Historically, when European settlers arrived in the Alabama territory, they brought some understanding of agriculture, basic craft skills, and the pioneer work ethic. Here they found a habitable climate, rich soil, valuable mineral deposits, and soaring forests. They also discovered abundant water resources, including not only the vast waterways for which the state is so famous but also hundreds of mountain streams, creeks, and numerous waterfalls.
Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, the hardy settlers developed the land through clearing, farming, and building. They also took steps to harness the region’s abundant water resources, first with simple horizontal waterwheels that powered small pioneer millstones and later with large spinning vertical waterwheels to grind corn; saw lumber; and power textile machinery, iron furnaces, and other equipment. In Alabama watermills were typically constructed from locally available materials. Most were of wooden frame and siding construction with stone, masonry, and brick foundations. Until the late 1800s, waterwheels, drive shafts, gearing, and other mechanical components were made of seasoned hardwoods. As iron and steel became alternatives, these materials were often introduced for moving parts and structural support. More efficient and reliable metal water turbines began to replace the classic vertical waterwheels at many sites.
Watermills also came to be community gathering places and a key to pioneer social structure in rural Alabama. During peak harvest seasons, farmers would line up with their sacks, baskets, and wagons for a turn at the millstones. While they waited, they would camp, trade, and visit. Often a mill’s presence would cause a hamlet, village, or town to spring up. A small store and a blacksmith shop might open nearby, followed by a church, school, and post office.
While some Alabama watermills have been either restored or repurposed, others still need to be stabilized with a plan for the future. Issues remain with restoration costs and craftsman expertise to do the work. In addition, mills are often located in rural and economically depressed areas where historic discernment and project funding are even more challenging.
Beyond historic value, watermills are undeniably charming, romantic, and beautiful. Mill scenes can be delightful. Their weathered wood, masonry, and intricate iron and stonework enthrall us with southern ambiance, and their presence allows us to reflect about life in Alabama not so long ago.
This feature was previously published in Issue 132, Spring 2019.
About the Author
Ken Boyd began researching, visiting, and photographing watermills in the 1970s. His book, Historic North American Watermills, A Visual Preservation, will be released by the University of Alabama Press in late 2019.