Wolf Pen Branch Mill

By Samuel W. Thomas, Ph.D.

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1892 view of Wolf Pen Branch mill by an unknown photographer.  Filson Photograph Collection“It seems clear that the Wolf Pen Branch was one of the first mill sites in Jefferson County, if not in North Central Kentucky. The present walls were started in 1875, but the same location was used for a water mill probably as much as 125 years ago.”
 “Railroad Pioneer’s Daughter Turns Miller,” The Courier-Journal, 16 May 1926.

Recently, The Filson received four photographs of the historic and picturesque stone gristmill at 8121 Wolf Pen Branch Road in eastern Jefferson County. Wolf Pen Branch Mill is the centerpiece of a 412-acre tract preserved by Sallie Bingham under a conservation easement donated to River Fields and the Kentucky Heritage Council in 1999. The circa 1892 views are the earliest known of the mill, which was then owned and operated by Herman Miller, whose wife and son, Chester Henry Miller, appear in two of the yellowing 8-by-5.75 inch photographs. Eva Lee Smith Cooper, daughter of Milton Three circa 1892 views of Wold Pen Branch mill by an unknown photographer.  Filson Photograph Collection Hannibal Smith, president of the L & N Railroad and the widow of Robin Cooper, Sr., acquired the mill in 1925. In 1966, Mrs. Cooper asked me to research the mill and determine its age.

William Postlewaite purchased the site in 1813, but there was no mention of a mill in his deed nor is there any record of his requesting Jefferson County Court to dam the creek to create the mill race as required by law. The first mention of the “flour or grist mill” is in an 1844 deed from William Postlewaite to Thomas N. Postlewaite. Thomas also rebuilt a sawmill on the site, according to an 1853 Louisville Chancery Court suit. The site was listed as belonging to J. F. Pilcher when surveyed in 1862. Only one mill is depicted, and that structure had a different form and was not oriented to the stream the way the present mill is. The structure that appears on the survey east of the mill is evidently the cabin shown in The Filson photographs.

Three circa 1892 views of Wold Pen Branch mill by an unknown photographer.  Filson Photograph Collection Three circa 1892 views of Wold Pen Branch mill by an unknown photographer.  Filson Photograph Collection

A nicely illustrated Courier-Journal Magazine article (16 May 1926), “Railroad Pioneer’s Daughter Turns Plat of mill site by W.J. McGonigale, 22 May 1862.  Louisville Chancery Court Case 17351 (1863) Miller,” marked the completion of the mill’s restoration by Mrs. Cooper. Moonshiners had taken the mill machinery and had been making whiskey there during Prohibition. Two years before, revenuers had destroyed 65 barrels of mash at the site. “While working at their homemade stills the moonshiners made merry in the cabin they had appropriated, and Mrs. Cooper found herself compelled to put a good bit of work on it before she would be willing to call it her summer home.” The cottage was later improved and later still was made part of a larger residence.

Pictured in the 1926 article was Mrs. Cooper’s miller, John Wheeler, and one of his predecessors and an old man, “Uncle Bob,” as well as Thomas Crabb Tyler, who had hewn the interior black locust timbers “fifty years ago” when “the present mill was built.” The property shows on the 1879 Atlas of Jefferson & Oldham Counties as belonging to H. Miller. Tyler recounted that Herman Miller raised butterbeans on the small property to pay for the construction of the mill. He became known as “Butterbean Miller” or “Miller the miller.” After Butterbean’s death, his son, Henry, operated the mill, as reportedly did Henry’s son, Chester Henry Miller, who died 19 February 1953 at the age of 61. His widow, Edna Frances Miller, gave her niece, Joy M. Brands, the four photographs. Appreciating the historical significance of the mill, Mrs. Brands presented them to The Filson.

Volume 5, Number 3

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