The Tale Of John Grigsby's
Mill Stones In Breathitt County
A Granddaughter Tells How The Old Mill Stones
Became Part Of Her Home Located At "The Knob" At Lost Creek
By Carol Fields Shepherd - 2005
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a large formal photograph of John Grigsby and his wife, Polly "Pop" Campbell Grigsby, my great-grandparents, had a place of honor on the dining room wall of the farmhouse where I grew up at Lost Creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky. That same photograph now graces my own dining room wall, in a log house built on the tract of land that John Grigsby referred to as The Knob. I learned at an early age that John and Pop were the parents of my paternal grandmother Sallie Grigsby Fields and that they had left the farm to Grandma Sallie and her husband, my grandpa, Henry "Sugarfoot" Fields. My father, Quentin, was the youngest child of Henry and Sallie and heir to their property. Since 1954 my father and mother, Flossie Noble Fields, had made their home with my Fields grandparents in order to assist them with the maintenance of the farm. I joined the household on August 17, 1957, and spent my first 13 years in the house that Grandpa Sug built in the 1930s to replace the original two-story Grigsby house. John and Pop were both buried in the cemetery on the property, and Grandma Sallie placed her prized peonies on their graves every Memorial Day, or "Decoration Day," as we mountain folk call it.
I grew up knowing a great deal about John Grigsby, as his memory was kept alive by my grandparents and father. My elders told me that I would someday inherit his farm, the cemetery where he was buried, and even his photograph that hung on the dining room wall. What they didn't tell me, because they could in no way imagine that such a thing could happen, was that I would also come into the possession of John Grigsby's mill stones. John's mill stones have long held significant status in the Grigsby family, because they are the stones of one of the first grist mills in Breathitt County. Those stones are the basis of the tale that I shall now relate.
This treasured old photograph of John Grigsby and his wife, Polly "Pop" Campbell Grigsby graces the dining room wall of their great-granddaughter's (Carol Fields Shepherd) log home at Lost Creek, Breathitt County, Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of Carol Fields Shepherd.)
The Tale Of The Stones
My great-grandfather, John, was born February 19, 1850, near what is now the community of Ned, in Breathitt County, Kentucky, to Samuel Grigsby and Eliza Napier Grigsby. He married Polly "Pop" Campbell, daughter of John "Blackbeard" Campbell and Sarah Lewis Campbell of the nearby Perry County community of Ten Mile in 1872. John was an industrious man, who earned money from the sale of livestock and corn. John had long been keenly aware of the need for a grist mill, which could serve not only his family, but also those of the surrounding communities. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century John decided to construct and operate one himself in the waters of Lost Creek, which ran by his Ned home.
James Clell Neace, in his book George Washington Noble, mentions the well-known account of John Grigsby venturing to Virginia to obtain a pair of mill stones. Mr. Neace undoubtedly heard the tale from his own elders, who had resided in the area at the same time as my great-grandfather. That story is still familiar to many Grigsbys of Breathitt County origin today. John had heard of a man from the Black Mountain area of Virginia, not far from the Virginia-Kentucky border, who made and sold fine mill stones. John's ancestors came to Kentucky from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, so perhaps some of his older relatives gave this information to him. According to my father, John mailed $50 (of the $100 total cost) to the Virginian, as the required deposit for a pair of mill stones of his specification. John then spent several weeks constructing the wooden building, which became known as John Grigsby's Mill.
John's mode of transportation to Virginia was one of his oxen. James Clell Neace, in his aforementioned work, describes John as he headed to Virginia mounted on his steer "with his short legs sticking almost straight out." I can imagine that John's neighbors were greatly amused at such a sight. When he reached his destination John found the stones to his liking and paid the Virginian the remaining $50. John's steer pulled the mill stones, with a wooden pole serving as an axle, along the rough paths back to Ned, Kentucky. Since the draft animal was burdened enough with the weight of the stones John walked the entire distance back home. The round trip, naturally, took many days and John was disappointed that one of the stones was damaged by a run-in with a boulder along the way. Luckily, the mishap in no way affected the stone's grinding capabilities and soon scores of local residents were paying John to grind their corn at his new mill.
John Grigsby's Mill was open for business every day, except the Sabbath. I do know of at least one incident, though, which prompted him to close the mill for at least part of one working day. One summer afternoon in the late 1960s I was eavesdropping on a conversation (a favorite pastime of mountain young'uns) between Grandpa "Sug" Fields and one of my maternal great-grandfathers, Willie Campbell, a native of Leatherwood in Breathitt County, who was well over 90 years old. Great-Grandpa Willie stated that he remembered taking corn to the mill one Saturday in 1907 to find the place closed. John appeared from his house and told Willie that he couldn't do any grinding at present. "We're having a wedding here today, Mr. Campbell. My youngest daughter Sallie is marrying young Henry Fields from Avawam in Perry County," John informed him. Then, with customary mountain hospitality, John invited Willie to join them. "Come on in and eat dinner (as some in the mountains still call the noon meal) and help us celebrate. I'll grind your corn when we get through with the merry-making." Of course, neither John nor Willie knew at the time that two of their future grandchildren would one day wed. In 1953 John's grandson, Quentin Fields (a result of the union celebrated that day in 1907), married Flossie Noble, daughter of Willie Campbell's eldest daughter, Cora, and her husband, Seldon "Ted" Noble. I am here as a further result; Quentin and Flossie's only child and a great-granddaughter of both John Grigsby and Willie Campbell.
John ran the mill with his usual regularity until the mid-1920s, when he moved from this home at Ned and relocated near the mouth of Lost Creek, at the community bearing the same name. John's younger brother, Samuel, who owned a farm at Lost Creek, was a colorful character known throughout the area as "Bogie Hog" Grigsby. Sometime in the mid-1920s the two brothers mutually agreed to "swap places." John and Pop, who felt that they were getting too old to continue with the mill business or to keep house on their own, asked their daughter, Sallie, and son-in-law, Henry, to sell their farm at Avawam and share their new home at Lost Creek. Attracted by the convenience of the nearby Riverside Institute as a place for their children to get high school educations, my grandparents agreed to the arrangement. (Note: Riverside Institute, now known as Riverside Christian School, has been in operation since 1905. Its centennial celebration was held in September of this year.) Thus, the former "Bogie Hog" Grigsby Farm became the John Grigsby Farm, and it has been home to four generations of my direct family line for almost 80 years.
John missed operating his mill but was pleased that his brother kept it open on a fairly regular basis. Samuel Grigsby closed the mill for several days in 1929 due to two sad events in the Grigsby family. John's wife, Pop, died of stomach cancer in late August and in mid-October John Grigsby was the victim of a tragic accident. My great-grandfather died October 16, 1929, after being struck by a train at Butterfly in Perry County. Saddened by the recent loss of his wife, John thought that he could boost his spirit by visiting friends and relatives in Perry County. On the morning of October 15th John boarded a train at nearby Haddix, in order to attend the birthday celebration of 100-year-old Irving Eversole, a former traveling minister whom John knew and respected who lived at Typo. Grandfather Fields took John in his wagon to meet the train. Before boarding the train John turned to his son-in-law and said, "Henry, if I don't make it back, the mule is yours." Grandpa Sug told me that he was somewhat disturbed by those strange words of parting, as the train slowly headed for Perry County. Although he didn't realize it at the time, my grandfather would remember those words for the rest of his life.
After attending the centennial birthday event at Typo, John spent the night of October 15th at the home of Judge J. G. Campbell, the brother of his late wife, Pop, at the nearby community of Butterfly. Just before 8:00 on the morning of October 16th, John was waiting at the railroad tracks for the number four train, which would transport him home. He was counting his money, when suddenly he saw the train approaching and realized that he was on the wrong side of the track to board the passenger car. The train had nearly stopped and John thought that he had adequate time to cross to the correct side; sadly, he did not. The train struck my great-grandfather as he made his way across the track, and he died instantly. Grandma Sallie saved a newspaper account describing the accident, and I now have that faded clipping in my family mementoes.
Carol Fields Shepherd and Elizabeth Ann Roberts Davis sit on the hearth where the old mill stones belonging to Carol's great-grandfather, John Grigsby, were placed when the Shepherd's log home was constructed at The Knob in the Lost Creek Community of Breathitt County, Kentucky.
(Photo courtesy of Carol Shepherd.)
Judge Campbell quickly received word that his brother-in-law was dead and acquired the phone number of Riverside Institute, the only Lost Creek establishment equipped with phone service in 1929. Judge Campbell telephoned Reverend George Drushal, headmaster at Riverside, requesting him to report the details of John Grigsby's fatal accident to his family. John's granddaughter, Thelma Grigsby Watts, a 12-year-old student at the school, was given the sad task of relaying the message to my grandparents. Thelma, who had lived at the Grigsby-Fields household, since the deaths of her parents in a house fire in the mid-1920s, recalled the misery of that short walk from the school to her home. "I cried from the time I left the school. Grandma Pop had died less than two months earlier. I didn't know how I could bear to tell Aunt Sallie and Uncle Henry that Grandpa John had been killed."
My grandparents, of course, were overcome with shock and grief when they heard of the horrible accident. Grandpa Fields was in the process of hitching the mule to wagon, in order to meet Great-Grandpa John, when Thelma arrived to tell them of the tragedy. That afternoon Grandpa Sug sadly waited in his wagon beside the railroad tracks at Haddix and watched the train stop at the same spot where John Grigsby had board the previous morning. Judge Campbell had obtained a pine coffin from someone at Butterfly, in it were the mangled remains of John Grigsby.
Thus, Great-Grandpa John's final words to my grandpa were indeed prophetic. Grandpa Fields repeated them to me several times, always with the same sadness and regret. Grandpa Fields told me that people in the both the Lost Creek and Ned communities talked for years about the tragic demise of John Grigsby and how shocking it was that he had died so soon after the passing of his wife, Pop.
The tragic nature of the death of my great-grandfather disturbs me to this day, but it truly haunted my father, who was a railroad engineer for many years. Ironically, my father also lost his life as a result of accident. Daddy died July 26, 1990, from injuries sustained when his tractor overturned on the farm that had originally belonged to John Grigsby. Daddy felt privileged to be the owner of the greater portion of his grandparents' farm and took pride in its upkeep. When I was very young, Daddy and Grandpa Sug made sure that I could correctly identify the various sections of the Grigsby-Fields farm. My mother; my husband, Ray; and I, the present owners, still refer to those sections by the names given to them by John Grigsby: The Rainbow Piece, Sal's New Ground, The Coal Bank, The Orlando Knob, The Graveyard Piece, The Drill, and the section where my husband and I now reside, which is simply known as The Knob.
While we remaining occupants of the old farm have endured our share of heartaches, the Maker has mercifully granted us many pleasant memories to appease our sorrows. The tale of John Grigsby's mill stones from the 1960s to the present illustrates that truth. The stones passed through the hands of several of John Grigsby's grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom I have had the good fortune to know during the past 40 years. The humorous situations that have occurred, as the mill stones passed from one relative to another, exemplify the zestful nature and craftiness of many of my Grigsby kin.
Long before Sam Bogie died in 1956 there was virtually no need to keep the mill open, even in the rural community of Ned. Eventually the mill building itself was dis-mantled, since the fre-quent flooding of Lost Creek had damaged its wooden structure. In fact, family members recall that in the mid-1900s the stones lay covered by sediment in the waters of Lost Creek. All assumed that the stones would henceforth remain in their watery grave. Sometime in the early 1960s, how-ever, Sam Bogie's son Ver-non offered to sell the millstones to Cousin Ray Haddix (a great-grandson of John Grigsby) for $50. Grigsbys gen-erally have a sentimental side where family is concerned, which I feel is due to the Welsh strain in us. The Welsh influence must have kicked in on Cousin Ray in a big way, because he jumped at the chance to get the stones back to someone of John Grigsby's direct line, namely himself. Being a bit low on cash and finding Vernon unwilling to accept a check, Ray decided that he had no choice but to borrow a portion of the $50 from his uncle, Mize Roberts, who was one of John's grandsons. Vernon apparently failed to inherit any of those soft-hearted Welsh sentiments, because he could in no way be persuaded to part with the mill stones for a personal check of Ray's. It was "cash or nothing" with Cousin Vernon.
In Cousin Ray's opinion, Mize was a good prospect to help him with this venture for several reasons. First of all, Mize was always known for "having a little money squirreled back," and Ray needed to borrow a few dollars right then. Secondly, Mize, being John's grandson, would surely understand Ray's desire for the stones to belong to someone of John's direct line. Finally (and most importantly to Ray), Mize owned a big log truck and all the paraphernalia necessary to hoist those stones out of the creek bed and haul them from Ned to the Sewell Roberts Hill, where both Ray and Mize resided. Mize agreed to the arrangement and Ray was beside himself with joy. Mize loaned Ray a bit of money from his stash (which Ray did repay, let it be known) and graciously declined to accept Ray's offer of $25 for the tow fee. Mize went one step further and volun-teered to store (which can be interpreted as hide) the stones in one of his many outbuildings. Cousin Mize rationalized that since Ray was prone to "roam and ramble," (Some Grigsby males were known for answering the "call of the wild" in the old days) the stones would be safer with him than out in the front yard of Ray's little house. Cousin Ray admitted that he certainly didn't want to display the stones in clear view, either. They would surely be stolen by passersby; or worse yet, they would serve as temptation to other Grigsbys, who might possibly want them for their own personal collection of ancestral relics!
That arrangement between uncle and nephew worked well for over 20 years. Both Ray and Mize possessed the typical Grigsby craftiness and humor and greatly enjoyed denying that they had the actual possession, or even had any knowledge of the whereabouts of John's mill stones. Elizabeth Ann Roberts Davis, Mize's daughter, recalls that in the mid-1960s one Grigsby relative tried to "badger" her into revealing where the mill stones were located. This person even vowed, "I'll give a large sum of money to anyone who will come forth with John Grigsby's mill stones!" (The name of this Grigsby relative has been forgotten long ago by all of us, so don't bother to ask!) Elizabeth Ann actually discovered the stones herself a short time later while "plundering" in Cousin Mize's smokehouse. Since she certainly didn't want the aforementioned relative to ever get even a glimpse of the stones, Elizabeth Ann told her father that she wanted them herself. Elizabeth Ann was ripe for the fun to be had in this, no doubt. Cousin Mize denied her the stones, but insisted, "Under no circumstances are you to let on to anybody that you know anything about Grandpa John's mill stones, no matter how much you get badgered!" Cousin Elizabeth Ann, then and there, gave her father a "solemn oath" to do exactly that.
In the mid-1980s Elizabeth Ann again inquired about the stones and Mize told her that he had only recently given them to Cousin Luther Grigsby, a great-grandson of John's, who lived at Little Buckhorn Creek in Breathitt County. She was once more required to take a "solemn oath" to never reveal the actual whereabouts of the stones. What did Ray think about this? Actually, Mize had neglected to tell him of the transfer, but since Cousin Luther was "a good feller" and the stones were still in the safe possession of someone of John's direct line, Mize felt there was no reason to bother Ray about it. After all, Ray hadn't even mentioned the stones in years, and they were surely safe as they could possibly be over on Little Buckhorn with Cousin Luther. Mize passed away in November of 1989 and the inquisitive Grigsby relative (whose name is still forgotten) again "badgered" Cousin Elizabeth Ann (during Mize's wake, no less) about the location of John's mill stones. Elizabeth Ann wasted no time informing her relative that the stones were not on her father's property. In fact, she had the opportunity to prove that they weren't anywhere on Mize's place later that week, when the relative (whose quest for the stones by now must have become an obsession) arrived and promptly demanded permission to "pilfer around and see where Mize had hidden those mill stones." Of course, no stones were to be found in any of Mize's buildings, and Elizabeth Ann was confident that they were still at Cousin Luther's place at Little Buckhorn. Cousin Ray died in 1990 still thinking that they were in Cousin Mize's smokehouse.
Actually, the stones had changed hands again, but not unknown to Mize. One day in the spring of 1989 Luther phoned my father with this message: "Cousin Quentin, if you want your Grandpa John Grigsby's mill stones that Cousin Mize gave to me, you are welcome to them. I'm leaving Little Buckhorn for a smaller place at Quicksand. I don't have any place to store them there, and if I leave them out in clear view, somebody will steal them for sure! (You should be familiar with that old Grigsby logic by now.) I told Cousin Mize that they need to go to somebody of John Grigsby's direct line, and he agreed. So, you come right on and get them!" My father didn't have to be asked twice, especially after Cousin Luther told him, "I won't sell you the stones for any price, but I'll give them to you!"
Daddy and my husband Ray jumped in the Grey Goose (Daddy's old 1966 flatbed Chevy truck) and high-tailed it up to Little Buckhorn, before Cousin Luther could get cold feet about the deal. Daddy always thought that my husband was as satisfactory as a son-in-law could be, so Mother and I were not too surprised that Daddy asked Ray to accompany him. More than once Mother and I had heard Daddy remark, "Ray Shepherd gets about pert, (which translates as 'doesn't drag ones feet') just like Grandpa John Grigsby." Ray had been on previous jaunts with Daddy and knew when his father-in-law said, "Boy, let's light out!" that it was time for him to be as pert as possible. On the way there the two put their heads together and came up with a grand idea of how to put the stones to good use. They were going to embed them in the fireplace hearths of the log house that Ray and I were having constructed, right on the top of John Grigsby's Knob. My parents had deeded The Knob to Ray and me as a wedding present in 1986, and Daddy was thrilled to know that the stones would serve as focal points in our new home. After sitting a spell with Cousin Luther and thanking him kindly, my father and husband transported the precious cargo to one of Daddy's storage buildings here on the farm.
Not long after the stones were safe in my father's possession, Cousin Mize phoned Daddy and told him that he would gladly have given the mill stones to him in the first place, if he had known that Daddy had wanted them. Daddy told Cousin Mize, "I know that you would have given them to me, Mize. I'm just glad to have them now." I had never heard Daddy mention the whereabouts of the stones, and I honestly don't think that he even knew that they had been removed from the creek bed, until he received the phone call from Luther. Mize Roberts and my father were first cousins, as Great-Aunt Hannah Grigsby Roberts and my grandma, Sallie Grigsby Fields, were sisters. Mize and Daddy were life-long neighbors and good friends to one another, as well as kinsmen. Mize, who was in ill health at this time, told Daddy, "All that matters to me now is that the mill stones remain with someone in Grandpa John's line."
Daddy was as thrilled as I had ever seen him the day that a stonemason placed the smaller of his grandpa's (John) mill stones in the center of the family room hearth, on the bottom floor of our log home during the spring of 1990. Since the remaining stone was too large to be placed in living room hearth on the main floor, Daddy suggested that we could later display it at another location on our property, as we continued with the construction. The final construction of our house was soon delayed, however, due to the unfortunate accident in mid-1990 that claimed my father's life. Grief stricken from losing Daddy we postponed many of the remaining building details for several years. We agreed to eventually display the second stone, however, as Daddy had so wished. I am truly glad, though, that my father did live to see the smaller stone placed in our hearth. Finally, in the summer of 2000, my mother and I were visiting Cousin Elizabeth Ann and the conversation turned to the stones. The three of us, at long last, were able then to piece together the tale of John Grigsby's mill stones. Cousin Elizabeth Ann and I had many hearty laughs recalling the enjoyment that our fathers had in obtaining and possessing those stones.
I trust that Great-Grandpa John would have been pleased to know that his mill stones were finally brought to the land where he lived for the last years of his life and where his body was laid to rest. The back of our house overlooks his grave, along with those of many of John's kin, which include the following: his wife, Polly "Pop" Campbell Grigsby; his son, Samuel Green Grigsby; his daughter, Sally Grigsby Fields; and his son-in-law, Henry Fields. His grandchildren include: Mae Fields Landrum and her husband, Robert Landrum; Reverend Ray Fields; Orpah Fields Nevitt; my father, Quentin Fields; Marion Grigsby (the father of Luther Grigsby) and his wife, Margaret; and one great-grandchild, the infant son of Mae and Robert Landrum. In time, Mother, Ray, and I will be buried there, as well.
What happened to John Grigsby's other mill stone? In the late summer of 2003 I decided it was finally time to display it in the backyard. Ray removed the second stone from one of Daddy's old storage buildings and hauled it up to The Knob in the Grey Goose, which miraculously is still running. We positioned it between the garage doors at the back of our log house, which overlooks The Graveyard Piece where John Grigsby and his kin are buried.
I am grateful to be the current caretaker of John Grigsby's mill stones and I am truly proud to be a descendant of their original owner.
Author's Note: This account is primarily based on information passed down by word of mouth from various relatives, many of whom are now deceased. Other than in James Clell Neace's book, I am unaware of any other published documentation of the tale of John Grigsby's mill stones. For those interested, Mr. Neace's George Washington Noble was published by Carlton Press, Inc., New York, NY, 1986. ISBN-0-806202891-1. The tale of John Grigsby's ox-ride to Virginia and his long walk back home is given on pages 26-27 of that work.
If any Kentucky Explorer readers are aware of additional published documentation or orally transmitted knowledge about John Grigsby's mill stones, please contact me via e-mail at [email protected]
I extend special thanks to my cousin, Elizabeth Ann Roberts Davis, for providing information from her own experiences concerning the mill stones of our great-grandfather, John Grigsby.
Portions of this article were originally published in the August 2002 edition of East Kentucky Magazine and permission to include those portions here has been granted by the editor of that publication.
Phyllis Carol Fields Shepherd, 610 Marie Roberts Road, Lost Creek, KY 41348, shares this article with our readers.