  Why was it abandoned? Are all things I have pondered while driving past the structure.

Fortunately, the story of this structure has not been lost to history, though the important role Appalachia’s grist mills played to our ancestors are increasingly being forgotten.

In an era before grocery stores and Martha White, obtaining ground meal or flour was a labor intensive and difficult job.

To help ease the burden of settlers and farmers, American communities began constructing grist-mills which were powered exclusively by turning turbines energized by a nearby flowing creek or river.  These local gristmills became a staple of the new country and by the mid-1800s nearly all towns and villages had their own mill so that local farmers could easily transport their grain to be milled.

Often, poor farmers would not pay for their grain to be milled with cash or coin, but rather by paying the “miller’s toll”, a percentage of their ground mill, which often went to mill workers in lieu of wages.

Constructed alongside creeks, these mills became epicenters of commerce and soon general stores and other buildings were built nearby.

The Grahams Forge Mill pictured above is one of the outstanding late 19th-century architectural gems of southwest Virginia.

“A five-story building on a stone foundation, with a flaking whitewashed, weathered, gray wood exterior; original windows and doors with stylish surrounds and proportionally correct dormers; a paneled frieze below broad eaves; a rusting silver tin roof; and a wonderful little cupola with star motif and decorative cresting. The mill and its compliment of outbuildings possess outstanding architectural integrity, and many of the mill’s workings remain in place inside the structures. The current mill, constructed ca. 1890 and operated until 1934, was the third one to occupy the site. Its predecessors were the former Graham’s Forge that featured a furnace, iron rolling mill, and nail factory, and the earlier Crockett Forge, which was established in 1796. The site is named for David Graham, who acquired the forge in 1826,” states the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources.

Imagine that, a nail factory, grist mill, general store and furnace all occupied this unassuming plat of ground in No Where, Virginia.

Grist mills were once an everyday part of life for so many, yet now, they have been forgotten to history.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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