Coffin’s Mills

Coffin’s Mills, 1912, from the George Russell album of Franklinsville Mfg. Co. Author’s Collection.

Flour milling is Franklinville’s oldest activity. Since at least 1801 the falls of the river there powered a grist and saw mill which had in turn nurtured a small community of shops and houses. In 1821 those mills were acquired by Elisha Coffin; from him the settlement took its name, “Coffin’s Mills,” and became the site of one of North Carolina’s oldest textile factories.

That’s Franklinville history in a nutshell, but the answers to the basic “who, what, when and where” questions of the town’s founding are all more complicated.

The first person known to have held title to the site of Franklinville was Jacob Skeen, who in 1784 received it as a grant from the State of North Carolina [See Randolph County Deed Book 2, p.136 (State to Jacob Skeen, 2 Nov. 1784) and Book 4, p.108 (Skeen to daughter Jane, 23 Sept. 1790)]. In 1795 Skeen’s daughter and heir, Jane Safford, and her husband Revel Safford, sold the 400-acre tract to George Mendenhall, who in turn sold it to Benjamin Trotter, both of whom could recognize good mill real estate [Book 17, p.226 (Jane & Revel Safford to George Mendenhall, 9 Sept. 1795) and Book 8, p.401 (Mendenhall to Benjamin Trotter, 28 July 1797)]. Both men were millers, but it is unclear whether they made any use of the site, and their intentions may have been purely speculative. Mendenhall owned the substantial mill on Deep River now known as Coletrane’s Mill, and he seems to have acquired sites for other mills as investments. In 1801, Trotter sold the property to Christian Morris; that deed refers to “Benj’n Troter of Randolph County and State of No. Carolina (Miller).” [Deed Book 8, p.441 (Trotter to Christian Moretz, 15 Oct. 1801)].

Either Mendenhall or Trotter could have been the first to utilize the property as the site of a grist mill. Local tradition, however, states that the first mill at the site was built by the 1801 buyer, Christian Morris (or Moretz), a member of the German community in northeastern Randolph. [J.A. Blair, Reminiscences of Randolph County, 35 (Greensboro: Reece & Elam, 1890)].

Whether or not Morris built the first mill, by 1802 he was being taxed for the operation of a large cotton gin (verbal shorthand for ‘engine’). Invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, the unpatented invention spread quickly around the South, and Randolph County had five gins subject to taxation the year Morris erected his machine. [“Return of the Cotton Machine for the Year 1802,” in Randolph County Miscellaneous Tax Records, C.R. 081.701.5, North Carolina State Archives]. Morris’s was one of the larger machines, featuring 30 saws designed to pull the cotton fibers from the seeds. Since Morris also operated a wool-carding machine and saw mill at the mill, it appears that the site rapidly acquired the characteristics of a rural trading community. At the tiny frame mill a farmer could have his corn and grain ground into flour, have his timber sawed into lumber, gin the seeds from his cotton, and have the wool from his sheep carded for his wife to spin into yarn.

Morris died about the year 1812, and his extensive property holdings were divided among his children by the county court. Morris’ oldest son, John, received the mill tract, but since he had moved to Lincoln County, North Carolina, someone else must have run the mill until it was sold to James Ward in 1818. [Deed Book 14, p.124 (John Morris to James Ward, 2 April 1818)].


Elisha Coffin, taken about 1855.

Elisha Coffin (23 November 1779 – 22 May 1870) was a son of Nantucket Quakers who moved to the New Garden community (now Guilford College) in the 1770s. In 1816 he purchased a mill site on the Uwharrie River (Deed Book 13, Page 127), but soon sold that and purchased the Deep River mill from Ward [Deed Book 14, p. 531 (Ward to Elisha Coffin, 25 Dec. 1821)]. Owner and operator of several other mills in Guilford and Randolph Counties mills, Coffin was also a farmer, merchant and politically active Justice of the Peace. He organized a group of investors under the name of “The Randolph Manufacturing Company,” with the aim of building Deep River’s second cotton factory. [Southern Citizen (Asheboro), 3 March 1838], and ambitiously named the small community to honor Jesse Franklin, then the governor of North Carolina. It continued to be known locally, however, as “Coffin’s Mills on Deep River” until the name “Franklinsville” was officially recorded in the town’s 1847 legislative act of incorporation. [Chapter 200, Private Laws of 1846-47, ratified 18 Jan. 1847]. Coffin sold his property in 1850 after pro-slavery interests took control of the factory (Deed Book 28, Page 479), and purchased 345 acres on Richland Creek (Deed Book 28, Page 480) from Thomas Lucas—probably the mill site now known as “Kemp’s Mill.” He eventually moved back to Guilford County, ending his career as proprietor of the “College Mill” at New Garden.

Much if not all of the building pictured must dated from the time of Coffin’s ownership, as the oversized twelve-over-twelve window sash are appropriate to the 1830s. It is probable that the original windows were closed only by sliding wooden shutters, as in the Walker/Nixon mill and Dennis Cox mill. The dormer window lighting the attic floor is even later, probably added around 1880. The steeply-pitched roof of the building provided space for grain storage, and the north-facing lucam in the gable allowed wagons to be unloaded between the cotton factory and grist mill, and the grain sacks hoisted into the attic. An earlier photograph suggests that the lucam might have been remodeled, and could have been enclosed originally as at the Walker/Nixon mill.

The 2 ½-story frame building shown above is the smallest, and probably the oldest, Randolph County grist mill in any surviving photograph. The photographer is looking northeast, at the western and southern walls of the building. The grist mill shown here was about 30 x 30 feet in plan, and was situated about 75 feet west of the river and 25 feet from the south wall of the cotton factory boiler house and smokestack. At that location the building was sitting approximately 15 feet above the level of the river, and judging from the water level of the race the water wheel under the shed must have been a “pitch-back” style breast wheel. The flowing water would have hit the buckets of the wheel somewhere between 10 and 11 o’clock, causing the wheel to rotate counterclockwise. The shed roof to the right (or southern end) of the building covered the water wheel, and to its right, out of frame, was a sash sawmill. The head race is dry while the crew rebuilds it, but the mill operates even without the water power. The smaller shed roof to the left, at the northwest corner, is attached by piping to the vertical steam boiler visible at left, and exhaust steam spraying out of the pipe just above the jib boom crane indicates that the engine must be running.


1885 Sanborn map (the 1888 map is identical). The boiler and engine house of the cotton mill is just to the north.

According to the 1885 Sanborn Insurance Company map of Randolph County, the mill was heated by an open grate fireplace and lit by candles. It featured three “run” of mill stones on the first floor, with a “smutter” machine and “bolting chest” on the second floor. From this we can reconstruct the entire operation of the mill. A farmer delivered his harvest to the base of the north wall, where the windlass in the lucam hoisted the grain into the attic, called by millers “the sack floor.” From there the grain dropped by gravity to the “bin floor,” where the grain was cleaned and stored in large wooden bins. The smutter and bolter
mentioned by the insurance agent were on bin floor, and were the minimum machinery required to produce high quality flour. A smutter is an enclosed fan which cleans the raw grain by blowing mold, rust, fungus and dirt particles off the kernels. A bolter is an inclined, revolving wooden cage covered with silk; flour conveyed into the bolter was sifted by the silk, with the smallest particles falling through the silk at the high end to make the finest quality flour, the next grade through the silk in the center called the “middlings,” and the coarse bran collected from the bottom as breakfast cereal and animal feed.

To start the grinding operation, a wooden chute was opened to funnel grain from the bin floor to the “stone floor,” where it fell into the “hopper,” held in place by the four-legged “horse” atop the “stone case,” a circular wooden frame enclosing the working pair of millstones. From the hopper grain vibrates into the “shoe,” a tapering wooden trough through which the grain is fed into the stones. The turning upper stone, or “runner,” does the grinding work against the fixed “bed” stone. The ground meal or flour worked its way to the center or “eye” of the bed stone, where it was channeled through a spout into a bin or bag on the “meal floor,” at ground level, or conveyed back to the sack floor for bolting or further storage.

Grist mills with just one or two stones were considered “custom” mills, because they ground to the personal specifications of the farmers who patronized the mill. What the farmer brought in (wheat, rye, barley, oats or corn) was what he got back, in a different form (flour, meal, bran), less a portion retained by the miller as his fee (the toll”– no money changed hands). The bolter was another step in refining the finished product, and allowed the miller to collect an additional toll. A “merchant” mill had three or more “run” or pairs of stones and operated year-round, packaging the flour in 100-lb. bags and 196-lb. barrels for sale to the general public. Although a single pair of stones could be used to grind any kind of grain, one stone was usually reserved for grinding wheat and one for corn, and the stones were furrowed in a way that worked best to grind each type of grain (no one bothered with 5-lb. Bags then!). Many mills used an expensive “buhr” stone imported from France for grinding the best quality white flour, while corn could be ground on American granite or sandstone. In a merchant mill, the third stone was sometimes used to clean grain or de-hull oats, barley, or buckwheat; but by 1885 it is likely that the third stone was being used to regrind the middlings, producing higher quality flour. That procedure was called “new process” milling, and it was developed to compete with the new “roller mill” technology developed in the late 1870s which used grooved porcelain or toothed steel rollers to pull the grains apart rather than grind them. Roller milling was the biggest technological change in the milling process in 2,000 years. The invention of roller mills not only outmoded grist mills, but caused a complete shift in the types of wheat that were produced by American farmers.

In 1912 the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company replaced this antique grist mill with a greatly-expanded modern roller grinding operation. That three-story “Roller Mill” opened in 1913, operated until 1990, and burned in 1992. When their picture above was taken in 1912, the gang of men were building wooden forms for the concrete walls of the new roller mill head race, or “forebay.” At least eight of the fifteen men in the photo appear to be African-Americans; they are not the ones white shirts, vests and ties. At this time the only jobs in or around the factory for black workers were the ones requiring heavy lifting, usually in the mill “yard,” loading and unloading wagons or managing the 500-pound bales of cotton in the opening room. Here the construction crew digging and forming up the new race appear to be entirely or predominately black.

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4 Responses to “Coffin’s Mills”

  1. Heather Bean Says:

    This is a great blog! I applaud your efforts to document local history before it is gone!!

  2. Ted Howard Says:

    Thank you so much! Elisha Coffin is my 4th great grandfather and I never had any of this information before tonight and how nice to find a wonderful photo of him as well.

  3. Roxanne Ingold Thomas Says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading on your blog, and I’m sure I will check back again. I agree with you that somehow so many beautiful buildings in town have either been neglected over the years or have lost their “front yard”. I think the original entrance to the Randolph Hospital was so nice with the large maples. I live on Worth Street, actually within walking distance from your law office, and wondered if you knew any history about my house or if you could steer me in some direction to find out the history of when it was built and by whom. I live across the street from the white house of the late B.B. Walker (I think originally the McCrary house) in the khaki and olive green Craftsman house. Thank you for any information you can provide!

  4. Effie Hodges Says:

    I believe Christian Moretz is my 4th great grandfather. Does anyone know where he is buried? All I know is that he died in “Randolph, NC.” Thank you.

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