Big Otter Mill
Big Otter Mill, more commonly known as Forbes Mill is situated on the bank of the Big Otter River a few miles north of Bedford City on Virginia State Route 122 (Big Island Road) in Bedford County, Virginia. The site of this mill has been used for grist mills, saw mills and flour mills for more than 200 years. One of the earliest known mills to be at this location was a grist mill and saw mill built by Joseph Hardy, Sr., a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Records indicate tht the Hardy Mill was in operation in the early eighteen hundreds, and the mill itself was likely built in the late seventeen hundreds. The Hardy Mill was also sometimes referred to as the Greenville MIll. The descendants of the Hardy family kept a mill in operation at this site until it was purchased in 1909 by Reed Forbes. Mr. Forbes and his family had come from Franklin county in the late eighteen hundreds to operate the mill at Kelso. records show that Mr. Forbes had acquired land to the west of Bedford City, but by 1901 he had purchased a house from Thomas E. Lee. This dwelling was on the opposite side of the Big Otter River from the Hardy Mill. Mr. Reed Forbes (he had no middle name), and his wife, Martha Jane Howell Forbes had nine children., five sons and four daughters. Their names were, in birth order: Mollie Forbes Arrington, George T. Forbes, John William Forbes, Minnie Forbes Carroll, Bessie Forbes Howell, LIllian Forbes Nunnley, Walter Gregory Forbes, Robert Kelso Forbes and James Irvin Forbes. Along with their father, several of the sons, expecially John William, became master builders. Reed, John and perhaps another of the sons built Sedalia Church just off Route 122 north of Big Otter. John Forbes built the Blount School. He walked from the Forbes home each day to the work site carrying his own tools to begin work at first light and and toiled until dark before returning home.
The Forbes family soon built a flour mill, perhaps the first of its kind in the county, but it was destroyed by fire in 1917, not long after it began operation. Paul Forbes (son of John) stated "Everybody thought it was set because it burned from the bottom up. Not enough flour dust had settled in a year for an explosion". Another incident of bad luck struck the Forbes family when a flash flood trapped them at night in their home. Their home stood low along the river bank and the water rose quickly. to save the family , John Forbes made his way through the attic window, tied a strong rope to an apple tree and all the family members were able to be rescued. Following the devastating ruin of his home, Mr. Forbes set about the task of reconstructing a home. However, this time, he chose a location at a higher elevation above the river. He and his sons constructed a larger, more sturdy home which still stands today on the banks of the Big Otter. After building the dwelling, Reed Forbes and his sons, especially John William Forbes, Sr. in 1919 to 1920 began the process of replacing the mill. Their saw mill, which had been in operation for many years , was eventually abandoned as the new mill was put into use. The new mill was a combination corn or grist mill with millstones and a roller mill for producing fine flour. The existing building, is quite distinguished in its architectural design by having a handsome mansard style roof with six pedimented dormer windows in the roof line. This design gave the mill three floors of working space. The interior of the mill still holds the forty eight inch millstones. The four rolling mills along with all the chutes and elevators, screening and bloting or sifting equipment also remain in the building. During the nineteen twenties, the mill was in full operaation taking care of the needs of its customers in grinding and processing their corn, wheat, oats and rye. Like many other mills, the Forbes Mill became a sort of community gathering place. Here family, friends and neighbors met to keep up on current happenings or gossip or to purchase mill products or other goods in a sort of country store said to have been operated by members of the Hardy family in the twentieth century. It is further said that this store served as a polling place for the local precinct. Paul Forbes remembers the hectic pace at the mills during the busy season, when folks would line up to have their grain ground. "We were running that mill sometimes 24 hours a day during the busy season. Daddy would take little naps instead of going up to the house to sleep" Forbes family lore relates an incident which occurred on one occasion when family and friends had gathered at the mill. It seems that several of the younger children had crossed the road to play along the waater that was brought in a race from a dam upstream on the Big Otter River. The water in the race was diverted under the roadway and into an open wooden raceway leading to the big waterwheel which powered the mill. The water ran very rapidly as it passed under the road and into the race. One of the graddaughters of Reed Forbes, Verna Arrington, accidently slipped into the stream of water and was pulled into the flow under the road. Screams of panic drew attention to the horrified onlookers. Fortunately, someone with a quick wit and with quicker action was able to scale the wooden race and snatch the child to safety before she went over the fall and into the turning millwheel. The Forbes mill continued operating under the direction of Mr. Reed Forbes and his sons until his death in 1928. His beloved wife, Martha Jane, died in August of that year. Reed, although in apparent good health at the time, never came to accept his loss, and his health declined. Within six weeks of his wife's death, Reed had died. They are buried in Suck Spring Baptist Church Cemetery near the Peaksville community. Son Robert Kelso Forbes inherited the mill and the real estate by the terms of his father's will. Robert operated the mill until 1936 when it was sold to Charles Atkinson, who, though he never came to live in the area, hired millers to carry on the business. Among the millers who ran the mill for Mr. Atkinson were Mr. W.J. Siler and a Mr. Brumfield. It was during these years that the name "Big Otter Mill" was first used. The mill produced its brand name of "Golden Eagle Flour" and "Pioneer Corn Meal". Two more of the sons of Reed Forbes, John and Irvin, went on in the milling trade. John had left the Forbes Mill to operate the Davis Mill near Moneta. John William Forbes and his wife Cornelia May Welsh Forbes had 10 children, seven were forn on the Forbes property near the mill. The last three children were born near Davis Mill in the Moneta area. He then worked in the mill at Cloverdale and by 1930 had moved to Stuarts Draft, in Augusta County to operate the mill there. He became a skilled millwright and spent many years going from one mill to another to install and set up millling machinery and eqquipment as well as seeing to the working of the mailling facility until someon else called him for his help with milling problems. He retired to Stuarts Draft in 1941. By 1946, Mr. Atkinson had sold the Big Otter (Forbes) Mill and the home to Mr. Julius Kirby. The mill ceased operation soon after this transfer. It has not run since that time. To settle the Kirby estate after the death of Mrs. Kirby in 1996, the property was sold to David and Ruth Cole. David was a builder and had preservation of historical structures as one of his interests. He was a former president of the Bedford Historical Society. Mr. Cole did the first phase of restoring and stabliizing the exterior of the mill. Mr. Cole offered to sell the mill, but after several years he donated the property to Bedford County as a historical landmark. The Big Otter Mill Foundation is trying to bring the mill to an operable condition as well as maintain the architectural integrity of the building. The foundation welcomes donations and checks made payable to The Big Otter Mill Foundation Inc. may be sent to the treasurer Richard Burnett, at 1470 Lizard Ridge Road, Bedford, VA. 24523
Information obtained from children and grandchildren of John William Forbes, Sr.
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