Summers Mill: A Mill, a Community, a Restaurant, a Retreat
(1866 – 1957)
By Charlene Carson
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army in Virginia, surrendered his tattered, torn, and half-starved army to General Ulysses S. Grant, the general-in-chief of the United States army. Without Lee’s forces, it was useless for the other Confederate armies to continue fighting; therefore, by the last of May all units had surrendered. All officers and men were paroled and allowed to return home to begin life anew.
On April 14, 1865, only five days after Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and Vice-President Andrew Johnson assumed the office of President. During Johnson’s term the southern states, including Texas, endured a period of reconstruction. Reconstruction allowed the defeated Southern States, which had seceded from the Union, to again become a part of the United States.
Basically, reconstruction was the victorious North imposing its will upon the South. Union conquerors took control of the states, forcing Texas and the other defeated Southern States to follow policies dictated from Washington, D.C. During this time, Texas did not have the status of a state in the United States. To maintain order, the states, including Texas, were placed under military rule. George W. Tyler, in his book History of Bell County, described reconstruction as follows:
“Bell County, of course, shared the general fate and our people were, in due time, greeted with a new set of officials – virtually military appointees – agents set up over us by foreign rulers to collect our taxes, to handle our public funds, to administer our affairs. We were now treated as people of a “conquered province” and must “pay the price of our folly!”
Even though the citizens of Bell County were under this period of reconstruction and learning how to deal with issues they have not had to deal with before, such as how to assimilate the freed slaves into society, the county was growing. Indeed, Salado grew rapidly after the Civil War. Fathers returning from the war moved their families to Salado so their children could grow up and go to school in a small, rural, peaceful village. Others came for business opportunities. Among those was Col. John Meyers.
In 1866 Col. John Meyers built a gristmill on a tract of 120 acres of land bought from Wm. Mure. The mill was several miles down Salado Creek at what is now the crossing of Belton and Holland roads. This mill became known as Summers Mill. The mill was a four-story structure made of shaved burr oak and limestone. Earl, a local carpenter, shaped the timbers for a monthly salary of $12.50. Jack Burnett, a mason, did the stone work. The dam was originally built of cedar post; however, a later miller added a limestone facing.
The first waterwheel was a Leffel undershot turbine and was hauled by ox team from Houston, the nearest rail point. The millstones, which had come from France, were hauled up the Texas coast by oxcart along with other milling machinery. In a short time, the mill was turning out water-ground cornmeal, a staple ingredient in most of the meals prepared in kitchens of Central Texas households.
Meyers Mill ran first as a gristmill. Business was good and within a year Meyers added a sawmill. Most of the mill’s products were sold locally; however, every fall freight trains of ox and mule carts made the trip to Houston with surplus flour and cotton. These surpluses were traded for store supplies.
The mill was thriving when Col. Meyers sold his interest in the mill to Douglas McKenzie, who operated the mill with Meyers’s son Robert for a time, and in 1879 they sold the mill to D. C. Summers.
Summers’ parents, John and Virginia (Watson) Summers were married in Kentucky and soon after their marriage, the young couple moved to Illinois. The couple would have ten children. D. C. Summers was born in Jefferson County, Illinois in 1842. Summers’ father was a machinist and millwright who is credited with erecting the first mill in Jefferson County, Illinois. The Summers family came to Texas in 1856 and settled in Corsicana, Navarro County.
D. C. Summers received his education in both Illinois and Texas. At the age of 19 Summers joined Company A First Texas Sharpshooters and served with the forces that operated west of the Mississippi River. He was assigned to the engineering department. In 1863 Summers was captured at Jackson, Louisiana. He was, however, immediately paroled at which time he returned home and remained for a while. He subsequently re-entered the service and was assigned to the engineer’s department. Summers was discharged at Shreveport after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, and returned to his parents’ home in Corsicana, Texas.
In 1866 D. C. Summers erected the first flour mill in the southern part of Navarro County. Also in 1866 Summers was married to Miss Emma A. Currie of Hunt County, Texas. The couple would have two children, John W. and Walter T.
In 1877 or 1878 the D. C. Summers family moved to Bell County, Texas and settled temporarily in Salado. A year later Summers purchased the old corn and sawmill formerly owned by John Meyers. Summers installed modern machinery, making it the first roller mill in the county. In replacing the millstones with roller mills, the time-consuming process of dressing (sharpening) the millstones was eliminated. A roller mill could speed up the milling process, thus increasing the amount of marketable flour that could be produced. Millstones for grinding had been in use almost since the beginning of milling. Replacing them was a giant step forward in the technology of running a mill. However, when the first roller mills were introduced in Texas, some millers had difficulty believing that rollers would replace the millstones and that millstones would soon become relics of the past.
A settlement soon grew up around the mill that took the name Summers Mill, and by 1884 Summers Mill had a population of 50 people. The community consisted of a general merchandise store, three churches, and a post office named Summers Mill, Texas. The stagecoach ran tri-weekly to Belton and the mail was delivered tri-weekly also. When the Bell County Commissioners Court created common school district #34 in 1888, it was named Summers Mill School. This school continued to operate until December 1915 when it was consolidated with Elm Grove to form the new Armstrong School.
Summers operated the mill until 1888, at which time he traded it to James Reuben (J.R.) Holland for a 226-acre farm on Indian Creek, five miles west of Bartlett. When Holland took ownership of the mill, he added a flour milling machine, and when cotton became a productive crop, he built a cotton gin on the property. In 1890, Holland replaced the original cedar post wood dam with the rock dam that still stands today. It is reported that in 1903 during the winter season, Summers Mill ran 12 hours per day and during the summer season the mill ran 24 hours per day.
James Reuben Holland was born September 18, 1847 in Claiborne County, Tennessee. He arrived in Belton, Texas in October 1874 with a wagon and horses, his wife and four children, and six dollars cash. Holland had married a young widow by the name of Mary Tabitha Hutchens Moore in 1867. The widow had one daughter, Macie, from her first marriage. Together Holland and Mary had five children: Ellis, Alice, Claude, Mary, and a child who did not live. In 1877, Holland bought 105 acres of land along Darrs Creek. The next year, he bought an additional 145 acres and built the first steam powered cotton gin in the southern part of Bell County.
The area in which Holland settled was original known as the Mountain Home community. When application was made for a post office, the name Mountain Home was already taken, so without Holland’s knowledge, the name “Holland” was submitted. The Holland post office was officially approved April 10, 1879 and the former Mountain Home community became known as “Holland.”
At the time Holland acquired Summers Mill, he also purchased a 70-acre pecan grove, which he opened to the public as a community park. The mill then became a highly popular recreational site. Many church camp meetings, family reunions, patriotic and political rallies, and picnics were held in the pecan grove. The nearby creek served both as a place for baptismal services and a swimming resort. People understood the unwritten law that there would be no swimming on Sunday, particularly if there was to be a baptizing.
During the intervening years, Holland sold a one-half interest in the mill to his son-in-law, J. Mack Phillips. Phillips had come to Bell County in the early 1890s from Luthersville, Georgia. He was working as a miller for Holland at Summers Mill when he met and married Alice (Allie) Holland, the daughter of his boss. After their marriage on December 19, 1893, Phillips then purchased one-half interest in the mill. When Holland died in 1912, Alice Phillips inherited her father’s half interest. After that time, the mill was operated as Phillips Mill.
In September of 1921, a rainfall of twenty-two inches in twenty-four hours fell upon the area causing the Salado and neighboring rivers to rise and sweep away everything in their paths. The creeks and rivers rose so quickly that people were actually scrambling for their lives. The Bartlett Tribune, September 16, 1921, printed the following account of the nearby Alva Ferguson family during this flood.
“A graphic story of how Alva Ferguson and his family, residents of the community, escaped with their lives was related here today. It was said that the water had completely surrounded the house before it was apparent that danger was near and all means of escape to higher land had been cut off. Mr. Ferguson, his wife and five children were forced to cling to rafters in the building in order to survive and while in this refuge the building was swept from its foundation, only to land between two trees in the yard. They remained until the waters subsided enough to afford a means of escape.”
This same issue of the Bartlett Tribune reported that 91 people living along the San Gabriel River to the south of the Salado, lost their lives due to the flood. At Summers Mill, the mill building and the General Merchandise store were swept away with the flood waters, but the mill dam stood.
The Flood of 1921 was considered to be one of the most tragic and disastrous floods in the history of the southwest and ten years passed before Phillips and his son Leland Phillips rebuilt Summers Mill in 1932. Phillips felt an obligation to his customers to get the mill up and running again. The “water-ground” corn meal from the old mill was very popular in the area. One old-timer attested that, “Us folks hereabouts wouldn’t eat any other kind.” The mill was in operation another 25 years before the younger Phillips closed it in 1957.
In 1966 Leland Phillips sold the mill to Jimmie and Pearl Haddon who converted it into a restaurant. The Haddons had traveled in Europe and had been impressed by the atmosphere of restaurants fashioned from centuries-old structures in quaint, out-of-the-way places. An old mill would be the perfect place for such a restaurant. Diners enjoyed the novelty of dining at a table nestled in among the wheels, gears, and other internal apparatus that made the mill work.
It is not unusual for a mill to be destroyed by floods, but in December 1974 Summers Mill was destroyed by a blazing fire. All the metal mill equipment fell to the floor of the mill and the lower level was filed with water from trying to douse out the fire. All that remained of the mill was three stories of scorched concrete walls. The wooden fourth story was completely burned off. Nevertheless, the Haddons rebuilt the mill and used it for private purposes. Later owners also used the mill for private purposes.
Summers Mill experienced a variety of lifestyles during its lifetime. It began as a gristmill for corn; its wheel was an undershot turbine; it became a sawmill; it was the first mill to replace the millstones with a roller mill; a flour mill was added; the sawmill was removed and a gin was added; the wooden dam was replaced with rock; it became a popular recreational site; the mill was destroyed by a flood; rebuilt; closed; converted into a restaurant; destroyed by a fire; rebuilt and given a new purpose.
Presently, Summers Mill is owned by the Paul J. Meyer Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization known as Summers Mill Retreat & Conference Center. Facilities are available to businesses, church groups, and other organizations who are seeking a place to hold conferences and retreats in a beautiful setting designed for ministry and renewal. A Texas Historical Commission marker was dedicated at the site in 1968.