On one of his many drives through the area, Caleb passes by an old mill. The mill building, which was originally built in 1780, features beautiful and unique craftsmanship. Sadly, Caleb noticed damage to the roof of this historic building. Speaking for himself and other Bedford locals, Caleb says, “we’ve driven past this building since we were born, and it was a building worth preserving.”
Robert Karnes, who owns North Side Supply and the old mill known as the Kelso Mill, said the mill building originally had a slate roof. Given the age of the building and the extreme slope of its roof, the slate was difficult to repair. “Over the years,” Karnes said, “we took the slate off and replaced it with shingles.” The last time the roof was replaced, about 15 years ago, “the people didn’t do a very good job” Karnes said, and wind and the elements brought damage to the roof. “I patched, and I patched, and I patched, and I patched,” Karnes remembers, “but when a roof isn’t done properly, you’ve just got trouble” he notes. Adding to his trouble, his insurance wasn’t sure how to appraise such an old building. “I was kind of left in limbo about that,” Karnes explained, “and I can’t get up on the roof anymore. It’s not the best thing for an old man to be up there.”
While using the community refuge dump that North Side Supply maintains for area residents, Caleb approached Karnes. “I was totally surprised when he contacted me,” Karnes remembers. “I’ve done just about all I can do on it myself,” Karnes told Caleb, “it’s an old historical place that we’re trying to preserve as much as we can.” Caleb especially wanted to ensure that such an old building was repaired, noting, “that whole area is way more historical than people realize.”
The original mill was built in 1780 by Andrew Donald, who also built the manor house at Fancy Farm estate. The water-powered grist mill utilized nearby Stoney Creek, and the small family farms located around the base of the Peaks of Otter would bring their wheat, corn, and oats to be ground into flour or feed for their livestock. Later, the Fancy Farm estate, along with the mill, was sold to Robert Kelso in 1833, and became known as the Kelso Mill.
Karnes explains that the mill building has four floors, with the millstones on the bottom floor. The first floor of the mill building has walls that are a whopping three feet thick, and very heavy, 50 foot solid-wood beams run throughout the building. These beams are hand-hewed using drilled holes and wooden pegs, known as lamb’s tongue finishing, rather than nails. “You couldn’t get that kind of architecture anymore,” Karnes says, and indeed, the Kelso Mill is known as one of the region’s most carefully constructed mills.
Once the grain was ground on the bottom floor, belts carried the bags to the top floor, where everything was dumped into a sifter. Each floor of the building got a different product, Karnes explains, with fine flour on a lower floor, and rougher grain used for animal feed above it. When the mill was built, it likely served as a gathering place for the local community. Bedford historian Peter Viemeister even notes that in the 1780s, “the local grist mill was such an important facility for the community that millers were exempt from military service.”
Though the millers themselves may not have served in the militias common following the founding of the country, the mill featured prominently in political events. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are thought to have visited the area, and the nearby Fancy Farm estate was used as the headquarters for Union General David Hunter during his Lynchburg campaign in 1864. The general was reportedly “delighted to find considerable quantities of cornmeal and flour” Viemeister writes, most likely from the Kelso Mill.
Later, the mill served as a sort of “home base” for the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in 1934, which worked to conserve and develop natural resources around the Peaks. The CCCs was a government-sponsored program that helped provide jobs for those struggling during the Great Depression, while simultaneously restoring and conserving natural resources.
Following World War II, Tom Dooley took over the mill from his father Thomas Dooley, and along with Dean Wilkerson, renamed the mill “North Side Supply.” The mill was no longer grinding flour at this point, though it was still used to grind corn and feed for livestock. Dooley and Wilkerson built the storefront in 1949 and expanded the business to become more of a general store, where they sold groceries, farm supplies, gasoline, and tools. Karnes bought the business in 1976 and added on to it. “Most communities had a general store back then,” he explains, “and we sell a little bit of this and that.”
Karnes says hundreds of people stop by and take pictures of the old mill building. “Tourists come through and stop and take pictures going to the Peaks or apple picking,” he says. “I have some people that want to take a tour,” he adds, though he isn’t really set up for doing that just yet. With the new roof on the building, Karnes says “it’s the best it’s looked in years, and that “people driving by stop and tell me how good it looks now.” “I’m so glad that we can keep it up, for future generations to see,” Karnes adds. With its new roof, the mill building can remain the landmark and fixture of the community that it has been since the late 1700s.