Many people, if asked to name one historic site that symbolizes Franklin County’s history, architecture, and landscape, would immediately think of Laurel Mill on Sandy Creek. Once the location of a cotton gin, yarn-spinning plant, and saw mill, this iconic grist mill is nestled beside a rock-laden stream and surrounded by beautiful trees. Laurel Mill, Cascine Mill on Cedar Creek, Clifton’s Mill in the southern part of the county, and others were social centers during a simpler time when neighboring farmers brought their corn and wheat to a local miller, who ground it into corn meal and flour.
Thanks to the work of the Ben Franklin Society and a small group of dedicated volunteers, we now know that Franklin County once was home to more than fifty such mills. Incorporated in 2008 by the State of North Carolina, the Ben Franklin Society is a non-profit organization named, like Franklin County, in honor of Benjamin Franklin, a mastermind of the American Revolution. The society’s founder and current president, Bob Radcliffe, envisioned an active organization that, like Franklin, could “find practical, effective solutions to real problems.” The society supports research projects that contribute to our understanding of the history of Franklin County while unearthing hidden secrets for others to enjoy.
Limited funding and logistical support for ideas proposed by area citizens have been made possible by careful planning and hard work. The society now has a membership of more than 700. Many of these members joined the organization so they could enjoy the outstanding food and entertainment offered by the BreadWorks at Lynch Creek Farm Cabin near Rocky Ford. On many Saturday evenings throughout the year, people come from surrounding counties to enjoy Bob’s famous hand-crafted tomato pies (pizzas) and to listen to live music outdoors at the cabin. Some nights they listen to music inside the cabin while they partake of an upscale dinner prepared by Chef Sara Tipton. On Sundays, the after-church crowd fills the cabin to feast on delightful brunches. Proceeds from these BreadWorks events help fund the Ben Franklin Society’s support of such endeavors as Dr. Peggy McGhee’s Colonial Hearth Kitchen near Franklinton, where fourth graders in Franklin County have the opportunity to experience North Carolina history firsthand.
Under Radcliffe’s direction, the society in 2009 initiated the Grist Mill Inventory Project. With the help of Ben Allen, Michael Bailey, Joanne Carpenter, Robert Edwards, Joe Elmore, Bill Hill, Billy Lumpkin, Tom Magnuson, Al Peoples, William Spencer, Steve Stadelman, and Louis Wheless, the Ben Franklin Society set out to discover and record the sites of as many grist mills as possible. They began by studying old maps, deeds, and other records, and then followed up with painstaking forays into the woods. They have discovered the ruins of many mills and mill dams, which are often at the junction of creeks and old trading paths. To date, they have located many, but not all, of the mill sites reflected in their historical research.
This is not a haphazard enterprise. Each site is carefully photographed and mapped, and locations are recorded in a GIS database. The scholarly nature of the work has been recognized by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR), which has designated the society as a “credible source.” Radcliffe has begun the process of sending data for each site to staff archaeologists at NCDNCR, who add it to their own database of important archaeological sites in North Carolina. Inasmuch as no mill sites in Franklin County had previously been documented, this project is making an outstanding contribution to knowledge.
Those who would like to assist with this project or who have mill site artifacts on their property and wish to have them included in the inventory should contact Bob Radcliffe at (252) 767-1167. For more information about the Ben Franklin Society, its projects, and BreadWorks, visit the society’s website (http://benfranklinsocietync.org/).
Published in The Franklin Times on February 4, 2016.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to thank Bob Radcliffe for his assistance with this article.
Photo credit: "The Old Mill, Louisburg, N.C." in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.