Waynesboro Heritage Museum | 420 W. Main St., Waynesboro, Virginia 22980 | Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Phone: (540) 943-3943

Waynesboro’s Great Fire

By Judy Walden

2019Perhaps you have heard of these great fires: London in 1666 which started in a bakery and ended four days later destroying 85% of the town; Chicago’s “Mrs. O’ Leary’s Cow” fire in 1871 in which hundreds were killed and 3.3 square miles of earth devastated; the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906, leaving 3,000 dead and 80% of the town gone. Waynesboro’s Gardner Mill fire was not that destructive, but for our town, it was bad.

Even with 1953 technology, modern equipment and extensive plans in place for the eventual event, it required the services of 11 towns with 18 pieces of equipment to quell the two-day fire. Mutual aid from fire fighters came from as far away as Charlottesville, Lexington, and Harrisonburg. The mill located between Main and Mulberry (now Broad) and facing east to the South River (where the parking lot is), had been abandoned years earlier and was declared a hazard. Starting on the first floor of the five-story structure, it was quickly engulfed. Wind, intense heat and flying embers hampered the effort to keep it contained. When it was over, the mill, grain elevator and four other businesses were destroyed. Seven other buildings were damaged in varying degrees.

This landmark mill was built in the early 1750s by Joseph Bell. Many old maps of Waynesboro show the water wheel driven mill with a front race that supplies water to the wheel and a back race that returns the water to the river after flowing over the wheel. Many owners and several fires are known. Enlarging and modernizing took place through the years. The oldest of Waynesboro’s seven gristmills, it is best known as the Bell/Patterson/Gardner Mill and was in continuous use for almost 200 years. The town of Waynesboro grew around it.

Mills, usually built of wood, were highly susceptible to fires. In the milling process of converting wheat to flour and corn to meal, dust forms inside the building and was of great concern to the miller. A spark from an errant pebble caught between the upper and lower grinding stones or a misalignment of the two stones could ignite the dust and the wooden mill was soon in flames. The miller was constantly examining the stones, and this is where we get the expression, “keep your nose to the grindstone.”

The grinding of grain began 30,000 years ago and was done by hand with two stones. It was a slow and tedious process. About 10,000 years ago the Egyptians and the Greeks learned how to harness water to turn gears and larger stones. Thus, this could possibly be one of the most important inventions for human survival. The hunger-gatherer was now able to stay in place with his crops, his mill, and be part of setting up small villages. The mill concept opened opportunity to do more than just grind grains. It could make felt from wool, cut wood for building and eventually provide power for blacksmithing and to furnaces for smelting.

After the great Waynesboro fire, Mill Street, which ran behind the mill and separated it from the grain elevator, was eliminated. Arch Street was straightened to Broad; a new and bigger fire house was built on the corner of Arch and Broad; an off-street parking lot was built, and the Broad Street bridge was opened in 1956.

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