Central Texas Storybooks

Central Texas Stories and Legends

Davis Mill
One of the Most Significant
(1864-1900)

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was steering a divided country through the third year of the Civil War. The Confederate flag flew over Texas; and Sam Houston, the Governor of Texas, had recently been replaced for his refusal to take the oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis was serving as President of the Confederacy and many of Salado's sons were on the battlefields; some fighting for the blue, others fighting for the gray. Ultimately, forty-seven Confederate sons of Salado would be buried in the Salado Cemetery.

During this time, Salado was a small dusty, frontier town. However, there were enough people in the area to merit a post office. Salado's post office was established in 1852 with Dr. Louis A. Ogle serving as postmaster. The post office was located about five or six miles south of Salado Creek, in a neighborhood of what is now Prairie Dell. In the 1850s this area was referred to as "Salado" because of its proximity to the creek. The town of Prairie Dell, as it is known today, did not begin until the late 1860s. Dr. Ogle lived in that area so perhaps the post office was in his home or a separate structure nearby.1

By 1859, just before the Civil War, three small stores lined Main Street. They were Armstrong's leather shop; W.D. Copeland's hardware store; and Col. E.S.C. Robertson & Sons' general merchandise store. These businesses met the needs of cowhands, farmers, and ranchers. In order to accommodate overnight travelers, The Shady Villa Hotel, now known as the Stagecoach Inn, was constructed in 1861-1862. The hotel soon became an overland stagecoach stop, carrying mail, passengers, freight, and baggage from Waco to Austin.2

Salado was poised for growth. The business climate was good; there was an abundant supply of fresh water, and Salado College, which had been founded in 1859, was drawing families to the area. One of those families was the William A. and Elizabeth M. Davis family. The Davis family came to Salado from Round Rock so their children, Ada, Beatrice, Willia, and William A. Jr., could attend Salado College. Upon his arrival in Salado, Davis built a comfortable two-story rock home overlooking Salado Creek and below his home, Davis built a mill.3

Davis Mill on Salado Creek
Davis Mill and home on the banks of Salado Creek, undated.

While not the oldest of the eight mills on the Salado, the Davis Mill was considered to be one of the most significant. On August 25, 1863, Colonel Robertson was authorized by the Board of Trustees of Salado College to sell land near the creek to John T. Flint and to convey the creek water for milling purposes. It was stated that a dam could be built across the creek and the water was to be used for milling and manufacturing purposes provided no dam was built so high as to overflow the springs along the creek bank from which the people got their drinking water. Flint afterward sold the land to Wm. H. Stinnett and Stinnett sold it to Wm. A. Davis with the same privileges and restrictions.4

Davis Mill historical marker
Davis Mill historical marker, photographed on March 14, 2015

There is a historical marker in front of a retail store at the northeast corner of Main St. and Salado Creek commemorating the Davis Mill. This, however, is not where the Davis Mill stood. The mill site was located on the north bank of the Salado where the creek curved north and formed what was locally known as the "Blue Swimming Hole." Originally, the marker was placed at the site of the mill, but it was moved to its current location so that it would be more visible to the public, and to prevent the possibility of its being vandalized.

The historical marker states that Davis built the mill in 1864 and that it was the first stone mill in the vicinity with a carding machine. With the Civil War underway Davis recognized the need for a carding machine to prepare wool for the manufacture of Confederate uniforms. The installation of a carding-machine would expedite this process but it also requires additional water power.

Therefore, Davis built a log dam across the creek, causing water to back up over two of the springs from which the citizens drew their drinking water. The city fathers declared the dam a menace to public health and stated that the dam must be lowered. Rather than lowering the dam, Davis responded by cutting a notch in the top log, which lowered the water just enough to spare the springs.5

In 1866, with the war over, Davis converted his mill to a sawmill and gin. To increase the water power necessary for operating the mill, Davis added another log to the dam. This higher dam backed the water up so that it formed a pond in the heart of the creek, and in due time green scum formed and gathered on either side of the creek, contaminating the springs even further. Again, Davis was asked to lower the dam, but he declined to do so.

Eventually, the log dam was washed away and Davis replaced it with a rock dam even higher than the previous log dam. Davis also built a crude footbridge across the dam. Some people in the community saw this as a benefit, for the only other means pedestrians had of crossing the creek was on stepping-stones which were always covered with water after every sizeable rain.

After receiving complaints from the citizens regarding the contamination of the springs, a committee was appointed consisting of Rev. James Ferguson, N.M. Proctor, and D.F. Hair, all living several miles outside of town, to examine the springs and report how far, if at all, Davis had violated the restrictions of his deed. After their examination, the committee reported the springs overflowed from eight to ten inches. Again, Davis was asked to lower the dam to the limit stated in his deed. He responded by building another rock dam further down the creek, which caused an even higher increase in the water level at the springs.6

The Civil War was over and the nation was healing, but it appeared as if the citizens of Salado were on the verge of having their own civil war. On January 3, 1870, a group of citizens came before the College Board with a petition signed by twenty-nine citizens complaining that the dam was causing injury and was in violation of the terms of the deed. The Board appointed a new committee composed of five members to confer with Davis.7

After hearing the complaints, Davis offered an alternative proposal, which included removing the footway off the dam in order to bring it down with the level of the water running over the water way and to wall up the two springs on the town tract and put a storm cap over them to keep the mud from running into them.

The Board rejected Davis's offer and appointed a third committee to collect all the facts and present them to legal counsel for an opinion. The committee went to the firm of McFarland and Saunders of Belton, stating that the dam was a public nuisance and that the flooding of the springs from which the people of Salado got their drinking water was endangering the health of Salado's citizens.

W. A. Davis
Undated portrait of W. A. Davis.

On September 14, 1870, the College Board filed suit in the District Court of Bell County on behalf of Salado College against Mr. W. A. Davis for the reduction of the dam. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. The second trial, held in October 1871, found in favor of Davis. The College Board appealed this verdict to the Texas Supreme Court and the judgement was reversed and set aside and the case was remanded for a new trial in the District Court.8

After a lapse of seven years a new trial was held and on April 2, 1878, the District Court found in favor of the College Board and ruled that Davis must reduce the dam by eight inches. This judgment was executed by the Sheriff of Bell County.9

During the years of litigation, Davis continued to operate his mill. In 1871, the year of the second trial, Davis converted the mill to a gristmill. He added French burr millstones, a Leffel waterwheel, and silk bolting.

French burr stone is a quartz stone found in the Marne Valley of Northern France. Most of the mill stones used in Central Texas mills were imported from Metz, France, shipped to Galveston, transported to Houston, and then hauled to the mill site by ox drawn cart.

Leffel water turbine
A James Leffel & Co. water turbine from the Quintele and Haass Mill in Castroville.

The James Leffel water turbine was considered to be the most respected and sought-after turbine in the milling industry. The turbine was normally installed in the basement of the mill or a pit near the mill. Water entered the pit through the mill race, turned the paddles or blades on the turbine, and then exited the pit through the tail race. James Leffell & Co. has been in business since 1862 and continues to be the industry leader in manufacturing hydropower equipment.

The silk bolting process allowed the miller to clean the flour or meal, thus removing any foreign matter that might have been in the grain. Bolting cloth was usually made of linen, cotton, or silk.

Of course, this mill dam controversy and the subsequent trails caused friction among the citizens of Salado and Davis. However, Davis eventually gained the favor of the townspeople and when the new Salado College was granted its charter in 1882, Davis was elected to serve on the board along with those who had opposed him in the lengthy litigation over his dam.10 Davis was known for not charging widows for his milling services. Davis was also a charter member and officer of the Salado Masonic Lodge, and he eventually became Master of the Salado Lodge.11

Some years later, on May 21, 1888, Davis sold his mill to William Alexander Pace, formerly of Georgetown. Pace, originally from Virginia, had been living in Georgetown, Texas, where he was operating a mill owned by George W. Glasscock Sr., the founder of Georgetown.12

When Pace moved to Bell County in 1855, he owned two horses and two cows. A year later, he purchased 80 acres on the headwaters of Darrs Creek. From that time on, he farmed, bought and sold property, and raised stock. By 1889, he owned 766 acres of land plus five lots in Salado.

Davis Mill ruins
Davis Mill ruins after the flood of 1900.

The Davis Mill, which had operated as a manufacturer of wool for Confederate uniforms, a sawmill, a gin, and a gristmill, stood until the great Galveston Storm of 1900, when heavy rains fell across the entire state of Texas, causing the Salado to go on a rampage and destroy everything in its path. The mill was never rebuilt, and the flood waters of 1913 washed away the final remnants of the mill.

William A. Davis was born in Kentucky on December 16, 1822. He died in Salado on April 11, 1899. Davis was spared watching the destruction of the mill he had built and that had been his source of livelihood for almost 35 years. Davis's wife Elizabeth M. Davis, his oldest daughter Ada Young, and her husband James Young had preceded Davis in death. All four are buried in the Old Salado Graveyard.13

William Alexander and Sarah Jane (Hankins) Pace were the parents of 17 children, of whom three died in infancy. The others were Edward, Joseph, W.K., Abram, Mary, Marion, Elizabeth, John, Sarah, Sterling, William A., Phebe, Mary Evelyn (Mollie), and Julian. W. A. Pace died February 3, 1889, and Sarah Jane died September 5, 1894. Both are buried in the Old Salado Graveyard.14

On August 16, 1946, two of Pace's children, John Wesley Pace and Elizabeth Pace Hodge, conveyed the mill site land to the citizens of Salado on the condition that it be maintained as a public park to be known as the W.A. Pace Memorial Park. Because of their generous donation, Salado now has a beautiful park situated on the north bank of Salado Creek, the former site of the Davis Mill.15

By Charlene Ochsner Carson
Page last updated: February 13, 2019

Footnotes:

  1Kelsey, Michael W., Nancy Graff Kelsey, Ginny Guinn Parsons, Empresario's Son: E. S. C. Robertson of Salado, Prairie Queen Publications, Belton, 2017, 170.
  2Hodge, Mary Harrison and Charlene Ochsner Carson, Images of America: Salado, Arcadia Publishing, 2014, 37,38.
  3Shanklin, Felda Davis, Salado, Texas, Its History and Its People, Peter Hansbrough Bell Press, Belton, 1960., 36, 37.
  4Tyler, George W., History of Bell County, edited by Charles William Ramsdell, Ph.D., The Naylor Company, San Antonio, 1936, 287.
  5Ibid, 288.
  6Ibid, 288.
  7Ibid, 288.
  8Ibid, 288.
  9Ibid, 288.
  10Ibid, 288.
  11Johnson, Carlton, "Salado Masonic Lodge History," Salado Lodge #396 A.F. & A.M., Online.
  12Warranty Deed with V/L, W.A. Davis and wife, Mrs. E.M. Davis to W.A. Pace, May 21, 1888.
  13Turnbo, Charles A., Salado, Texas, Frontier College Town, Yardley Publishing, Salado, Texas, 2007, 185.
  14Story of Bell County, Texas, Volume II, E.A. Limmer Jr., Editor-in-Chief, Compiler, Bell County Historical Commission, Eakin Press, Austin, 1988.
  15Barton, John A., "W.A. Pace Memorial Park," The Way It Was, Volume II, Retired Senior Volunteer Program of The Central Texas Council of Governments, Belton, 24.
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