Northwest Florida Mill Survey
Crary's Mill at Bluff Springs, Florida near the town of Century. Bluff Springs is the oldest community in North Escambia County. Crary's Mill ran an electrical generator and a grist mill in the 1920s and 1930s.
The idea for a reconnaissance level archaeological survey of mill sites in the western Florida panhandle grew out of an exchange between archaeologists and visitors to the Arcadia Industrial Complex during the 1990-1991 excavations conducted by the University of West Florida. Among the many who visited Arcadia during the project were several people, including old mill enthusiasts, local historians, farmers and outdoorsmen, who told the staff of the Archaeology Institute about many other nineteenth and early twentieth century water or steam powered mill site locations that lie in northwest Florida. These are the grist mills and lumber mills that enabled the pioneers to settle this area of Florida. The archaeologists developed contacts with several informants who were willing to work with UWF to locate these unrecorded and significant archaeological sites.
Louis C. Hunter's 1979 book, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930, suggests that the rural water-powered mill represented one of the first steps in settling the American frontier. These early industries followed closely on the heels of the pioneer and persisted long after the community was established. More often than not, the gristmill and sawmill preceded even the church and school and usually arrived before the wagon road. These mills provided meal for the settlers' bread and the lumber for their houses. They became the community centers where settlers gathered to visit and exchange news. The community mill determined the placement of early roads; other commercial ventures such as the blacksmithy, livery and general store soon sprang up nearby. The water-powered mill was a founding element of a community.
As Hunter notes, the water-powered mill also introduced the age of machines. The sawmill and grist mill gave the colonial and early American settler some familiarity with mechanization and the processes of industry, and paved the way for the Industrial Age. With the invention of more complex forms of water power, such as the turbine engine, and the development of steam power in the mid-nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began in earnest; manufactured products became widely available and the American farmer began to lose his self sufficiency.
Simple country water mills and the early turbine and steam powered mills dotted the landscape. They were an integral part of the development of northwest Florida. The many swift creeks that drain the panhandle provided countless mill seats, or favorable settings for water-powered mills. As the vast longleaf pine forests were settled, numerous small water-powered sawmills and gristmills were built along these streams. Small communities developed around them. Some of these mills, such as Arcadia, became large industrial complexes, while others, like Carpenters's Mill in Escambia County, Jernigan's Mill in Santa Rosa County and Milligan Mill in Okaloosa County, remained small operations. A number of these small water-powered mills persisted into the twentieth century as grist mills, ice plants or electrical generators. As the lumber industry grew in importance, however, the small water-powered mill was gradually replaced by large steam powered lumber mills. The steam powered engine enabled the lumbermen to move the mills to the bays and rivers near the shipping lanes. These steam powered mills along the rivers and bays gave rise to milltowns such as Century, Bagdad and Milton.
Scores of mill sites, both small and large, water-powered and steam powered, cover the panhandle. These unique and extremely valuable historical sites define settlements that either no longer exist or live on only in the memories of a few former inhabitants. Because the mill was a focal point and defining element of the community, much information about the history and development of the region, including historic settlement and land use patterns, can be obtained by investigating these archaeological sites. The majority of the mills, however, have not been recorded. Furthermore, development threatens these sites. Fortunately, many of the sites retain archaeological integrity and their locations are known to a few citizens.
During a three-year span, the University of West Florida obtained two Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation Grants-in-Aid to to locate and study the mills of northwest Florida. These projects were designed to identify as many sites as possible rather than conduct in-depth studies of a few. Archaeologists, including UWF Research Associate John Phillips, and mill enthusiasts (with a supporting cast of dozens of local citizens with additional site information) located and recorded approximately 80 mills or related sites in northwest Florida. The search for these important industrial sites continues.
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