War Eagle Mill’s history begins with the story of a tenacious pioneer couple, Sylvanus and Catherine Blackburn, who understood the importance of fresh, natural food in the lives of families as far back as 1832 when the first Mill was built.
Sylvanus was 16 years old when he married Catherine. The young couple lived on his parents’ farm in Tennessee for a year but then decided it was time to find a place of their own. Sylvanus left Catherine with his folks and headed west. He didn’t stop until he came upon a lush valley next to the War Eagle Creek in Arkansas. Sylvanus had found the most beautiful setting for their new home and immediately sent for Catherine so they could begin their life in the War Eagle Valley. The first thing Sylvanus and Catherine did was build a house using wood from the surrounding forest. It sat on top of the little hill next to the Creek, and was so well built that it is still in use today.
Needs of a Community
After the house was completed, the couple turned their attention to planting corn in the fertile bottomlands of the creek valley. But with the closest Mill in Richand, 25 miles away, the Blackburn’s quickly recognized the need for a gristmill. The War Eagle Creek would provide the perfect energy source to grind grain into flour. The new Mill proved to be in a tremendously successful location. It didn’t take long for the surrounding neighbors to bring their own corn to Sylvanus for grinding. Before he knew it, the Blackburns had the most popular place around for people to have picnics and parties while waiting for their grain to be milled.
In 1848, a heavy rainy season flooded the entire valley and the Mill was pushed into the river, washed downstream and totally destroyed. As soon as the water receded, tenacious Sylvanus and Catherine rebuilt the Mill. They expanded the structure to mill lumber as well as milling grain. With more and more people moving into the Valley and needing houses, Sylvanus’ business prospered. It was a good thing the Mill was doing well, because by this time, the couple had nine children!
Families and Nation Torn Apart By War
In 1861, Civil War broke out. Many northwest Arkansas residents were caught between strongly Confederate Arkansans to the south and Union-supporting Missourians only a few miles away to the north. The Blackburn’s five sons enlisted in the Confederate Army, while Sylvanus and Catherine decided to take the rest of their children to Texas to ride out the conflict. He left behind his entire life’s work and his beloved Mill to protect his family. It would be nearly four years before any of them would return to the War Eagle river valley.
In 1862, the Union Army moved into northern Arkansas and the War Eagle Valley, and used the Mill to grind grain for food. When the Union soldiers heard that the Confederate Army was advancing into the area, they picked up and went to Pea Ridge, Arkansas. For two days, the Confederate soldiers used the Mill, but their military position was so unstable that a confederate general ordered that the Mill be burned to the ground to prevent it being used again by the Union. Chaos ensued after the horrific battle of Pea Ridge, and the entire county and surrounding areas where laid waste by the retreating Confederates and bands of looters. Fayetteville and Bentonville, AR would be the first U.S. cities to be destroyed by fire during the war. With crops destroyed and the Mill in ashes, food shortages would force many residents abandon their homesteads and flee.
After the war ended in 1865, Sylvanus and his family returned to find their house still standing, but the Mill was gone again. This time, it would be Sylvanus’ son, James Austin Cameron (J. A. C.) Blackburn, who would take on the task of reconstructing the third mill, which he finished in 1873. J. A. C. decided to expand Mill production by adding a more powerful grinding machine run by a turbine engine instead of a water wheel. The Mill grew even more prosperous. Their sawmill, reportedly the largest in Arkansas, led J. A. C. to become known as the “Lumber King” of northwest Arkansas. Lumber cut at the War Ealge saw mill was used to build much of Fayetteville, AR– including Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus.
When J.A.C. decided to run for the Arkansas Senate and won, his time was too divided between his new duties and the Mill, so he sold the Mill to a family named Kilgore. They operated the Mill until 1924 when the Mill burned down for the second time, by a fire of unknown cause. This fire left only the foundation and remnants of the building.
In 1973, Mr. Jewel Medlin purchased the property. Intrigued with the old mill foundation and its rich history. Jewel, his wife Leta and daughter Zoe Medlin Caywood, searched and found blueprints for the third Mill and took on the task of rebuilding it for the fourth time! The design was modified slightly to bring back the undershot waterwheel that Sylvanus had used over 100 years earlier. That is the same waterwheel system that has powered the Mill from 1973 to today. War Eagle Mill is the only working mill in Arkansas, and it is still powered by an eighteen-foot cypress waterwheel. We believe it to be the only undershot water wheel currently in operation in the United States. Zoe Medlin Caywood not only gave new life to the Mill, but over the next thirty-years she developed many new products that show up as ingredients in the clever “War Eagle Mill Cookbooks” she authored. All of Zoe’s cookbooks are available for purchase by clicking here. These kitchen tested recipes introduce hungry readers to new tastes and textures utilizing fresh products and encourage experimenting with your own menus. It was Zoe’s passion that fueled the Mill’s stature in the Ozark region and her desire to see the Mill grow that led her to the next phase of War Eagle Mill’s history.
A Continued Commitment To Quality
In 2004, Zoe wanted to pass the Mill on to someone who loved it as much as she had over the 30 years her family owned the property. She found health-oriented business people and preservationists Marty & Elise Roenigk who had relocated to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Today, the Roenigks are taking the Mill into new markets and households to further the availability and use of organic, natural products for healthy families. Visitors to War Eagle Mill relish the experience of seeing actual milling being done on site. Visiting the Mill is an interactive history lesson, as well as a true depiction of the tried and true slow process developed a century earlier that preserves the rich nutrients remaining in the grain.The Mill today holds true to the founder’s values: Use the finest quality grains, grind fresh daily, and keep your customers coming back for more!