South Charlotte

The big wheel may turn another day

Just outside Fort Mill off Steele Street in the woods by Steele Creek lies a historical treasure.

Today it doesn't appear to be much more than a jumble of rocks in a tangle of underbrush, but more than two centuries ago, this was high tech in the 18th-century American frontier.

This shady, forgotten nook is where Fort Mill got half of its name.

The water-powered Garrison-Webb Grist Mill was built here circa 1780 and ground farmers' corn and wheat into meal or flour for well over a century before it was abandoned in the late 1800s. After several years of research, there is a movement to once again channel water from Steele Creek to turn a large water wheel at the site.

“Yes, we plan on building at the site of the old grist mill; in fact, we'd like to have a water wheel turning there by Earth Day next April,” said Anne Springs Close, of the 2,300-acre Anne Springs Close Greenway.

Close said she's primarily interested in the educational opportunities for school children, and stressed this would not be a restoration, but a “re-interpretation” of what the grist mill looked like because there are no photos of the former mill.

Before the Industrial Revolution, power essentially came from humans, draft animals or water. Water-powered grist mills were first used in ancient Greece and by the year 1300, England had 17,000 grist mills.

Louise Pettus, a retired Winthrop University history professor, says grist mills played a critical role in the early development of York, Lancaster and Chester counties – by 1832 the three-county area had 32 grist mills.

“The people who built these grist mills were the region's first industrialists; they represented the wealth of that time,” Pettus said. “The Garrison-Webb Mill was one of the first in this region and is how the town of Fort Mill came to be.”

She said the real significance of the grist mills was that they were the economic incubators of their time. Where grist mills were built, roads and bridges followed, along with saw mills, taverns and stores.

“The grist mills would become social centers as well, to create the nucleus of a town in the backcountry,” said Pettus, whose great-great-grandfather, Allen Morrow, operated a grist mill on Six Mile Creek in Lancaster County.

Along Steele Creek, if you look carefully through the thick canopy of hickory and oaks, you can make out the stone foundation of the Garrison-Webb Mill and even walk through the 500-foot-long head race that in some places is up to 30 feet deep.

The greenway's environmental educator, Dottie Metzler, said that water would be pumped out of Steele Creek and flow downhill to turn a replica waterwheel.

“To understand this region, you have to study the history, and these grist mills played a critical role,” Metzler said. “And that's what we want school children to see with an exhibit like this.”