Upland Chronicles: Sevierville Mills was local landmark for a century

May. 12, 2013 @ 11:52 PM

In 1865, the same year the Civil War ended, Archimedes M. “Art” Chambers built a mill and log mill dam on the east prong of the Little Pigeon River about 500 feet upstream from the confluence of the east and west prongs of the river.

Chambers, who moved to Sevier County from North Carolina and married Elizabeth Calvert McMahan in 1857, operated the mill until his untimely death in 1875 at the age of 47. Since Elizabeth McMahan Chambers had died a couple of years before her husband, the mill was sold to Jerome D. Bowers.

Before the bridge crossing the east fork was built in 1893, horses and buggies crossed the river at a ford just west of the mill dam. A crude foot log tied to the mill post behind the mill was used by pedestrians to cross the river.

During the second half of the nineteenth century Main Street was the only commercial street in Sevierville. Other businesses along West Main included a blacksmith shop, owned by Jerome Bowers’ brother Joseph E. Bowers, Sam Blalock’s poultry and egg business and McDonald Brown’s produce business with a coal and oil business across the street.

In those days, the west end of Main Street from the bridges to the town square where the courthouse was then located was often called “China Town.”

Although the water was not deep enough for swimming, the area above the dam was a popular location for young people to “cool off” during the hot days of summer. The slow-moving water often froze in the winter solid enough to be used as an ice rink.

Around 1900 Bowers constructed a new mill on the site of the previous mill. His oldest son William Augustus worked there from the time he married Sevierville Postmistress Dixie Lee Chandler in 1896 he died in 1914. After operating the mill for 40 years Jerome Bowers passed away on August 5, 1915.

Jerome Bowers’ daughter-in- law, Dixie Lee Bowers then became the proprietor. She hired John Sevier Ballard as manager. During the time Ballard was manager of the mill he served a term as mayor of Sevierville from 1917 to 1919.

The old log dam was removed and replaced with a concrete dam in October, 1915. Later an ice plant was added.

John Ballard resigned from the mill after four years to return to the Bank of Sevierville and Dixie Lee Bowers sold the mill and ice plant to J. Reed Wade and Frank Murphy in 1925.

Wade managed the facility in addition to his association with Underwriters Fire Insurance Company. Prior to purchasing Sevierville Mills and Ice Plant, J. Reed Wade was a school teacher and farmer.

The mill had two wheels producing approximately 96 horsepower. One wheel was used for wheat and the other for the corn grinding and ice plant. The ice plant supplied ice to keep residential ice boxes cold and for businesses needs. Before the days of electric refrigeration, sawdust was scattered over the ice to keep it from melting.

The ice wagon pulled by a beautiful Clydesdale horse delighted the children in town who loved to jump on the burlap covered ice for a ride as the deliveryman completed his route through town.

In 1944, Union County native Clifford G. Frost purchased the mill and ice plant from J. Reed Wade. The following year, Wade was elected to serve a term as Mayor of Sevierville. Frost retained the name Sevierville Mills for several years before renaming the business Frost Milling Company.

Throughout its history, Sevierville Mills suffered damages from various floods that took a heavy toll on the old structure. The owners had marked the crest of all floods at the mill since the time the building was constructed.

The flood marks were located in the lower floor in the room farthest downstream of a series of elevators. Made by pencil, the marks indicated the exact dates of the floods.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority was chosen to implement a flood protection program in 1966, the project consisted of widening, rechanneling, removal of debris and deepening the two forks of the Little Pigeon River.

One of the sacrifices necessary in order to carry out the plan was the removal of the picturesque dam behind the old mill. Although the flood control measures were badly needed, one of the most notable fixtures in Sevierville for a century was lost.

Soon afterward the mill and ice plant buildings were removed. The lot was cleared and converted into a parking lot which in now used by Carl Ownby Hardware Company.

Sevierville Mills was not the only mill in the vicinity of Sevierville. Countless small mills once existed throughout Sevier County. Catlettsburg Mill was located 3 miles north of Sevierville for many years. Sevierville Grain and Feed Company was organized by a group of businessmen in 1915.

Walker Milling Company was established in 1908 two miles south of Sevierville at the power dam. The business moved to downtown Sevierville in 1916 and was obtained by Stanley McMahan in 1915. John and Effie Temple purchased the mill in 1934 and the Temple family operated the business until several years after a gigantic fire destroyed the historic building in 1980.

Built by John Sevier Trotter in1849, The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge is the only example of an authentic flour and grist mill in use in Sevier County today.

Carroll McMahan is the Special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.