Ye Ancient Landmark
There is no more ancient local landmark, at least of the man-made variety, than Chappell's Mill situated at the northern extremity of Laurens County. This grist mill, once a part of a widespread network of dozens of such mills, is the last of a once thriving commercial operations which served to convert the farmer's grains into the daily bread of life.
No one can tell exactly when the mill first was constructed. The old story goes that it was a Mr. Gilbert that built the first mill on a branch of Big Sandy Creek, known as South Sandy Creek, about the year 1811. It is likely that the builder of the original mill was either John or Thomas Gilbert, who owned land in the area in the early years of Laurens County.
Though the exact date is not known, James Stanley II purchased the mill and more than two thousand acres surrounding it. The hilly regions of northern Laurens County provided an ideal location for a mill. Grist mills were often the commercial centers of the rural areas of the county. They were similar to today's convenience stores and often sold other products in addition to ground corn and wheat. Stanley formed a mercantile concern named for two of his sons, H.B. and Ira Stanley, to capitalize on the rich resources of the area.
James Stanley died in 1841 and ownership of the mill passed to his sons. Ira Stanley was a man of high education. He married Janet McCall, daughter of Thomas McCall and Elizabeth Smith. Though he owned in excess of sixty slaves, Stanley refused to sell his excess slaves and kept families intact on his large plantations. A starch opponent of the liquor trade, Stanley served as sheriff of Laurens County (1825-26) and state representative (1834-35.) Stanley was a close friend of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America. Family members relate the story of the time when Stephens stopped in for a visit with Stanley, who informed him that he was contemplating building a new home. Stephens requested a pen and drew a sketch of his home, which Stanley duplicated as nearly as possible.
During the War Between the States, the mill became a purported target of Sherman's cavalry soldiers as they patrolled the flanks of the right wing of the Union army as it approached the Oconee River at Ball's Ferry. Major James B. Duggan, a Confederate officer at home on leave, learned of the plot. With no comrades available, Duggan dashed off to the nearby bridge over Big Sandy Creek, known as the "Lightwood Knot Bridge." The legendary story tells that Duggan enlisted the aid of an elderly slave woman to deceive a Union cavalry patrol into believing that they were a squad of Confederate general Joseph's Wheeler's cavalry coming up to block their crossing. It has been told for decades that Duggan and the woman set the bridge afire and caused the Yankees to scurry off in mortal fear.
After the war, the local economy was in a shambles. Nearly all of the men in the family had been actively involved in the war. Rollin and Benjamin Stanley were officers, as well as James Chappell and Peyton Douglas. The continued operation of the mill was important, perhaps more important than ever before. The sons and sons in law of Ira Stanley entered into an agreement in September of 1868 to settle Stanley's estate. James W. Chappell (husband 0f Harriett Stanley) , Peyton W. Douglas (husband of Georgia Stanley) and Ira E. Stanley purchased the interest of John F. Burney (husband of Margaret Stanley), Rollin A. Stanley and Benjamin F. Stanley for the sum of $4000.00. The purchase included all mill rights and the rights to flood the pond to a sufficient level to operate the mill. Also included in the conveyance of "Stanley Mills" included "all lumber on hand," possibly indicating that a saw mill was located on the premises.
From that point on, the mill became known as Chappell's Mill. Ira Stanley Chappell, the eldest son of James T. and Harriet S. Chappell, died in 1931. He was the last member of the Chappell family to own the mill. Before his death, Chappell sold the property to Allen J. Dixon, who operated it for a quarter of a century. Dixon advertised an auction for the sale of the mill, including the 50-acre pond, seven acres of land and three dwellings. Dixon also offered more land at the set price of $10.00 per acre. Don't we all wish had been there on December 18, 1942 with a pocket full of money?. Dr. T. J. Blackshear was the high bidder. He maintained the property until it was purchased by James and Forrest Townsend, grandsons of Allen Dixon.
Charles Fordham, Alton Carr, George Fordham, Carl Robinson and many others kept the mill going for many years. Production often went above 15,000 bushels a year and grossed more than $100.000.00 annually. Once the grains of corn were ground, the meal was carefully sifted and poured in paper bags bearing the name of the mill and a generic conception of a southern grist mill. The fine meal was sold to grocery stores around the state. The mill was operated on water power until about 1950, when the more dependable electric power motors were installed. Despite the dependability of electric turbines, the Townsends always wanted to restore the water power because it was free. James Townsend always proclaimed that the slow grinding process was superior to the rapid factory processes.
In 1997, after one hundred and eighty six years of continuous operation, the last batch of corn was ground. The closure was not the result of the dastardly Yankees, a disastrous fire or an untimely death of the operators. The death of our county's most ancient landmark came at the hands of indifferent government bureaucrats, who insisted that the Townsends install modern and prohibitively expensive equipment to keep the mill in operation.
The first mill house was located on the northern side of the pond, but was washed in a flood and moved to the other side of the dam to protect it against floods. The 1840s mill house still stands as a vivid reminder of the distant past. Over the years, it has been modified to accommodate modern conveniences, but when you see it, you will be transported back in time to an era when life was a little slower and a lot gentler.