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Water-powered wonder

Historic Falls Mill has been a Franklin County fixture since 1873
Story and photos by: Chris Villines 8/26/2019

 

A 113-year-old water wheel still powers Falls Mill in Belvidere. The Franklin County structure, built in 1873 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now owned by John and Janie Lovett, who operate the Museum of Power and Industry inside as well as a bed and breakfast located on the property.
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Turn off Highway 64 in Old Salem, travel down a winding country road for about a mile, then turn back — the clock, that is.

Tucked along Factory Creek in rural Franklin County is Falls Mill, a fully operational facility powered by a 113-year-old, 32-foot overshot water wheel.

“A lot of people who come here don’t believe that the water wheel is actually turning everything,” says John Lovett, who along with wife Janie has owned Falls Mill since 1984. “They ask what motors we’re running.”

The factory was originally known as Falls Creek, a name derived from the beautiful cascading waterfall. The only man-made part is an 8-foot tall stone dam.

“When I first came here, I remember staring at the water wheel and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to own a place like this someday?’” John says. “But then I thought, ‘It’ll never happen to me.’ Sure enough, it did!”

The mill campus includes the Museum of Power and Industry, which features a large collection of antique grain and textile machinery housed inside the mill, a century-old log cabin reconstructed as a bed and breakfast, a blacksmith shop, and a restored 1836 stagecoach inn. The inn serves as home to John and Janie, customers of Franklin Farmers Cooperative who lease farmland adjoining the mill property for corn, wheat, and soybeans.

“We established the museum and incorporated it as a non-profit in 1981,” says Janie, who moved here with John from Chattanooga, where he taught engineering and she was in the anthropology program at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. “We needed a mill site to operate from, and that’s how we ended up here. This place had a textile history that attracted us.”

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this idyllic gem transports visitors to, well, 1873, the year Robert Newton Mann and Azariah David partnered to open this three-story brick and post-and-beam structure as a cotton mill and woolen factory. The natural fall in the creek was harnessed to power the operation, where young women and children earned $1.80 per week and male supervisors got paid around $8 per week.

In 1906, the year the present water wheel was installed, Falls Mill ceased textile production and became a full-time cotton gin. Following World War II, it was transformed again, this time to a woodworking factory. Then in 1970, corn and wheat began being ground there, a practice that continued until the Lovetts retired from grain milling in 2015.

Products carrying the Falls Mill label, however, are still available for purchase at the mill or by mail/phone order. They include stone ground grits, cornmeal, whole wheat flour, and multi-grain pancake mix, now ground by Logan Turnpike Mill in Blairsville, Ga.

“We continued the milling operation as long as we could to help pay for the mill and the miller,” explains John, a longtime board member of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills which helps with mill restorations across the Southeast. “Then, we wanted to reinterpret [the mill] as a 19th century textile factory because there are hardly any of those left in the U.S. anymore. The equipment is all so rare that you don’t see it anywhere in this kind of factory setting.”

Inside the museum, antique machinery related to the mill’s history is exhibited on the first two floors of the building. The water wheel powers the line shafts, pulleys, and exhibits throughout the museum.

 Broom making equipment, a printing press, hand looms, wool carding machines, gin spinners, and even a dog-powered butter churn are just a sample of the intricately designed mechanical marvels of yesteryear on display.

“Just about everything was donated,” Janie says. “You’d be surprised by what people have in their attics.”

These pieces are right in John’s wheelhouse as an engineer.

“I like to tinker with old machinery and like to do research on it, too,” he says,

noting that he’s logged many hours performing restoration work on this equipment. “I like to learn as much as I can about the people who conceived, invented, and worked with it and how it affected people’s lives and the textile industry.

“Janie and I are both preservationists at heart.”

Outside, in addition to the stunning views of the mill and the peaceful surroundings of the waterfalls and meandering creek, sits John’s blacksmith shop. Opened in 2015, he says he built it as a source for demonstrating to groups — school field trips are especially popular — Janie leads on tours of Falls Mill.

“We’re trying to make it similar to the original blacksmith shop that once sat across the road,” says John. “I’ll make some things we sell down at the mill, such as decorative hooks, dinner bells, and letter openers. I occasionally make parts that we need. It’s mostly small stuff.”

As another glimpse into 1900s life in rural America, a display at the back of the grounds includes such items as a covered wagon.

“We get a lot of school groups, and the covered wagon is part of the lesson,” Janie says. “The students figure out how the pioneers would load the wagon and what they would take with them.”

Upon leaving Falls Mill, the Lovetts say they hope visitors take with them a greater appreciation of history and the effort it took in this bygone era to make everyday

products.

“We’re so used to everything being digital and electronic now,” says Janie. “But if you ever see the 140-year-old machines at work, it really makes a big impression.”

Falls Mill, located at 134 Falls Mill Road in Belvidere, is open for touring mid-March through Dec. 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except on Wednesdays, Sundays, and Thanksgiving Day. The bed and breakfast is open for guests year-round. For more information, call 931-469-7161 or visit www.fallsmill.com.

 
 
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