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Down by the Old Mill Stream

April 21, 2008

Twenty-five or so years ago, I stood with Dr. Lewis Jones on the bank of the North Tyger River. The beloved professor of history at Wofford College pointed to Anderson Mill. “This place is living history,” he said. “It needs to be preserved.”

I looked at the old building covered with corrugated metal, marred by graffiti. Wisteria and honeysuckle vines were creeping up the old stone foundation. The two waterwheels were rusted.

My unspoken question was Why in the world would anyone want to save this old place?

Gristmills were an important part of everyday life in South Carolina during the18th and 19th centuries. Corn and wheat were ground by hand before the invention of these early machines.

Power for the mills were provided by fast moving streams. Where water rushed over a rocky shoal, a waterwheel could harness the river’s force. The energy was transferred inside the mill where it turned a large grooved grinding stone. Rotating over a stationary millstone, grain could be ground into grits, corn meal, or flour.

Only a few of these gristmills survive in South Carolina; fewer still have been renovated and preserved.  Anderson Mill is the oldest mill in South Carolina standing on its original foundation.

The site was originally known as Nicholl’s Fort, then as Nichol’s Mill, and later as Tanner’s Mill.  The mill gets its current name from Tyger Jim Anderson who acquired the mill in 1831.

The fact that the old mill still survives is a near miracle. Fires were a constant threat. Highly flammable grain was stored on the upper level. Gears turned the grinding stones. Millers would put animal fat on the gears to avoid sparks caused by friction.

The old mill was constructed at the rapids on the Tyger River before the Revolutionary War. The Old Georgia Road, a wagon and stage route crossed the shallow river immediately above the shoals. The fieldstone foundation and some of the supporting timbers remain from the original building. The current building was constructed on the old foundation after floods in the early 1900s caused heavy damage.

Anderson Mill last operated commercially in the 1960s.

The living history that Dr. Jones had in mind would be reason enough to save the mill. For those of us who call Spartanburg County home there is further motivation.

In 1762, John Thomas Sr. received a land grant on Fairforest Creek. The homestead was located in what is now Croft State Park. The Upstate would soon see an influx of Scots-Irish settlers.

In 1775, William Henry Drayton traveled into the backcountry. Drayton, who within a year would be appointed the state’s Chief Justice, was on a mission to recruit patriots to fight the British. He met John Thomas at a meeting at Nazareth Presbyterian Church. Thomas became the leader of a patriot militia. The new colonel was 57 years old.

Colonel Thomas commanded a unit of 200 patriot soldiers. The English had placed these Scots-Irish on the frontier to serve as a buffer against the Indians. They were tough and used to fighting. They fought with such valor that it was said, “They fought like Spartans.” The name stuck. They became known as the Spartan Regiment.

The Spartan Regiment is believed to have been part of numerous skirmishes with loyalists in late 1775. Colonel Thomas and his men earned their reputation for fierce fighting in several conflicts in which they opposed combined forces of English and Cherokees.

John Thomas, Sr., and the Spartan Regiment later would fight under General Thomas Sumter.

The regiment was reorganized after Colonel Thomas was taken prisoner. John Thomas Jr. took over as colonel and commander of the militia. It was the younger Colonel Thomas who led the Spartan Rifles in several skirmishes in this area. The Battle of Cedar Springs was near Kelsey Creek, just north of the Thomas homestead on Fairforest Creek. The Spartan Rifles fought under the command of General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens.

General George Washington would later call these Scots-Irish militia units the backbone of his army.

So what does a Revolutionary War militia unit have to do with a gristmill? Following the war, the newly formed United States of America and the thirteen new states had to create local governmental structures in order to preserve the peace. In South Carolina, districts were formed.

On the third Monday of June 1785, the first court in our district met to organize. The meeting was held at a location every person would have known well, a big flat rock where the wagon road crossed the North Tyger River across from the local gristmill. The first clerk of court was a man widely known and respected, Colonel John Thomas, Jr. The first order of business was to name the new district. It was only natural that those gathered named it for the militia unit that had protected them so valiantly. The Spartan District, later Spartanburg County was born.

The historic event happened across the river from what is now Anderson Mill.

The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

As Dr. Jones said, “The place needs to be preserved.”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, April 2008

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