Kenan’s Mill in Selma is a one-of-a-kind living museum.
by Alvin Benn
Kenan Mill’s century old grind stone.
Grist mills may be a thing of the past in long-gone rural America, but Selma has been trying its best to keep one alive that was built on the eve of the Civil War.
People don’t have to worry about where their daily bread will come from today because they know it’s only a hop, skip and short drive to the nearest supermarket.
Such was not the case in country communities in the 19th century where grist mills provided a staple of existence for millions of Americans.
Unlike grist mills that often changed hands in Alabama, the Kenan family owned and operated one for over 100 years until the last relative neared the end of her productive life.
Her name was Elizabeth Kenan Buchanan and one of her final gifts to the community was the 1997 donation of the family’s grist mill to the Selma-Dallas County Historic Preservation Society.
With the gift came something in return – restoration of the dam, turbine and mill stones – a challenge that included the commissioning of an expert to make the mill operational again.
Part of that included a near-Herculean task of removing the turbine and sending it to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for repairs; something easier said than done. Part of the effort was taking the turbine down the steep banks of Valley Creek.
Sylvia Smith, a Selma businesswoman who played an integral role in the restoration project, said a crane had to be brought from Montgomery to handle that task.
Smith said Dr. John Lovett of Belvidere, Tennessee, sharpened the mill stones with a chisel and hammer in a procedure known as "dressing" the stones.
The process culminated in the reopening of the mill in 2002, just in time for Selma’s Pilgrimage tours where corn-grinding demonstrations proved to be quite a hit.
Unfortunately, the festival had to be canceled this year due, in part, to lack of volunteers. The hope is that it can be revived one day, but, in the meantime, the mill is available for school groups and group tours.
In addition, the facility is a popular location for weddings, receptions, school reunions and other events to help defray some of the operation and maintenance expenses.
"It remains to be seen whether there will be enough interest to revive it for future years," Smith said.
Sylvia Smith and Robert Gordon enjoy spending time at Kenan’s Mill where the Swinging Bridge crosses Valley Creek.
One thing is certain: the mill will never again be a commercial enterprise grinding corn, grits and wheat for farmers or for sale to stores and the public.
"It is an important educational site for school children and the general public to see a part of our history that no longer exists in our day-to-day life, but is part of the heritage of this area and its people," Smith added.
The mill had previously been fully restored, including meeting rooms and a kitchen. There’s even a swinging bridge spanning Valley Creek along with a bandstand, pavilion and a red barn with restrooms.
The mill’s calling card, however, was production of water-ground meal, grits and corn for over 100 years. That feature was discontinued last year.
The most recent memorable day at Kenan’s Mill occurred in 2002 when it was officially reopened and made available for weddings, anniversaries and other important family functions.
Thanks to a grant from the Alabama Historic Commission, a gate was erected at the entrance in 2013 to increase security.
Two events kept the mill before the public so it wouldn’t be forgotten. One was Selma’s annual pilgrimage celebration. The other was a festival named for the site.
Volunteers at first jumped at the opportunity to help at the Mill Festival, but it, too, fell victim to that old saying of "too little, too late."
Lack of helping hands and rising costs led to an announcement in August that the annual Kenan’s Mill Festival would be canceled.
Candi Duncan, treasurer of the preservation society and one of the main supporters of the mill and its historic tradition, was devastated, as were others who felt the same way she did.
"I hate that it’s another event we’ve lost in Selma," Duncan said, in a statement to the Selma Times Journal. "We feel so sad about it because we lost the Riverfront Market and now we’re losing this, too."
The Riverfront Market attracted shoppers across the Black Belt region of Alabama and helped to keep alive the importance of Selma’s historic downtown mercantile district.
That event was more than an autumn shopping extravaganza on the white soapstone bluff overlooking the Alabama River. Funds from the market were used to help restore decaying structures in Selma’s historic district – the largest of its kind in Alabama.
The same thing happened several years ago when lack of volunteers and rising costs led to the cancellation of the annual Old Cahawba Festival at the site of Alabama’s first capital city.
Smith and Robert Gordon, two dedicated volunteers who have spent countless hours at Kenan’s Mill, are doing all they can to keep it alive in some form.
Some might say what they’re doing is a thankless undertaking, but, for them, it’s a labor of love.
Memories abound for those who have grown up around the mill and Gordon can still remember how he and his buddies hopped on their bikes and rode to Kenan’s Mill.
"We hoped that once word got out about the festival being canceled some younger volunteers would step forward to keep it going, but it didn’t happen," Smith said.
Volunteerism had kept the mill alive as a vibrant part of Dallas County’s history, but it just wasn’t enough to sustain it, according to Smith and Gordon.
Grist mills in America have gradually disappeared, but Kenan’s Mill is a living museum: one surrounded by all sorts of wildlife, flora, fauna, magnolia, sweet gum and maple trees, Pennsylvania moss, hummingbirds and butterflies galore.
A nice touch at the site is little signs attached to the trees, listing their names for inquisitive unfamiliar visitors.
The Swinging Bridge had been a tourist attraction in the area, especially for children old enough to cross it, but it’s been pretty much shelved in view of recent developments.
"We have been given a great responsibility by the historic society to take care of this site," Smith said. "That’s the reason why Robert and I work so hard to try and keep it alive."
Gordon, who owns and operates an antique business across the street from historic Sturdivant Hall in Selma, spends much of his free time mowing the grass, tidying up or whatever else might be needed at the mill.
An exterior view of the mill.
The two consider Kenan’s Mill, built in early 1861, one of a kind, not only in Alabama but across the country.
There isn’t a lot of money to help sustain the mill today and that’s why Smith, Gordon, Duncan and other Kenan Mill supporters are doing all they can to at least keep the facility before the public in the coming years.
As Buchanan aged, she retained her love for the mill and often showed up with picnic lunches for workers during the restoration process.
There wasn’t any running water during that time, so she also brought warm water and soap for handwashing.
She was on hand in 2002 when the mill ground corn for the first time in many years and she couldn’t resist sticking a finger into the freshly ground meal and taking a taste.
"Now, that’s cornmeal," Buchanan was heard to say, earning even more praise from those who helped to restore the site.
A cottage at the mill has a horticultural library containing over 400 volumes and serves as headquarters of the Dallas County Master Gardeners.
Gardens kept Buchanan young, especially daffodils producing bright colors throughout the area. She was in her late 80s, but made it a point to attend the festival and if anybody asked about the flowers she could tell them their names in Latin.
Smith loves Kenan’s Mill, too, and enjoys becoming a history teacher when groups tour. One of her favorite stories involves Union troops who marched through the area on their way to Selma, most of which was burned April 2, 1865.
She said the story goes that one Yankee soldier learned about the grist mill and traded a pitcher for some cornmeal to turn into something to eat.
The security gate at the mill is near a historic marker detailing the route taken by Union troops during their raid through Dallas County.
For details about Kenan’s Mill or volunteerism, call 334-412-8550.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.