What would old Jimmy Parsons think now?
By Mary Browning

James Parsons lived to the age of 86, and during the later years of his life and for a generation or two afterward, those who knew him or knew of him referred to him as “Ole Jimmy Parsons.” That’s according to Jon Goodman, writing in The Guilford Genealogist, No. 83 (1998). Parsons died in 1857 and was buried at Ebenezer Methodist Church in Randolph Co. beside his first wife, Mary Fields, daughter of Joseph and Lydia (Julian) Fields.

However, his working life was spent as a millwright at the gristmill and sawmill he operated on Deep River, not far downstream from the mouth of Richland Creek, in the southern part of Jamestown Township. He also built a house near the top of the steep hill overlooking the mill. 

Most people now refer to this site as Freeman’s Mill, and that’s what it was beginning in 1862, a few years after Parsons’ death, when John W. Freeman purchased the seven and three-quarters acres of the land that included the mill. A few years after that, James’ second wife, Mary Barnard, moved to Indiana after selling additional land to Freeman, and that pretty well ended the Parsons family presence in the neighborhood.

The team that conducted the archaeological survey required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 at sites of this kind determined that the earliest mention of a grist mill (and also a saw mill) here was in a 1793 deed showing that James Parsons bought the land from Jonathan Parker, who had bought it from George Parsons, who had bought it in 1787 from Timothy Barnard. So, exactly when the mill was originally built is open to speculation. 

Nora Parsons Fisher, said that in 1812, James, her great-grandfather, built a gristmill and ten foot high stone dam that could be seen from his home overlooking the river. So, James may have rebuilt the original gristmill. Or, descendants may just have the dates wrong. The millstones were powered by a wooden undershot water wheel because the river gorge was so deep there. The original water wheel was fifty to sixty feet in diameter, she said.

The old foundation piers indicate the mill building was about 25 feet by 50 feet. They are still visible within the newer, larger foundation stones of the later mill.

”Parsons” is shown on the Price Strothers map of North Carolina, of 1808. In 1815, Parsons was the tax collector for his district, which included a piece of present Sumner Township as well as a big part of Jamestown. His list is a who’s who of early history, including families named Osborn, Frazier, Wiley, Barnard, Coffin, Lane, Trotter, “Mash” (Marsh), Kersey, Leonard, and so on. 

Another Parsons descendant, Adin Baber, according to the Goodwin article, said that Parsons built a bridge in 1838 to accommodate customers on the east side of the river who could not cross his ford at flood stage. “J.P. 1838” was carved on one of the two thirty foot stone piers, and Baber added that the highway department capped them with concrete about 1931.

The study of the Freeman Mill site was done over a period of some months in 1997 and 1998 by a team composed of Loretta E. Lautzenheiser and her assistants of Coastal Carolina Resources, Inc.; John N. Lovett, Jr., expert in old mills; and Jerry Leimenstoll, architectural historian. Their report, “Data Recovery at Freeman’s Mill, Site 31GF373, Guilford County, N. C.,” prepared for the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority, is filled with written descriptions, and plentiful illustrations of what they found at the mill site. Several visits over several months gave the team experience with the variety of rainfall amounts effecting water flow at the mill. Hurricane Fran occurred during these months, and submerged the turbines that were being studied.

From the road, the most visible relic of the mill was the kudzu-draped brick ruin of the two-story building of 1880. Built of handmade brick on a massive foundation of granite stones, it measured 101 feet by 50½ feet, and was 12 bays long and 6 bays deep. The hip roof, long gone now, is shown in a 1930s photograph that is included in the booklet. As a working woolen mill in its time, it held twelve looms, but went out of business before 1896 and converted to a gristmill. Problems with silt, and the erratic water supply in Deep River ended that venture, and within a few years it was sold out of the Freeman family.

Other owners tried other uses for the mill including ice plant and repair shop. At one point it was converted to electric power. One later owner, T. C. Sheppard, lived in the nearby house on the west side of Groometown Road, across from the old Parsons house.

Old deeds of this area of Jamestown Township often refer to the “road to Parsons Mill,” then later to “Parsons Mill Road.” That became Freeman Mill Road, which, these days, goes nowhere near the old mill. Now, it’s Groometown Road that passes it.

If the clock were turned back, and “Ole Jimmy Parsons” could look from his doorstep down toward the earthmoving equipment that is steadily and noisily engaged in constructing a bridge high over Deep River, high enough to clear the waters of Randleman Lake, what would he make of it all? I think he might like it.

News & Record, Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reprinted with permission of the News & Record  and of the author