“Every time it rains I come by to see if the old girl is still standing,” Michael Maxwell said.
Maxwell was given responsibility by the Childersburg Historical Preservation Commission’s task force to oversee the project to secure the foundation until necessary renovations can be made.
“I wanted the project but stepped aside to see if anyone would step up, so when no one did, I did,” Maxwell said. “I guess I’ll either be the goat or the hero.”
Erosion from decades of high water has eaten away the bank beneath the mill and created holes in the wooden pillars supporting it. Task force chairwoman Martha Little reported to the Childersburg City Council Oct. 2 that the mill was closed to the public Sept. 4 after Andrew Marlin of MBA Engineers reported there were many rotten boards, posts and supports under the building.
“If one of the posts snap it would be like dominoes, the engineer said. No one inside would have time to get out, especially on the second floor,” Little said.
Listed with the National Register of Historic Places, the grist mill and covered bridge are the oldest existing mill and bridge combinations in the United States and together form the Kymulga Grist Mill and Covered Bridge Park, which is 4 miles northeast of Childersburg.
Constructed in 1859 and placed in service in 1864, the three-story wooden structure remained the oldest operating mill in the U.S. until its recent closing.
“It was set up as an industrial mill to produce large amounts,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said the mill is unique. Unlike a paddle-wheel driven mill, Kymulga was powered by three turbines, which powered the corn shucker, grist mill and shifter. The corn was carried by a wooden conveyor system to the grinder and then to the shifter.
There are five sets of grinding stones, with two sets from France referred to as “French Buhrs.” The elevator was designed to hold 3,200 bushels of shelled corn.
The mill escaped destruction during the Civil War. While many mills were burned by the Union Army, Kymulga was spared. During World War II, an ordnance facility was built on land adjacent to the mill. Plans to destroy the mill were changed when it was realized the mill could supply meal for the military and civilians operating the munitions plants.
“During World War II it operated 24/7 to provide the AOW (Army Ordnance Works) meal,” Maxwell said.
The mill passed through several owners before the Childersburg Heritage Committee incorporated in 1987 and held the deed until June 2011 when the city of Childersburg acquired it. Placed under the responsibility of the CHPC, then president Martha Little created the task force to oversee the mill’s operations and maintenance.
Little said in the past two years civil and structural engineers, architects, the Corps of Engineers and the state of Alabama Historical Commission were consulted regarding the mill’s structural needs. She said estimates to secure the sagging foundation range from $500,000 to $1 million.
Meeting with local businessmen Oct. 2, the task force discussed an alternate solution presented by Reeson Welding and Pipe Fabrication’s Tony Watson, who proposed jacking up the mill and placing I-beams to secure the building.
“Just me thinking, but with local people working, it would probably cost less than $50,000-$60,000,” Watson said.
“I am proud to announce we have a basic solution to the problem,” Maxwell told the City Council Dec. 18, and at no cost to the city, he added.
The project should begin in early January, weather permitting, when water will be diverted away from the mill before the I-beams can be put in place. Responsibility for diverting the water away from the mill was given to Peoples Sanitation’s Sandy Peoples.
Peoples said company construction equipment will be used to clear an old diversion creek once used by loggers to divert the water. Peoples will also grade and gravel access for construction workers, and he has a personal interest in the project.
“You can see the mill from my father’s house,” he said. As a child, Peoples said he lived less than a quarter mile from the mill.
He said the mill served two generations by providing both he and his father, Floyd, with their first jobs. Owner Johnny Carter gave Peoples a job grinding and packing the meal, and then helping with delivery to local stores.
“I enjoyed working there,” Peoples said.
Also assisting with the project will be Conn Ready Mix Concrete and Equipment. Maxwell said Conn will provide equipment to move the I-beams and provide concrete for the footers.
Frank Conn, who oversees the concrete division, said, “We have played a very small role in the past, providing a few yards of concrete in the past. We try to help worthy endeavors close to us.”
Maxwell said he took on the role as project manager because he is passionate about preserving history.
“This is not for us but for the future, so 6 to 7 year olds will get to see it (the mill),” Maxwell said.
“The focus for two to two and half years has been on securing the foundation. It isn’t going to fix it,” Maxwell said. “There are other projects to come but we are just taking one project at a time.”
He said Watson deserves a lot of credit. “He has been the one who took this thing along and I am very grateful,” he said.
Maxwell said they have a March deadline. “In March is Coosa Fest and we certainly want it done by spring rains. If there is a heavy rain spring, it will be gone.”