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THE OLD GRIST MILL

June 10, 2018

Thirty 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?

I remembered as a boy coming to this place to picnic with a church group on a hot summer day. On a big flat rock across from the old mill we spread gingham tablecloths, ate ham sandwiches, and drank sweet tea. Then we slid on the rocks in the river rapids. In the 1950s this was our water park. Little did I realize then the historical significance of this spot on the Tyger River.

Gristmills were an important part of everyday life in South Carolina during the 18th and 19th centuries. Corn and wheat were ground by hand before the invention of these early machines.

Power for the mills was 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 Nichol’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. However, in the late 1980’s Mr. Sellers, a former mill operator, gave demonstrations to history buffs and school groups. South Carolina Educational Television did a special program featuring Mr. Sellers.

I took a Boy Scout troop to see the old mill. Mr. Sellers gave his demonstration, using the old stones to grind corn in to grits. “Do you like grits for breakfast?” Mr. Sellers asked the boys.

Most agreed that they did. “What do you put on your grits?” the older man asked.

Some scouts said butter and salt, some said cheese. Then one scout chimed in, “My grandfather likes grits so much he calls then Georgia ice cream.”

Mr. Sellers replied, “Without the grist mill there would be no grits in South Carolina and no ice cream in Georgia!”

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 was introduced to 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. They saw six engagements in four weeks, beginning in July with the First Battle of Cedar Spring near Kelsey Creek, just north of the Thomas homestead on Fairforest Creek. In quick succession, there followed the battles of Gowen’s Fort, Earle’s Ford, and Fort Prince. Then came the Second Battle of Cedar Spring and the Battle of Musgrove Mill. These battles set the stage for two decisive engagements.  Nearly two months later, Patriot forces assembled from several states scored a major victory at the nearby Battle of Kings Mountain.

Three months after Kings Mountain, the conflict returned in full fury to the Spartanburg area, when General Daniel Morgan defeated British Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens. The Spartan Rifles fought in that decisive battle. 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 same big rock where, through the years, hundreds of families have had picnics.

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 on the big rock across the river from what is now Anderson Mill. The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

On a warm summer morning, I drove over the North Tyger River bridge on the Old Georgia Road. I stopped my pickup truck to look at the old grist mill. I remembered Dr. Jones’ hope that the place might be preserved.

The big rock where Spartanburg County was formed and where we had our church picnic is no different that it has been for years. The rushing water that powered the mill in times past still flows over the rocks where we slid as kids. There was a time when pollution dumped in the river upstream made the water so alkaline that it burned the skin and bleached the blue jeans of those who tried the rapids. Now, the river has been cleaned.

As I looked at the flowing water on that warm afternoon, I considered sliding on the rocks again. Then I had a better idea.  I drove to the Beacon, ordered a bowl of grits with butter and salt, and enjoyed my Georgia ice cream!

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