About Whittle's Mill

The beautiful old mill site on the Meherrin River has been Southside Virginia’s unofficial park for generations – and long South Hill’s best-kept secret.  Recent restoration of the site and the publication of this book have greatly heightened interest in the Meherrin River, the legacy of the Whittle family and the secrets of the old mill.  

The ruins of at least 35 water mills are hidden along the river and creeks that empty into the Meherrin. Several were built before the American Revolution, and all predate the Civil War. Whittles Mill is the oldest and best known of the old mills along the
Meherrin River.

Here you’ll get a glimpse of the natural and cultural significance of Whittle’s Mill – a remarkable American story whose roots all converge at the old mill on the Meherrin River.
The Grist Mill in American History

It’s a remarkable thing to convert the potential energy of water into mechanical energy to run a mill.  A water-powered mill is a nearly perfect interaction with our environment-- a natural union between the power of nature and the needs of man.  Water powered grist mills were central to early American life when barrels of flour and meal were staples of every kitchen.  Homemade biscuits and rolls, loaves of bread, grits, cornbread and cereals were basic foods for the family table.  Before a single biscuit could be baked, wheat, corn, rye, buckwheat or barley had to be ground at a local grist mill.  

After grain had been harvested and threshed to remove the chaff, it was called “grist.? The farmer stored the grain and took it to the miller in small quantities to be ground. Or, the grain could be stored by the miller in his own cribs where he maintained accurate records and accounts.    
Geologic History at Whittle's Mill

Ancient geological events impose far more influence on human history than most of us realize.  Old millpond dams scattered along the Meherrin and its tributaries are good examples. 

The dams were built where streams had eroded deeply enough to intersect a particularly hard and resistant sequence of ancient rock layers.  These rocks, some standing in near vertical layers, made a natural foundation for building millpond dams.  Many of the old mill sites, including Whittle's Mill, had natural waterfalls and rapids spilling over resistant rocks long before humans saw them. As colonists moved westward in Virginia, these were obvious places to convert the potential energy of water into mechanical energy to run a mill.  In building their mills and dams, the early colonists could scarcely have imagined that they were taking advantage of the remnants of a 300 million year-old mountain range.

A cliff of solid rock forms the north bank of the Meherrin River at Whittle’s Mill.  The rocks are arranged in conspicuous, nearly vertical layers. Geologists believe that these rocks, known as quartzite, gneiss and schist, may be well over a billion years old.  They record a remarkable natural history well-known to geologists but hiding in plain sight for most of us. 

The Whittle’s Mill dam was built on top of a distinctive, golden rock that geologists have named the Mill Quartzite.  The quartzite layers extend across the river, and almost certainly formed a shallow rapid or small waterfall at the site now occupied by the dam.  As the name implies, the rock is made entirely of the mineral quartz, one of the hardest and most resistant of all the rock-forming minerals.  

The Mill Quartzite was originally deposited as quartz sand along an ancient coastal plain during a time when Southern Virginia was right along the edge of ancient North America.   Just downstream of the dam, banded layers of gneiss and schist were originally mud and clay 
that accumulated offshore in an ancient ocean basin.  Over hundreds of millions of years, the sediment layers were buried tens of miles beneath the earth’s surface and slowly hardened into solid rock.  

It is a remarkable thing to walk along the layers of rock at Whittle’s Mill and realize you are walking along the sands of an ancient coast more than a billion years old.  The earth was a very different place then – a harsh and barren world.  Most of the land was assembled into a single, giant continent.  A single planetary ocean stretched from pole to pole.  Life itself had barely evolved beyond single-celled algae, so the land was completely devoid of plants.  Most of the landscape was a rusty-red color.  

We would not have been able to survive in this ancient world.  The atmosphere contained less than five percent of the oxygen it now holds, and it lacked the protective ozone layer that today shields the earth from intense ultraviolet radiation.  The rocks at Whittle’s Mill were originally deposited as sand and mud along an ancient shore on an earth we would hardly recognize.  That was just the beginning of their long history. 
Whittle's Dam was built on a layer of resistant, golden quartzite exposed on the northern (Lunenburg County) bank of the river.  There was a small waterfall spilling over the quartzite layers long before the dam was built.
The Lost Mountain Range
Some 300 million years ago, the layers of rock now exposed along the riverbank at Whittle's Mill and throughout the Piedmont underwent a brutal period where they were subjected to enormous pressure and high temperatures.  The originally horizontal rocks were crushed into a series of tight folds and broken along numerous faults.  The layers were heated nearly to their melting points and so intensely deformed that they are known as metamorphic (altered) rocks -- quartzite, gneiss and schist. 

If you stand along the river at Whittle's Mill and look across to the northern riverbank in Lunenburg County, you can clearly see a series of very tight folds in the rock layers and a low-angle fault that cuts and displaces the rocks.  The composite photograph below is annotated to show the pronounced folding and faulting in the rocks.
What could have happened to the Earth's crust in our region to deform the rock layers so severely?  The simple answer is that the rocks at Whittle's Mill are the roots of an ancient mountain range that once towered over the Piedmont from Alabama to Newfoundland.  Easily the size of the Alps, this ancient mountain range was the result of an enormous collision of continents. Beginning about 300 million years ago, the eastern seaboard of North America was broadsided by the northwest margin of Africa, destroying the intervening ocean floor in the process.  The collision zone between ancient North America and Africa ran right through our region in the Piedmont.  

The earth's interior is largely is enormously hot and contains molten rock known as magma.  The outer crust of the earth is a relatively thin layer that is broken into a dozen tectonic "plates" that have been slowly drifting about since early in the earth's history.  The plates move at about the same rate that your fingernails grow.  That's not very impressive over the course of a year, but at geologic scales of time -- hundreds of millions of years -- the tectonic plates and continents that sit on them have drifted about the earth.  

Beginning about 300 million years ago, the North American, African and South American plates collided.  As they did, the rocks along the margins of the continents were crushed, folded, faulted, chemically altered and pushed into one of the great mountain ranges of earth history.  The zone of collision between these tectonic plates is today the Piedmont province.  Whittle's Mill is one of the best places to see evidence of this ancient continental collision for yourself.  
The rocks at Whittle's Mill are crushed into a series of tight folds and offset by a fault (red arrow).  This folding occurred some 300 million years ago when the Northwest margin of Africa collided with North America to form one of the great mountain ranges of earth history.  The rocks are the roots of this ancient mountain range, long since eroded into rolling hills.
A geologist's reconstruction of the great collision of continents that began about 300 million years ago.  The ancient continents of North America, Africa and South America formed a giant "supercontinent" known as Pangea.  The folded and faulted rock layers at Whittle's Mill are the remnants of a great mountain range that formed in the collision zone between North America and Africa.  Base map courtesy of Dr. Ron Blakely, University of Arizona.
A trip to the mill was usually a family affair.  Grist mills were built on picturesque river or stream banks with a mill pond.  While the miller ground their grain, families would often spread their quilts and blankets for a country picnic beside the millpond.  There was often a mercantile store, post office, blacksmith's shop and sawmill nearby or housed in the mill.

The work of grinding grain was accomplished by two millstones usually made of quartzite, granite or limestone.  The bottom stone (or bedstone) was stationary.  A second stone (the spinning runner stone) was connected to a rotating shaft.

The surfaces of both millstones were carved into a series of sharp grooves.  When the runner stone started spinning and was lowered, the groves provided both a cutting edge to break the kernels of grain and channels for the meal or flour to move away from the millstones and into a collector below.  As grain was fed from a hopper, the miller carefully lowered the runner stone on top of the set stone to grind the grade of meal he desired.  There was a delicate art to grinding grain without the millstones actually touching.
Millstone from the old Union Mill on the Meherrin River along Route 138 (Union Mill Road).  This millstone is all that is left of Union Mill, which was destroyed by the Flood of 1940.  The fate of the millstones at Whittle's Mill is unknown. They may well be buried beneath the sand bar along the riverbank.
This map is a geologist's reconstruction of the continental collision that deformed the rocks at exposed along the riverbank at Whittle's Mill.  
The approximate location of Whittle's Mill -- 300 million years ago -- is shown by the small red 

This was one of the major mountain ranges in
earth history, and the record in the rocks at 
Whittle's Mill is among the many lines of 
scientific evidence attesting to a great mountain 
range running through the Piedmont.  The current
Appalachian Mountains in western Virginia were
only the foothills of the major core of the range in
the Piedmont.

The rocks in the core of the range were the most intensely deformed during the continental collision.  Because they were so broken up, these rocks weathered and eroded the fastest.  Hundreds of millions of years of freezing and thawing, earthquakes, landslides and simple chemical weathering reduced the great mountain range of 
the Piedmont to rubble.  The sediment 
on the famous sandbar at Whittle's Mill is a continuation of this long process: deformed rocks
upstream have been broken down chemically and
mechanically to sand. 

The sediment along the sandbars of the river and dispersed along the entire Coastal Plain is all that is left of the once great mountain range of the Piedmont. 
There was a fine art to milling, and the operation was not without its risks.  If the millstones touched, the stones or gears could easily seize or, worse, send a shower of sparks into a confined wooden mill full of combustible grain dust.

The miller was a prominent figure in the community.  The miller was usually paid to grind the grain on a percentage basis:  60 percent for the farmer and 40 percent for the miller.  In turn, the miller would sell meal, grits and flour from his mercantile store at the mill.

John Brooks' Mill

There has been a mill at the Whittle's site since the mid-1700's, when an enterprising young colonist named John Brooks built a low dam across the across the Meherrin by laying parallel rows of logs across the river and filling the midsection with earth and rocks.  Brooks' original log dam is still entombed within the rock and concrete dam at Whittle's Mill.

Brooks’ Mill was probably powered by a wooden “undershot? wheel.  An undershot wheel (called a stream wheel) is the simplest and oldest type of vertical waterwheel.  The wheel is rotated by water striking paddles or blades at the bottom of the wheel.  Undershot wheels were far simpler to build than the more familiar overshot wheel.  They also didn’t require water to be diverted from the river along a millrace.  

Brooks operated this first grist mill on the Meherrin for nearly 20 years, from 1756 until 1775. Brook’s mill was used primarily for grinding grain, but probably also powered a small lumber mill. 
Colonist John Brooks built an undershot mill at the Whittle's site in 1756.  The mill was probably located on the north (Lunenburg County) side of the river.
Pines Ingram's Mill

John Brooks eventually sold his mill and land to Pines Ingram of Charlotte County in 1775.  Ingram built a small but substantial house on the south side of the valley overlooking Otter Creek and the Meherrin Valley.  The house had a foundation and basement of large boulders quarried from the site. 

The old Ingram house stood for nearly 200 years before finally collapsing in the 1960's.  Two large fireplaces and chimneys stood through the 1980's before being knocked down in a logging operation.  The ruins of the house, also known as the Old Miller's Cabin, are today a registered Virginia archeological site.

Thomas Bedford's Mill

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the mill property was purchased by Captain Thomas Bedford in 1788.  Bedford was a Revolutionary officer from Goochland County remembered for equipping an entire company at his own expense.  Bedford refused a promotion to Lt. Colonel in the Continental Army because he did not wish to be separated from the men of his company. 

After the war, Bedford raised the height of Brooks’ original log dam and substantially improved the mill.  Bedford’s Mill was soon a commercially successful grist and lumber mill.  He built a substantial two-story home using lumber cut by a whipsaw at the mill.  Bedford's home came to be known as Otter Creek Plantation after a small tributary to the Meherrin River.

William Davies' Mill

When Thomas Bedford left his estate in Mecklenburg County in 1795, he sold the mill, the plantation home and surrounding lands to fellow Continental Army officer Colonel William Davies. Davies was a distinguished patriot of the American Revolution. He served the cause of America gallantly throughout the Revolutionary War as a regimental commander and a close aid to General George Washington and to General Marquis de Lafayette. After the war, Colonel Davies served President George Washington in settling claims growing out of the Revolution between the people of Virginia and the new United States government.  After the business of of the war was completed, Washington appointed Davies Collector of Port for Norfolk, a post he held until Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800.  Davies then retired to his land surrounding the old mill on the Meherrin River.

William Davies' wife was Mary Ann Murray, a direct descendant of the Algonquian Indian Chief Powhatan, his daughter Pocahontas and colonist John Rolfe.  William and Mary Ann Davies had one child that survived to adulthood, also named Mary Ann.  It was through their daughter that the mill on the Meherrin River and the bloodline of Pocahontas would pass into the Whittle family.

Fortescue Whittle's Mill

The name of the old mill that endures remembers Fortescue Whittle, an Irish immigrant and father of a very prominent family raised at Whittle's Mill.  The Davies and Whittle families owned the water mill on the Meherrin River for nearly a century from 1796 until 1892.  Historian Henry Mitchell of Chatham has called the Whittle family, “the real Gone with the Wind family.?  It is a fitting portrayal of a remarkable family swept up in the most extraordinary episodes in the story of America.

Fortescue Whittle immigrated to Virginia to escape repercussions from his involvement in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 -- a brutally violent religious and political rebellion against the British.  He married Col. William Davies daughter, Mary Ann, and became one of the largest landowners in Southside Virginia.  He raised a remarkable family at Whittle's Mill that would go on to find their own roles in American history.  The Whittle family was greatly affected by the Napoleonic Wars between France and England, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the darkest days of the Civil War. 

Using slave labor, Whittle had  large blocks of quartzite quarried from outcrops on the Lunenburg County side of the river in 1809.  The blocks were drug from the quarry over log rollers by mules and placed in the dam using wedges and levers.  The original log and earth dam built by John Brooks in 1750 was entombed within Fortescue Whittle's new stone dam.  Whittle designed the upstream side of the dam in a sinuous, backward "S"  shape to deflect the major water flow to the south side of the river. Whittle replaced the small undershot wheel, which had been located on the northern river bank.  The original stones of Whittle's dam are clearly visible along the the base of the dam on the Mecklenburg County side of the Meherrin River.

A. W. Hankley's Mill

An industrious entrepreneur from South Hill, Mr. A. W. Hankley, bought the mill and surrounding property in 1915.  Hankley set out to make the first significant improvements to the mill since Fortescue Whittle arrived over a century before. 

Mr. Hankley had a straightforward plan to make Whittle's Mill the most profitable grist mill along the Meherrin.  He simply bought all the competing mills and promptly shut them all down.  Hankley's operation at Whittle's Mill was soon the only commercial grist mill operating along the Meherrin River or its  tributaries.

Hankley then set about to greatly increase the capacity at Whittle's Mill.  He first sent out teams of boys across Lunenburg,  Mecklenburg and Brunswick Counties in two-horse wagons to collect cobble-size stones, and he paid them by the wagon load.  If
your great grandfather's smokehouse chimney mysteriously disappeared around 1920, it may well have ended up in a wagon headed back to Whittle's Mill.  Hankley then used the cobbles to build a five-foot addition to the top of Whittle's dam using the cobbles and concrete. He also built the levee along the south bank of the river to extend the dam.

A five foot addition to the dam may not sound like much, but it added enormously to the volume of water (and potential energy) stored in the millpond behind the dam.  With abundant energy now at his command, Hankley then replaced Fortescue Whittle's old wooden waterwheel with two newfangled steel turbines.  A turbine is a simple rotary engine that extracts energy from a fluid and converts it into mechanical energy.  Hankley's turbines consisted of large curved blades attached to a central axis.  The water turned the blades to impart a rotational energy to the turbine rotors.  The energy was then transferred by a rotating shaft that ran into a generator house sitting above the turbines.  The rotating shaft tuned a copper wire coil surrounded by magnets to generate electrical current.

Thus liberated from using only mechanical energy, Hankley was free to build a new and larger mill on higher ground that was safe (or so he thought) from floods.  His new mill was powered entirely by electricity generated from Whittle's dam -- something of an engineering marvel in 1920 Mecklenburg County.

Whittles Mill in 1938.   The millhouse was built by A. W. Hankley around 1920 to replace Fortescue Whittle's original mill.  The mill was powered entirely by electricity from turbines and generators at Whittle's dam.  Note the power lines running from a pole on the left into the mill.  Hankley's Mill ground grain for meal and flour and also powered a saw mill for cutting lumber.   The mill was set into the hillside and elevated above the flood plain -- not high enough, as it turned out.  The building was destroyed by the Flood of 1940.  This was the last of the old gristmills to operate along the Meherrin River.   Image: Library of Virginia.
Father's Day at the Old Millpond, 2010.  Families and friends at Whittle's Mill celebrate Father's Day and seek relief from the record high temperatures.  Note the canoe upstream of the dam heading toward South Hill's canoe ramp, part of the Meherrin River Canoe Trail. 
A New Source of Water

Since its incorporation in 1901, the Town of South Hill derived its municipal water supply from a series of wells.  The wells supplied the town adequately during its early years. But, as the town grew and water-intensive industries like Burlington Industries arrived, the system became increasingly strained, especially when seasonal droughts lowered the water table.  The issue of water became a major limiting factor in the town's growth and ability to attract industry, and residential supplies were periodically threatened.  South Hill began looking toward the Meherrin River as a new source of water.

In the early 1950’s, South Hill Mayor C. Glascow Butts persuaded the town to build a new system to draw all of its water from the Meherrin River.  A water intake and pump station was built on the riverbank  downstream of Whittle’s Mill and a filtration plant constructed three miles north of town on Highway 47.  A large water main was buried between the river and the filtration plant and from there to town.  Water was then pumped into several large water towers and gravity fed through the system.  

When Mayor Butts turned on the power to the new system, it was a notable change for town residents,long resigned to a lackluster trickle of water that varied through the day and season.  Now with water to spare, South Hill was soon a water exporter, selling hydrogen dioxide from the Meherrin River to neighboring communities.  Except for periodic problems with leaves and sand blocking the river intake pipe, the system worked remarkably well for nearly 20 years.  

And then Fortescue Whittle's dam failed.

The 1962 Breach in the Dam

There were two bitter cold spells during the winter of 1961-62, both lasting for weeks.  The millpond behind Whittle’s dam froze deeply several times over the course of the winter.  At one point the ice broke up, went over the dam and threatened to take the old Whittle's Mill bridge right on down the river.  

.On June 27, 1962, Fortescue Whittle's resilient old dam finally failed.  On a day when the river was high and the millpond full, a 30-foot wide section in the center of the dam collapsed, sending a slurry of water and sediment jetting through the breach as the millpond quickly drained.  Remarkably, when the lower part of the structure failed, Hankley's cobblestone addition along the top of the dam survived, suspended like a bridge over the gaping breach in the dam.

Whittle's dam had been acting as a sand trap for a century and a half.  When the dam breached, 150 years of accumulated sand, silt, clay and debris from the millpond flowed downstream.  Much of the sand came to rest on a new sand bar sitting directly atop South Hill’s water intake pipe.  After decades of heading the local water cartel, the town found itself perilously close to having no water at all. South Hill went into its first ever water rationing as Mayor Frank Harris and the town council huddled to come up with a plan.  Whatever they did, it needed to be soon.  The level in the water tanks was falling, and the natives were getting restless.

It fell to town manager Harry Bailey to solve South Hill’s water crisis.  Harry served South Hill faithfully for many years through the 1960’s and 1970’s as a very colorful and highly effective town manager.   Harry had never encountered a problem that couldn't be solved with enough concrete.  He got a crew together and hauled enough concrete down to Whittle's Mill to repair the breach in the central part of the dam.  

Harry's restoration has a vertical face on the downstream side, but the wall is slanted (/) on the upstream side for strength.  To avoid future flood damage, Harry installed seven tunnels with steel flood gatesin the middle of the dam.  The gates were designed to be opened by turning large screws along the top of the dam. (To our knowledge, no one has ever had the courage to actually open the floodgates for fear they might not close.)

South Hill Town Manager Harry Bailey inspects the 30 foot wide breach in the middle of Whittle's dam on June 27, 1962.  In this photograph, you can clearly see two stages in the history of the dam.  The lower boulder dam was constructed by Fortescue Whittle around 1809.  The upper cobble layer was added by A. W. Hankley around 1915.  Remarkably, Hankley's cobblestone addition is suspended over the breach in Fortescue Whittle's boulder dam.  Photograph (c) by Robert L. Harris used with permission.
New Power from an Old Source:  Whittle's Mill Sparks Back to Life

After Hankley's Mill burned in 1955, the turbines installed in the 1920's sat unused in the base of Whittle's Mill dam for 25 years.  In the mid-1970's, the engineering firm Rockfish Corporation inspected the old turbines and found them still operational.  Rockfish sold electricity generated at Whittle's Mill directly to the Virginia Electric and Power Company through the 1980's before abandoning the site.  The iconic little red building that sits above Hankley's turbines housed the Rockfish generators.

After sitting idle for 20 years, Fortescue Whittle's old mill has once again sprung back to life  -- this time generating electricity to power Southside Virginia homes.  Engineer Steve Jones of South Hill, a passionate advocate of hydroelectric power, took an interest restoring Whittle's Mill to generate electricity in 2006.  With long experience as an engineer at the John H. Kerr dam, Jones was fascinated to learn that the old turbines - though long underwater and buried in sand -- were still preserved and possibly operational at Whittle's Mill.  Together with his father-in-law Ike Bingham of Crewe, Jones set out to restore one of the turbines and one of the generators.  They were fascinated to discover that the turbines.relied on wood bearings of a type developed in the 18th century.  Moreover, the bearings placed by A. W. Hankley were made of a remarkable wood made from a Brazilian tree known for its dense, oily composition.  Jones discovered that the bearings, despite their age, were not cracked or seriously degraded.  After refurbishing the turbines, Jones was able to use the original wood bearings that allow the turbine blades to turn.  In 2010, the Town of South Hill approved Steve Jone's proposal for the Whittle's Mill Hydroelectric Project.   

Today, the old mill generates 20,000 kilowatt hours per month, and it feeds this electricity directly into the Dominion Power Grid.  It is a remarkable thing to visit the old mill today and to realize that the old water mill -- the perfect marriage between the power of nature and the needs of man -- is alive again 200 years after Fortescue Whittle build his dam.

Engineer Steve Jones at the newly operational power plant at Whittle's Mill.  The concrete base houses the original turbines installed in the 1920's when the mill was owned by A.W. Hankley.  The generators are housed in the iconic red power house.  (Compare this photograph with the one directly above to see the evolution of the mill structure.) Two hundred years after Fortescue Whittle built his dam, new energy from this old source is powering Southside Virginia homes and businesses.  Photograph (c) by Nicholas Elmes, The South Hill Enterprise, used with permission.
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A History of Whittle's Mill since 1765

​   Whittle's Mill

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