LOWESVILLE — Nelson County is home to a rare completely water-powered mill that has stood the test of time and grown a rich history.
Within its 220-year-old walls on the Nelson side of the Piney River in Lowesville, Woodson’s Mill still produces stone-ground grits, flours and meals under the leadership of owner Will Brockenbrough.
The building for the mill originally was constructed by Guiliford Campbell in 1794; the two mill stones that are still in use today were placed in the expansion of 1840.
After Dr. Julian B. Woodson, also a state senator from 1920 to 1928, bought the mill in 1900, the name stuck. The mill continues to look and run the same as it did during the early 20th century.
Woodson’s grandson, David Woodson Jr., spent his summers at the mill from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.
“My favorite hangout was at the mill,” he said. “And if I wasn’t at the mill, I was at the lake right next to the mill.”
Woodson remembers seeing farmers on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons that would come to the mill carrying their grain. The miller, Ed Willis, would grind it for them.
Willis came to Nelson in 1900 to repay a $5 debt to Dr. Woodson. He remained as the miller until he died in the 1960s.
“Ed just about raised me,” Woodson Jr. said. “I remember being around Ed all the time; he was like a father to me.”
Woodson said the mill also was used as a polling precinct during that time and he remembers watching voters walk into a wooden frame draped in a canvas lining, where they would write down their vote on a piece of paper.
It wasn’t unusual for Dr. Woodson, a Democrat, to sometimes speak his opinion on candidates outside of the precinct at the mill.
“I can remember him standing out in front of the mill one day and ... him speaking very diligently and shaking his finger at a man,” Woodson said. “I assume he was lecturing the person to vote a certain way. He was very interested in politics.”
After Dr. Woodson’s death in 1963, the mill fell into disuse and was shut down temporarily until Brockenbrough’s father, Gill, purchased the building in 1983.
The water source for the mill is the dam on the Piney River, and in 1969 it was completely wiped away by Hurricane Camille. However, the mill remained during the storm. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the dam was reinstalled.
“All of the equipment was here for the most part,” Brockenbrough said of the 1980s restoration. “My dad just had to figure out what all this did. I have no idea what he was thinking, buying the mill.”
Brockenbrough’s father hired a local man named Steve Roberts to paint the roof, and during his work at the mill Roberts explained to his father how the mill worked. Eventually, Roberts was promoted to head miller and is only the second miller to run Woodson’s Mill.
After Brockenbrough’s father’s death in 2001, the mill once again fell into disuse for a few years until Brockenbrough moved back from Georgia to reopen the business 10 years later.
“I realized that when I was in Virginia, I needed to do this,” Brockenbrough said. “The only thing you can do with an old structure like this is to use it. If you don’t, it will fall apart.”
Today, Roberts is still the miller and Brockenbrough runs the mill in its original state, producing handmade grits, flour and meal.
The overshot power water wheel — the larger of the two wheels — powers all the building’s equipment, including the stones that grind the meal, the bucket elevators and the sifting equipment.
The smaller wheel is the generator that runs the electricity.
The mill only is run twice a month in the summer and two or three days at once in the winter.
Though it takes longer, the mill’s grinding process, which moves the stones more slowly, preserves oils, nutrients and flavors that often are lost in high-speed steel grinding factories, Brockenbrough said.
The result is an entirely different product that is made from a free and renewable source of energy.
“The water does everything,” Brockenbrough said. “And now, with the local food movement, people are more in tune to where their product comes from.”
He said the mill is the only water-powered mill in Virginia that is still in commercial production.
The corn used in the process is bought from local farmers and delivered to the fourth floor of the building by a bucket elevator, also run by water.
Most of the products are ground several times a month and are sent to Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington and a few restaurants in New York and California.
The mill is open for tours to the public from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays from June to October. Woodson often acts as the storytelling tour guide and ambassador to the mill. He said he began to revisit the mill in 2012 and enjoys telling visitors how the mill operates and what role mills played in community life during the 19th and 20th centuries.
“It’s like going back home,” he said of being back at the mill years later. “It’s just a wonderful place to be. I have so many fond memories there.”
“It’s a real place; you should be able to come see it,” Brockenbrough said. “Not just a good story about how your food is made. You can come and witness it.”
Brockenbrough said he has enjoyed following in his father’s footsteps, and his love for historic architecture has grown during the years working in the mill.
“I think we all have a responsibility to be stewards to our historic resources,” he said. “The main thing is to preserve it and keep it going.”