The Geography of Grist, Flour, and Saw Mills: Indicators of Land-Use History in Virginia

By Copenheaver, Carolyn A.; Prisley, Stephen P. et al. | Southeastern Geographer, May 2007 | Go to article overview

The Geography of Grist, Flour, and Saw Mills: Indicators of Land-Use History in Virginia


Copenheaver, Carolyn A., Prisley, Stephen P., Pittman, Judd R., Yonce, Mary E., Issem, Cristina M. S., Jensen, Kristopher A., Southeastern Geographer


The objective of this study was to use grist, flour, and saw mills as indicators of settlement and trace the relationship between the occurrence of mills and the physical geography in a county in the Appalachian Mountains. We verified the locations of 18 grist and flour mills and 26 saw mills that operated during the period of 1800 to 1950. Contrary to previous studies, which linked the location of mills to infertile soils, a majority of mills in our study area (100% of grist and flour mills and 77% of saw mills) were located on fertile, limestone-based soils. This difference may be attributed to the dependence on water as a power source. Thus, mills were located on rich soils adjacent to a river or creek. Present day land ownership patterns were influenced by the land use history of the area, with areas that had housed grist or flour mills remaining in private ownership, while areas that had been dominated by saw mills converting largely to federal ownership.

KEY WORDS: anthropogenic disturbance, Appalachian Mountains, early European settlement, land ownership patterns

INTRODUCTION

In North America, the geography of human land use was often influenced by soils and topography (Whitney 1994; Russell 1997). Present day vegetation, soil erosion rates, wildlife populations, and conservation value reflect whether humans used the land for agriculture, natural resource extraction, residential areas, or industry (Lafon, Huston, and Horn 2000; Richter et al. 2000; Bellemare, Motzkin, and Foster 2002; Foster and Motzkin 2003; Goslee et al. 2005). In the southern Appalachian Mountains, European agrarian settlement began in the late 1700s and natural resource extraction, chiefly coal and lumber, did not follow for another 100 yr; thus, the spatial distribution of land use was a reflection of both the physical landscape (availability of water, steepness of slope, depth and fertility of soil, and climate) and the cultural landscape (proximity to major trade routes or cities, existence of earlier settlements, and availability of a cheap workforce) (Dunn 1988).

Soil productivity, land ownership, land use, and topography were tightly linked in the nineteenth century Appalachian Mountains. On fertile soils, 95% of landowners were local residents with farms owned by a single family for multiple generations. On infertile soils, only 67% of landowners were local residents and property sizes were smaller with more frequent transitions in ownership (Mann 1995). Most of the agricultural production occurred on limestone soils, while many of the processing and distribution centers (grist mills, saw mills, paper mills, tanneries, etc.) were located on shale soils (Hofstra and Geier 2000). The topography of alternating northeast-southwest ridges and valleys also influenced transportation routes and land use. Roads for transport of goods were more common along valley floors; thus, transportation across ridges was limited (Hsiung 1997). Residents in valleys specialized in field-based crops while landowners in narrower valleys and steep mountainsides focused on the livestock trade (MacMaster 1991). When large landowners owned property both in the valley and the adjacent mountains, they compartmentalized their land use by cultivating the valley floors and using the steeper lands for grazing and timber extraction (Horning 2000). Land use also reflected land ownership patterns. Local landowners were typically involved in agricultural land uses, while absentee landowners were involved with extraction of natural resources, e.g., timber or coal. Thus, areas rich with natural resources, such as the coal and timber rich Monogahela region in West Virginia, had much higher levels of absentee landownership than adjacent areas poorer in natural resources, which tended to be dominated by local, agrarian landowners (Rasmussen 1994).

The Appalachian economy during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was largely controlled by the conversion of agricultural products or natural resources into exportable commodities (Dunaway 2003). …

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