In scores of early Georgia towns and settlements, water-powered grist mills were vital to the communities’ well-being. The mills ground farmers’ corn and wheat into meal and flour — the basic foodstuffs of households — and often provided other needed services such as sawmilling and cotton ginning.

Thankfully, several local governments and organizations and private landowners in Georgia have given high priority to restoring and preserving old grist mills located within their bailiwicks. Saving the mills will help future generations understand how the structures played huge roles in the state’s history — before steam power, electricity and other technology replaced waterpower.

Forty mills across Georgia

By my count, some 40 once-thriving mills driven by a waterwheel or a water turbine survive in the state in conditions ranging from intact to dilapidated. With their old dams, ponds, mill races, big waterwheels and other accoutrements alongside shady creeks and rivers, many of them have become some of Georgia’s most picturesque and photogenic attractions.

Several still stand along the same creeks where they originally were built. The scenic Loudermilk Mill in Habersham County, for one, still sits along Hazel Creek at the same spot where it was erected in the 1850s. Other old mills have been moved lock, stock and barrel — and waterwheel — to new locations, such as the historic grist mill that graces Stone Mountain Park in DeKalb County. It was built in 1869 along a creek in Fannin County in north Georgia, but was restored and moved to Stone Mountain in 1965.

As the historical marker for the Stone Mountain mill states: “A grist mill was a functional structure that served an entire community. The millstones inside the building ground whole, dried grain like corn or wheat. The resulting meal or flour was then ready for baking. Because of this vital role, the grist mill often became the center of a town and an important part of the economy. Is it any wonder that many Atlanta roads still bear their namesake: Akers Mill, Browns Mil, Henderson Mill, Howell Mill, Moores Mill…”

My bucket list includes visiting and photographing all of Georgia’s still-standing water mills to document their stories and serene beauty. For a handful of them, however, time is of the essence: They have been abandoned for so long that only a heroic restoration effort may save them. 

Still, even the ruins of former mills (of which there are many in Georgia) may be worthy of admiration because of their own charm and rich history. Some mill remnants, such as the Sope Creek ruins in Cobb County, are on the National Register of Historic Places. The ruins are all that remain of a manufacturing complex that ran on the creek’s waterpower.

Get out there

For the most part, visiting most of Georgia’s surviving grist mills is relatively easy. Many of them are in public parks or other publicly accessible places. And although some are on private property with “no trespassing” signs, they may be opened to the public on special occasions.

Charles Seabrook

Charles Seabrook wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than three decades and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Senior Life.