Monday, March 13, 2017

Beckley's old mill still offers hope for economic development

"Rode with Avery to the mill of young Mr. Beckley on Piney River. Found it a most romantic spot."
— Rutherford B. Hayes
Union commander, future U.S.
president, c. 1862.
Remnants of an old gristmill commissioned by city founder Alfred Beckley are at the center of a modern-day plan to boost the local economy. The mill, which was the first step in developing what is now Beckley, is once again inspiring economic advancement and has brought together a medley of local and state entities.
Thanks to a collective push from Beckley Historical Society president and Beckley Common Councilman Tom Sopher (Ward I), Teresa Sopher and the Piney Creek Watershed Association, Susan Landis and the Beckley Area Foundation, the Carter Family Foundation, Tom Lemke, Scott Worley and the Historic Landmarks Commission, Friends of the Library, Piney Creek Trail Committee, former mayor Emmett Pugh, historian David Sibray, archaeologist David Fuerst, Dan Pizzoni and Jeff Smith of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and other key players, the mill is now being considered for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
"This nomination is like winning the Junior World Series or something," said Sopher, the leader of the project. "We hit the big one.
"Now, we're going to have to begin a new beginning. We've reached this nice, beautiful platform. We're going to go from there to something bigger and better," Sopher projected.
"Bigger and better" is a plan to turn the historical site into an attraction for tourists and interstate travelers. Located right off of Interstate 64 and on the new Beckley Bypass on 20 acres of city-owned property, the mill is situated to become a key part of the planned Piney Creek Trail — a current project that, when completed, is expected to stretch from Beckley to the New River and over to the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County. 
West Virginia University landscape architect students have developed a projection of what a portion of the property could become, if it's developed. A local owner of an adjacent property has pledged tentative support for developing the area, according to David Fuerst, an archaeologist who is involved with the mill project.
The mill is the "crown jewel of Piney Creek," according to Sopher. 
"The mill is the most historic place that's on that creek," he said. 
The dream of seeing the Alfred Beckley Mill — the foundation and dry, stone ruins of the mill and bridge pier — on the National Register started in 2013, when Sopher's wife, current Piney Creek Watershed Association Secretary Teresa Sopher, first joined the environmental group.
The mission of PCWA is to improve and protect the waters at Piney Creek watershed through service projects and education. The group is dedicated to preserving the health of the watershed, which is located in the Piney Gorge area of Raleigh County.
"When she first got involved, she asked me to attend the general meetings," Sopher said. "After the second one, she wanted me to pull up a little bit of history about Piney Creek to put on their web page."
Sopher, a local historian, began perusing a book by the late James Wood, once a managing editor of the Beckley Post-Herald and Sunday editor of The Raleigh Register newspapers.
Like Sopher, Wood was a respected local historian. Sopher found some references to Piney Creek and the gristmill in Wood's book and other writings, and he passed those along to the PCWS, telling members that the group needed access points to Piney Creek.
Sopher contacted David Sibray, founder and editor of West Virginia Explorer and another local historian. The men hiked around the Paul Cline Memorial Sports Complex soccer field and looked over the hill to Piney Creek.
"I said, 'Where's this mill?'" Sopher recalled.
Sibray knew the area from his childhood, and he took Sopher to the mill.
When the duo accessed the Piney Creek property hosting the ruins of the old gristmill, Sopher felt as if they'd stepped into another world.
"When you see those waterfalls, you've just stepped back in time," he said. "It's just fascinating, because it's so peaceful, and there's no telephone lines running across.
"Every sound you hear, the water just takes over," he said. "There is a train track, and occasionally, you're lucky enough to hear a train go by or see one go by."
Perhaps 19th President Rutherford B. Hayes had felt the same awe as Sopher, when he'd visited the mill in 1862.
In his writings, Hayes described "...Beckley's family, there in a cabin by the roaring torrent, in a glen separated from all the world. I shall long remember that quiet little home."
Sopher left the site knowing that he had to find a way to have it included on the National Register of Historic Places. Checking with county engineers, he learned that the property was once city property but that someone had tried to claim it by paying taxes on it.
PCWA hired West Virginia University attorneys, who came back and told them that the city owned the mill and the property. Sopher approached former Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh, he said, and Pugh permitted Sopher to form an ad hoc committee, which is dedicated to giving the mill its place in local history and to using it to advance the local economy through tourism initiatives.
"We meet every month," Sopher explained the committee's activities. "It's informal, but we talk and find something to do.
"From that point on, we just nibbled away at it. We just kept moving forward."
Funding came from the Carter Family Foundation ($10,000) and the Division of Culture and History ($15,900) through the work of Scott Worley and the Historic Landmarks Commission. The money was used to conduct an archaeological dig, which gave the project more credibility with the nomination committee for the national register, said Sopher.
Susan Landis, BAF executive director, was an avid supporter, helping to secure a $6,000 BAF grant and other monies, Sopher said.
Fuerst, an archaeologist and member of the ad hoc committee, recalled the dig at the site. 
"I came down just to size up the place," he said. "It didn't take long for me to see the ground was intact, and these ruins were intact, and this really had a story to tell."
Fuerst reported that he could access the dirt in layers.
"You could see historic deposits on top of the original ground," he said. "We were getting some of the nails, cut nails, made specially ... by hand."
Buttons and other artifacts were found where the Beckley house had once stood.
Fuerst and BAF member Tom Lemke were searching through national archives in a Virginia library when Lemke discovered a 20-foot map drawn by railroad crews as they planned the railroad that would go past the mill.
As the men excitedly perused the unrolled map, they saw the mill signified on the renderings.
"The surveyors looked across the creek and there they saw the mill, and they located and depicted where all the parts of the mill were," Fuerst said. "It was still working in 1899.
"If we didn't have that railroad, nothing would've become as prosperous as it did."
According to Sopher and Fuerst, the dream of the founding family was to create a town, which required economy. The mill was the first step in that direction. With its position on the Piney Creek Trail and close to the interstate, Beckley's mill still whispers a siren song for economic development.
"In the case of the Wildwood House, that is the founder of the town, Alfred Beckley," Fuerst said. "This is just a short, little hitch over to the fact that the mill was built by Beckley.
"It was like, we knew about Beckley and the Wildwood House and the cemetery in town and how we got Beckley on the map, as far as being an important crossroads ... but one thing we didn't know about, another chapter in the book, is the mill.
"When you start looking at that, you start seeing what was really in his mind."
Beckley's vision was to establish "Beckleyville," a town. At the time, Fuerst said, he only had a wilderness and a vision. 
"He had to attract people to come here," Fuerst said. "So having a mill was his attempt to create some kind of economy."

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