Culpeper Currents: Controlling the mills

Mills were an important feature of early Virginia neighborhoods. In addition to providing the essential service of grinding grains produced by local farms, they served as meeting places where citizens could exchange news and gossip.

Rules for the construction and operation of mills were enacted by the Virginia General Assembly over time. The earliest that appears among the records concerned the toll the miller collected from each order. In 1645 it was decreed that â??no person occupying any mill should take above the sixth part for tole.â? This act was enlarged in 1662 to require that millers use stillyards, or statute weights and scales, â??by which they are to receive in and deliver out all graine.â? The fine for not using the appropriate weights was a thousand pounds of tobacco.

By 1667 the concern was over the construction of mills in places of most convenience, and the manner by which land would be acquired from adjacent landholders.

The act read: â??Whereas it would conduce much to the convenience of this country, both for the grinding of corne and of nearer roads if mills were erected at convenient places, which diverse persons would willingly doe, if not obstructed by the perversenesse of some persons not permitting others, though not willing themselves to promote soe publique a good; It is enacted by this grand assembly that if any person willing to erect one or more mills upon convenient places hath land only on one side the said place, and the owners of the land on the other side shall refuse to let him have an acre of his land to the end aforesaid, that then the county court upon request of the party soe refused, shall order and impower two of their commissioners, or such credible persons as they shall think fitt to view the said land, and if it take not away howsing, orchards, or other immediate conveniences, then to value the said quantity of land and to put the same into possession of the party building the said mill or mills, he paying the consideration the land is valued at.â?

In 1705 an act provided the framework for the time of a millâ??s construction: â??the person so being put in possession shall within one year, begin to build a water­mill, and finish the same within three years; and shall thereafter keep up the same, for the use and ease of all such as shall be customers to it; otherwise the said land shall return to the person from whom it was taken.â?

A restriction on the proximity of mills allowed no mill to be situated less than a mile from another.

A 1748 act sought to ensure standards of measurement. Millers were now required to keep on the premises â??sealed measures, of half bushel, and peck, and a toll dish sealed, and shall measure all grain by strike measure.â? Millers could take for toll â??one eighth part of all grain and no more.â? And there was a special provision concerning a particular form of livestock. â??No owner or occupier of a mill shall keep any hogs at his or her mill, except in inclosures, unless such owner or occupier shall have fifty acres of land at the least, adjoining to such mill; and if any hogs, belonging to the owner or occupier of such mill, shall be found running at large, it shall and may be lawful for the proprietors of the land adjoining to such mill, to kill, or cause to be killed or destroyed, all such hogs.â?

By 1759 concern arose among those living along the Rapidan River. â??Whereas it hath been represented to this present general assembly, by the inhabitants of the counties of Culpeper and Orange, that they used formerly to catch large quantities of fish in the river Rappidan, to the great relief and satisfaction of themselves and their families, and that they are now deprived of that providential succor by several gristmills that have lately been erected on the said river, whereby the passage of fish up the same is quite obstructed….that the owner or proprietor of all and every mill now erected on the said river Rappidan, shall, in the space of six months from and after the passing of this act making an opening or slope in their respective mill dams, at least ten feet wide, sufficient to let fish pass over such mill­dams.â?

Failure to do so would result in a fine which would be used to benefit the poor of the two counties.

By the time of the American Revolution, more than 40 mills dotted Culpeper Countyâ??s waterways.

Julie Bushong is the historian at the Culpeper County Library and a contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach her at