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Falling CreekThe 20th Century At
Falling Creek

The 20th century was the swan song for industrial activity on Falling Creek. Gristmills had been gradually phased out as the monster mills of the Midwest superceded the smaller custom mills elsewhere. Their demise was greatly aided by sanitary laws that in effect forced the smaller mills out of business due to the cost of upgrading. The owners of the Falling Creek mill diversified their operation to include grinding mica for the paint industry. Mica was the basis for the gloss in paint. Falling Creek mill probably went the way of most mills in Virginia that were within the reach of a wrecker’s cable that was used to pull out the metal for the war effort in World War II.

The mill burned and what was left was a set of stone walls that hold the history of the site in them. The mill walls show various repairs, rebuilds, extensions and upgrades chronicling the life of the mill from probably the 17th century into the 21st century. Even the east doorway is enigmatic. Rather than rectangular, it is trapezoidal. Ned Heite remarked that the shape was found in iron buildings in the northeast.

The site refused to go quietly into that good night. A small and very determined group of people who grew up in the area and who came to know of the importance of the site from other areas and states came to investigate. Sporadic investigations by historians, amateur and professional archaeologists, metallurgists and geophysical surveyors were made.

Roger Bensley developed Bensley Village in the 1930’s and acquired Falling Creek as part of his holdings. It was the first Bon Air type of planned community south of the James. Bensley had a bulldozer and used it to uncover what he termed the furnace with several enigmatic structures. His efforts were used as the basis for more formal investigations by historians and archaeologists. Unfortunately, Bensley never produced a map of his work, nor was one produced later that showed where he found his features.

Roland Wells Robbins who excavated at Saugus in Massachusetts visited the site twice. Paul Hudson, curator at Jamestown and Frederick Pease of the Chesterfield Historical Society conducted extensive correspondence regarding the site. Charles Hatch & Thurlow Gates Gregory investigated the site and performed metallurgical analysis on pig iron recovered from the site. Howard A. MacCord, Sr., then State Archaeologist, conducted excavations at the site in 1962 using Archeological Society of Virginia volunteers, and the College of William and Mary also surveyed on both sides of the creek. Higgins, et al. all claim to have found evidence of a blast furnace on the site. Their efforts provided the first accurate map of the gristmill, the falls and the post sockets visible before the later floods uncovered more. Their work on the gristmill property has compiled the archival history of the property (Linebaugh & Blanton 1995).

Falling CreekBrowning & Associates, Ltd. interest in the project grew out of long-term interest in ironworking sites and by James H. Brothers IV’s Masters Thesis work on iron. We had by then decided to work from first principles to re-examine the entire issue of when the ironworks operated there, how it operated and what happened after the 1622 termination. We were also cognizant that the Cary Forge had altered the landscape enormously. Visits to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Historical Society revealed that artifacts previously identified as part of the 17th century venture were in fact part of Cary’s Forge. All of the slag samples were bubbly slag that is a mixture of prills of iron, pieces of unrefined iron, charcoal and silica. The voids in the matrix of forge slag come from air bubbles trapped in the viscous mass that is being processed.

The signature product of a blast furnace is pig iron and glassy slag. The former is the currency produced by the site and may not be expected to be found at the site where it was produced. The latter is a waste product and will be discarded in close proximity to the smelting site and is quite unmistakable. Glassy slag is pure enough to be recycled into glass objects.

Our concern was that despite strenuous and long-term claims that Falling Creek had gotten into blast, the signature artifacts (glassy slag) demonstrating that fact had not been recovered from the site. The window of opportunity from the documents was quite small. Beverley sent back a letter in the autumn of 1621 stating that he would have a plentiful supply of iron by the next summer. His campaign would have started in early 1622, possibly in the middle of February. The outside temperature has to be warm enough that the water wheel will not freeze as the bellows would then not work and the furnace would cease to work. Ironmasters started a campaign late enough in the year to ensure the water supply would not stop and kept going until the following winter when temperatures got low enough to stop the wheel. Beverley would have had at most 5 weeks of smelting and possibly as little as 3 weeks before the Powhatans attacked and stopped the venture.

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