- Associated Press - Monday, May 29, 2017

LAVALETTE, W.Va. (AP) - Elmer Napier may be the world’s most active documenter of specimens of rural Americana found in West Virginia that are way too large to collect in a display case.

The retired Wood County Schools driver education teacher began his quest in 1999 by visiting and photographing barns painted with the Mail Pouch Tobacco logo - the enduring symbol of the nation’s first outdoor advertising campaign, launched in 1891 by Wheeling’s Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co.

Later, he turned his attention to West Virginia railroad stations. He visited, photographed and researched the histories of more than 80 surviving rail depots, in varying states of repair, before moving on to visit and photograph scores of scenic and historic country churches, farmhouses and non-Mail Pouch barns across the state.

Last year, after conducting many hours of online research and talking to local historians, Napier traveled on more than 12,000 miles of West Virginia freeways, highways and back roads to document more than 40 remaining water-powered mill sites and to document a few barns and rail depots he missed on previous road trips. Some of the mills are still operational while others are in the process of being restored, but most of them are crumbling relics of a bygone era.

“If there is a mill or the remains of a mill anywhere in the state that I haven’t seen, I will find it,” he said.

“There once were more than 500 mills in West Virginia, with some counties having more than 40,” he said. While most of them were used to process corn, wheat and other grains into flour and meal, others were used to convert logs into lumber, weave textiles, card wool and grind materials used to make cement.

Although most of West Virginia’s water-powered mills were built in the 1800s, several date back to the colonial era, including Shepherd’s Mill, the state’s oldest gristmill, built between 1734 and 1739 on the site of what would become its oldest town. Shepherdstown founder Thomas Shepherd built the mill, with its huge, 40-foot overshot water wheel, on Town Creek 23 years before the town that bears his name was incorporated.

While the wheel that powers Shepherd’s Mill was last activated four years ago and the mill is apparently still at least partially operational, its fate remains uncertain. Earlier this month, it was scheduled to be auctioned on the Jefferson County Courthouse steps in a foreclosure sale, but a last-minute prospective buyer made an offer on the morning of the sale date that prompted county officials to call off the auction.

Other gristmills that remain operational include Babcock State Park’s oft-photographed Glade Creek Mill, which is actually an amalgamation of parts from three former mills; Howell’s Grist Mill in Wetzel County and Reeds Mill on Second Creek in Monroe County, both of which now run on electrical power; Blaker’s Mill, built in 1796 in Greenbrier County and relocated to Jackson’s Mill in Lewis County in 1993; and the Morgantown area’s Easton Roller Mill, built in 1870, closed in 1930 and then renovated and reopened for tours several years ago.

“A half-dozen or more mills are being restored,” said Napier, including Coopers Mill, which operated along the Little Bluestone River in Summers County from 1869 to 1950, Reckart’s Mill near Cranesville in Preston County, and the Mitchell Mill near Sugar Grove in Pendleton County.

Finding some of the more off-the-beaten-path mills has been an adventure for Napier.

“I’ve gone to the end of a dirt road several times, and gotten lost,” he said. “Sometimes when you ask people about the location of a mill, they don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, even though it’s just down the road from where they live.”

But Napier understands how that could happen.

During the course of his research, “I found out there was a mill within two miles of my house that I never knew about,” he said.

Mills in the Eastern Panhandle tended to be built from cut stone, while wood frame structures housed most milling operations elsewhere in the state, Napier said.

The size of the mills varied greatly, from the diminutive 18-by-16-foot Coopers Mill to McClung’s Mill near Zenith in Monroe County, which Napier described as “a huge old gristmill,” with a proportionately large overshot water wheel.

Gristmills served as community gathering sites as well as places for local farmers to bring their grain for processing. The opening of a water-powered mill was often followed by other nearby developments, like blacksmith shops, country stores, schools and post offices.

“Valley Falls State Park has two old mill sites, one of which has a mill race that was blasted out of the rock with black powder,” Napier said.

The sawmill and gristmill that began operating at Valley Falls in the 1840s spawned a small community that prompted the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to create a terminal there, helping spur development of a town with a hotel, shoe store, church, school, post office, coffin factory and gun stock plant. But the boom town went permanently bust after an 1886 fire burned most of the community and an 1888 flood destroyed what was left.

During his summer on the road in West Virginia, “I met a lot of really nice people along the way,” Napier said.

The retired teacher said he plans to post photos and brief descriptions of the mills on a website, once he fills in a few more historical blanks, and also intends to make mill-illustrated calendars as gifts to family and friends.

But Napier, who lives in Vienna and winters in Florida, has not quenched his thirst for rural industrial sightseeing in West Virginia.

“This year, I’m visiting all the old iron furnaces I can find,” he said. More than 30 charcoal fueled iron furnaces were built in West Virginia during the late-1700s to mid-1800s.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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