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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

What Happened Here? The Mill


John Small was the Sheriff of Knox County in 1790, serving as a representative of the Judicial Court system and trying to maintain peace on the frontier. His jurisdiction encompassed the area from the Ohio River north beyond Ft. Dearborn, west to the Mississippi River, and east to the Miami River.


When he wasn't chasing wrongdoers, Small supplemented his income by surveying. In November of 1801 he accompanied Governor Wm Henry Harrison, Francis Vigo, and two others on a surveying expedition from Vincennes down the Wabash to locate “the best site for a mill seat.” Later this site on the west side of the Wabash would be sold to Small from Francis Vigo, and Small would build a mill there.


In 1805 or 1806, Small built his frame Mill, one of the earliest if not the first mill in the territory, near present Billett on the old channel of the Embarras River-east from Billett and north of the blacktop road about 1/4 mile. The water-powered Mill used to grind grain and saw boards, was located about 1 ½ miles above the mouth of the Embarras. Small's ferry across the Wabash from his tavern in Vincennes provided local access to the Mill. He ran the ferry on the Indiana side and had a man named Tromley run it on the Illinois side. The Mill provided a sorely needed service for a large part of the territory including Vincennes.


Small was familiar with the area along the Embarras River from his militia duties. On multiple occasions he led militia in counter-attacks against the Native American War parties retreating back across the Wabash and up the Embarras. An old trace trail ran from Louisville, Kentucky to Vincennes, crossed the Wabash, ran westward along the Embarras, and then on to Cahokia on the Mississippi River coming out a few miles below St. Louis. Originally a Native American path, it would have been heavily traveled with traders and settlers, and a good location for a mill.


An original invoice found in Small’s estate papers dated May 16, 1820 describes work done at the Mill before Small’s death. There is an unsubstantiated story of a fire at the Mill so this could refer to the work done to rebuild the original Mill or this could be work done on a second Mill on the site.

At the present researchers do no know with any certainty what the Mill looked like, other than it was made of sawn lumber. Nor do they know what type of mechanism was used to drive the mill stones. Research is continuing to determine if the water flowed over a breast wheel, an undershot wheel or a turban type wheel. Evidence does support the fact though that a bolting chest, or giant sifter that produced much finer flour than unbolted whole wheat flour, was installed prior to 1820.*


William Spencer had a Knox County ferry boat license across the Embarras river upstream from Small's Mill. His ferry boat license was granted March 15, 1803 (or 1805 depending on the source) to keep "a ferry across the river Embarras about half a mile below where the present road leading from Vincennes to Kaskaskia crosses the said river in Knox County." (Yes, Vincennes Readers, we were a part of Knox County then, but I am NOT renaming the blog.)

Spencer’s ferry was about a half mile from the Mill allowing the settlers as far away as Russellville to cross the Embarras and trade at the Mill. Researchers believe a blockhouse was built near here on the premise of protecting the settlers, but probably more so to shelter the Militia or Rangers and protect the Mill. At some point, John Small and William Spencer became partners and in 1815, the saw mill was assessed at $800, a rather large sum for those times, indicating that this was no inconsequential operation.


William Spencer’s double-log cabin is mentioned in early histories as being at Muscle Shoals, but moved downstream closer to Small's Mill as the Native American troubles increased. And increase they did!


Tomorrow The Massacre


(*The grist mill burrs from this mill site were moved first to the old Lawrenceville High School grounds along the Embarras River, then to the south side of the Lawrenceville Square.)

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