Locating the Historic Water-Powered Mills of Fairfax County: Debbie Robison’s presentation to the Great Falls Historical Society

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 3:54 PM | Katie Whitman (Administrator)

Locating the Historic Water-Powered Mills of Fairfax County

Debbie Robison’s presentation to the Great Falls Historical Society. 

There was a time in the mid- to late-1700s to mid-1800s when mills dotted the landscape along stream valleys throughout Fairfax County. Since there was no electric- ity, electric motors or mechanical engines, local residents harnessed the power of wa- ter flow to mobilize their mills. Their chal- lenge was to find a site along a stream val- ley with water flow powerful enough to operate a mill. The contours of the earth mattered.

Most recently, the Fairfax County Environmental Protection Agency has chartered the county with cleaning up stream valleys and repairing riparian buffers, posing a danger to longstanding archeological ruins of old mills. Debbie Robison and her team of historians, archeologists and geographers have taken on the mission of locating his- torical mill ruins so as to designate them as historic resources and to secure their long- standing future protection.

Robison reviews the literature in search of references to local mills. For example, thereisreferencetoa“JacksonMill”located on Leigh Mill Road. It is also referred to under other names at the same location – pointing to the series of owners’ names over the last few centuries. Deeds of title may refer to land features, providing clues to the latitude and longitude coordinates that identify a precise location.

SOME THINGS TO KNOW: There are different kinds of mill wheels, some where water turns the wheel from the top of the wheel; some rotating the wheel through water contact at the bottom of the wheel.

The pitch of the water can influence level of power. There is usually some overflow mechanism to deflect water from most mills, a protection in case the water begins to flood.

Some mills have dams made entirely of stone, while others are a combination of stone and wood. It is important to note that when wood is kept completely under wa- ter, it never decays – remaining intact for centuries. So remnants of old mills found underwater are in the exact condition to- day as they were more than two centuries ago. Thus, it is very possible that as you take a walk along a stream valley park, you may come upon the ruins of historic mills, situated in the same place they were more than 200 years ago.

It is interesting to note that milling was a major industry in the 1700-1800s. Local farmers grew grain and milled it for local consumption, or more likely, to export flour to Europe in exchange for European cur- rency. It is easy for us to imagine the late- 1800s through the 1980s when Great Falls was dotted with dairy farms, as many barns still stand today. It is more difficult to imag- ine finding mills peppering the land a cen- tury earlier.

Robison is a preservation consultant who manages the historic preservation and res- toration program for an architectural and engineering firm located in Herndon. She serves on the Fairfax County History Com- mission and is a member of the Board of the Historic Centreville Society. She has written numerous articles about general aspects of Northern Virginia’s past and the history of specific sites. To promote preservation and facilitate local history education, Robison hosts a history website called Northern Virginia History Notes. You may explore her site at www.novahistory.org.

THE GREAT FALLS HISTORICAL SO- CIETY was organized in 1977 to promote community spirit by bringing the past into the present. We do this through monthly programs on local history and people, pres- ervation efforts, publication of historical essays, collection of artifacts and photo- graphs, oral history interviews, genealogi- cal research, and tours and dinners at his- toric sites. We hope you will join in our ac- tivities and support these efforts through your membership. You are welcome to visit our website at www.gfhs.org. Join in on celebrating the harvest at the upcoming Oktoberfest Potluck Dinner at the historic Great Falls Grange on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. 

 Kathleen Murphy, GFHS President, Great Falls Connection, September 16-22,2015, page 6


The Great Falls Historical Society is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization

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