By the time darkness settled on eastern Pittsylvania County on St. Patrick's Day in 1912, floodwaters on the raging Banister River had swept away its last remaining bridge. Sunday, March 17 would be long remembered by county residents who lived along the Banister and its tributaries as their worst flood in memory.
Headlines on the Danville Register blared the frightening story:
TRAIN SERVICE IS HANDICAPPED
NO SERVICE OUT OF DANVILLE DUE TO HIGH WATER
The accompanying news story told of the destruction of most of the county bridges (some of which were described as “substantial iron structures”) and the blocking of most of the county's roads. The destruction of mills, bridges and buildings was vast and according to the story “perhaps never before has there been so much damage to county property by floods as has this experience.”
Several of the county's twenty or so grist mills in operation suffered severe damage. At least three were put out of commission for months. Grubb Mill on Bearskin Creek and Henry's Mill on Sandy Creek of the Baniser suffered fatal blows. Both were founded in the eighteenth century. The latter was more historically important because of the identity of its owners. Morever, Henry's Mill was better known to Pittsylvanians because of its remarkable setting.
Halifax County Court Records indicate that the mill was built by a prominent Halifax County planter named Griffith Dickerson in 1762 — five years before the founding of Pittsylvania County.
Dickerson appeared to be eager to divest himself of the property when he sold it to John Lewis, a western Halifax large landowner for “150 pounds current money.”
Dickerson's Mill had a 25 acre tract of land included and was described by Dickerson in a transaction as “the mill standing on the same run as the Great Rock.”
That was an apt description since one of the area's largest rock outcropping underpins the mill site which, coincidentally, was purchased by James Henry on St. Patrick's Day in 1774, exactly 138 years before its destruction by floodwaters in 1912.
During that 138 years, the mill was owned continuously by the Henry family — a record for mill ownership in the county. It has been known as Henry's Mill since that time and became a landmark on the county line and the most popular summer recreation spot in the region.
Judge James Henry (a cousin of the famous patriot, Patrick Henry) willed all his property to his children and left Henry's Mill with 10,000 acres of land to his son, John. It is an interesting fact that he owned another mill at Atlas on Burch Creek at the same time which he willed to his son, Charles. Fifty years later that mill became the nucleus of the famous Birch Creek Works that was owned by the Flippins.
The building of the famous Henry plantation mansion, “Woodlawn,” has been credited to John Henry. This architectural gem is the only existing eighteenth century structure in Pittsylvania County given the “very high” rating by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Woodlawn” remains one of the most frequently visited sites by out of town visitors to Pittsylvania County to this day.
It was a latter day James Henry who rebuilt Henry's Mill into a flourishing grist and sawmill operation in 1845. That structure was apparently a part of the mill damaged in the 1912 freshet. However, so secure was it on its massive rock foundation that it survived the St. Patrick's Day deluge. Upstream of the mill's dam sat a large covered bridge which was lifted from its moorings by the rolling waters. Its mass was swept downstream carrying the dam with it. For reasons dimmed by antiquity, the dam was never rebuilt, and the mill became idled forever.
This was not the end of Henry's Mill however, since it became the area's most popular summer picnic and swimming spot. For the next half century it was a mecca for county families on summer Sunday afternoons. Its attraction was enhanced by the founding of the old Pittsylvania County Baseball League. By the 1940s, the site was in the hands of George Farson, Jr. and his wife, Julia Henry Farson. George was a fine baseball player and manager who organized the Henry's Mill Millers, whipped them into a contending ball club and built one of the finest playing fields in the league. The field is cultivated now, but is clearly visible a stone's throw from the old mill site.
Attendance was always good when the Millers entertained a visiting team on a hot afternoon. While the men watched the game, their wives and children frolicked in the waters of Sandy Creek below the mill. The “Great Rock” provided a natural water world where youngsters of all ages waded in the many pools, cooled themselves and tested their water skills in the rapids. Mother Nature kindly provided an expanse of sandy “beach” for the mothers to relax upon while their charges romped in the picturesque stream.
With the coming of the “Age of Affluence,” the proliferation of backyard swimming pools and the advent of television and “widescreen” movies, Henry's Mill lost its preeminence as a recreation spot for eastern Halifax and western Pittsylvania County residents.
However, the site remains as pristine and beautiful as ever. Moreover, stories still abound because almost every eastern Pittsylvania County senior citizen has a favorite story about the fun days at Henry's Mill.
Young George Farson III, who lives nearby, played under his father and starred as a catcher at the University of Virginia. Unless is he away on one of his scouting trips for the major leagues he may be found tilling the soil on the old Henry plantation acreage on any given day. He may even be found on a tractor on the site of the ball park.
If the romantic has listened intently enough to the stories and sits quietly and long enough on the “Great Rock,” he or she can hear the splashing of water on an old wooden overshot water wheel that once turned noisily there by the force of Sandy Creek.
One might also hear the distant crack of a bat and the roar of the crowd at a grand slammer driven over the 20 foot high cedar tree that still stands where was once deep center field. The hitter could have been Lynn Rogers, Candy Adams, Elliott McCormick, Paul Eanes, Maurice Oakes or a score of others. Some of these home runs at Henry's Mill would have gone out of Yankee Stadium no doubt.
Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills
Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills
Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On
Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County
Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County
Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books
Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina
Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town
Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.
Copyright © 1996–2005 Herman E. Melton.