By Ann Cipperly
Although the surroundings have changed, water today steadily flows over the dam at Halawaka Creek by Bean’s Mill in Opelika just as in the 1830s. One of the earliest mills in the Chattahoochee Valley, Bean’s Mill is the only remaining gristmill of several once dotting the creek in the early years of east Alabama.
After the Creek Indian Treaty of 1832, the land was originally assigned to Kotch ar Yoholo, a member of the Creek nation. Soon afterwards, the land changed hands. In 1834, Sam Carter and Henry Byrd built a sawmill, then in 1836 a gristmill on the creek, grinding wheat, corn and other grains. During the indian uprising in 1836, a fort was built on the hill about a quarter of a mile from the mills.
The property changed ownership again when Moses Wheat and his son Francis Asbury purchased the mills. Moses Wheat was one of the earliest settlers in east Alabama. When the Treaty of 1832 was signed, Wheat moved his family with six children from Georgia to the new frontier in east Alabama.
One of Wheat’s children, Margaret, would later recount the long trip by carriages, wagons and carts loaded with household belongings and livestock. She remembered a stop in Cusseta where there was a cluster of plantations. After enjoying hospitality at one of these homes on a cold day, the children were given hot baked potatoes to warm gloved hands for the continued journey.
Settling less than 20 miles from LaFayette, Wheat named his homestead Mt. Jefferson, probably after Thomas Jefferson.
The affluent Wheat built a plantation house and was becoming established in the area. After Wheat and Asbury purchased the mills in 1837, they formed the Wheat and Son firm. Mt. Jefferson was two miles up Halawaka Creek, ending near their homestead.
Since Asbury owned a racehorse, it is believed to have been his choice of travel between Mt. Jefferson and the saw and gristmills. The 26-year-old Asbury was married with a child.
Considerable work was done on both mills to assure good working order. The mills were dedicated in January 1838. A few months later in April, tragedy struck. Asbury was killed by falling mill race timbers. No one knows if the accident occurred at the sawmill or gristmill.
Deciding not to continue the endeavor on his own and to close his son’s estate, Wheat sold the property in January 1839. After several changes in ownership, John “Jack” Floyd and his son Charles Jefferson purchased the property in 1848. The mills remained a vital part of the community. The property, which was originally in Chambers County, became part of Lee County when the county was established in 1867.
In the 1850s Hiram Murphy was a partner with James C. Floyd. The old dirt path adjoining the mills became known as Floyd’s Mill Road. In 1853, a bridge was authorized to cross the Big Halawakee Creek at the mills.
In 1861, the gristmill had recently been reconstructed when Murphy died from injuries in a buggy accident. Floyd later died in Richmond, Va., during the Civil War.
After a flood in June 1874, the gristmill was washed out and reconstructed by John W. Floyd and W.H.H. Griffin. The dam and sawmill across the creek survived. Instead of being rebuilt in the middle of the creek as the original, the new gristmill was constructed on the edge of the creek on stone piers above normal high water.
George W. Bean purchased the Floyd Mill place in 1903, and since then it has been called Bean’s Mill.
Bean became weary of keeping the old patched turbine going at the gristmill. He read how pleased customers were with a waterwheel from the Fitz Waterwheel Company in Hanover, Pa. He ordered and installed a 14-foot diameter by six foot wide overshot waterwheel. Later, it was severely damaged, apparently torn from its moorings by a flood. When restored, it was enclosed in a concrete box, which has since protected the wheel.
Bean’s family didn’t escape the gloom of tragedies at the mills. In 1925 Bean’s only child was killed in a sawmill accident. The sawmill finally closed.
Over the years, changes occurred on the road by the mills. In 1897, the first iron bridge in Lee County was built crossing Halawaka Creek at the mill. On Aug. 3, 1901, the Opelika Post reported, “The people of Lee County thought it was a wonder and flocked to view it from all parts of the county.” The bridge was replaced in 1928, and the first paved highway in Lee County opened in 1929 from West Point to Opelika.
When the bridge was replaced, Bean raised the dam two feet using stones. Bean worked on the dam while the pond was drained for construction of the new bridge.
Bean’s Mill was a hub of activity in the following years, and residents enjoyed picnics by the creek. Bean kept a portion of corn as payment for grinding.
In the 1930s, the extension service taught preserving food by canning at a spring on the property. Remains of the cannery still stand at the spring.
In 1939, Bean welcomed a distinguished guest at the mill. President Franklin Roosevelt visited with his motorcade on a trip from Opelika back to Warm Springs.
After Bean died in 1952, the property stood abandoned until John and Faye Ross purchased the property in 1989. Faye, a native of Opelika, met John, a New Yorker, while they were students at Auburn University. They lived in several places before settling in St. Louis, Mo., until John retired. As a mechanical engineer, John had an interest in mills and in purchasing one to restore.
On a visit to Opelika, the Rosses stopped to look at Bean’s Mill and learned it was going on the market. John found the mill he had been searching for. While Faye was dreaming of retiring to their property at Gulf Shores, she was delighted to move back to her hometown.
Before restoring the gristmill, the Rosses built a house and barn on the 85-acre property. In 1995, work began on restoring the mill. Timbers on the gristmill were dismantled and numbered. The mill was reconstructed as it looked on the original stone piers when it was built in 1875. Old timbers were donated to replace sills and resawn to make “new” siding. It took a year to reassemble. By December 1997, they were grinding corn.
In 1999, when Ross decided to work on the masonry dam, the millpond was drained. As the water was going down, he noticed support posts for a timber dam. A portion of the original 1834 dam was removed and reassembled to display the incredible design and craftsmanship of its builder, possibly Horace King.
The dam was made of old growth long leaf yellow pine joined with wooden pegs. Originally, there were 34 frames stretching side by side across the creek. A hand-hewn edge on the frame was carved for a smooth fit.
The current masonry dam would have been built after the 1874 flood. Other discoveries in the creek included a 150-year-old log from an earlier mill and many worn out millstones.
When the Rosses purchased the mill, the water wheel was missing. An 18-foot wheel was found in Georgia. Frank Smith, welding instructor at Southern Union, offered his class to weld bucket segments required to make a 14-foot diameter by four-foot-wide wheel.
The Rosses operated the gristmill and made cornmeal.
The other gristmills along the creek are gone, and the early town of Mt. Jefferson has also disappeared. When the Wheat house burned in the 1980s, the last remains of the community vanished.
The Historic Chattahoochee Commission and the Lee County Historical Society installed a marker in 2002 designating the Bean’s Mill a historic landmark.
The Rosses have passed away, John in 2013 and Faye last year. In 2013, Andrew and Jenny Stockton purchased the property with the mill and live in the house with their four children. The Stocktons operate the gristmill in the spring and fall. While the mill is visible from the highway with a new bridge, it is not open to the public.