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RE-RUN OF THE MILL

South Boston News
SoVaNow.com / August 28, 2013
For more than a century, Southside Roller Mills stood proudly as a downtown Chase City sentinel, providing local residents with the basic ingredients for their daily bread. From 1912 until it closed its doors in 1981, the company produced flour and cornmeal at the Third Street operation.

Stepping inside the building today is akin to traveling back in time. With its wooden grain tubes and grinding equipment, the roller mill has remained intact since production ceased there after the retirement of owner Henry Hupp. Opening one of the sieves, you can still see and smell the flour that once flowed through the silken tube.

It was such historically rich features that first attracted new owner Harry Click to the building. Now he is planning to turn the mill into a museum and possibly an entertainment venue or cafe. Before retiring, Click spent years in the catering business.

After purchasing the plant, Click spent the first couple of years cataloging the equipment, removing pounds of pigeon guano, and learning the history of the mill from Carol Hupp Adams Roark, daughter of Henry Hupp, and his granddaughter Diana Ramsey.

Southside Roller Mills first opened in 1912. It was part of a conglomerate called Southside Supply, owned by Charles Boswell and Judd A. Robertson. The company produced and sold “Wide-Awake” flour, “Hoe-Cake” self-rising cornmeal, feed grain, and coal.

Henry Hupp, who later purchased the mill, began working there in 1914. When World War I broke out, Hupp left Chase City to fight. Upon his homecoming in 1916, Hupp returned to the mill. Through his research, Click is unable to determine the exact date that Hupp purchased the mill, but knows that he owned it, at least, until his retirement in 1975.

During his tenure, Hupp ran the mill with only three or four employees, according to Click. During wheat season, usually in June when the farmers were harvesting their crop, the mill stayed open all night long. Roark remembers bringing beans and bread to her father and to the workers at the mill.

Southside Roller Mills had the capability to produce up to 400 pounds of flour per hour, which was packed in either 200-pound barrels, or 100-pound sacks. They also ground corn into meal using a separate set of stone grinding wheels. When the grinder broke in early 1970, Hupp was unable to obtain replacement parts for it, and cornmeal production ceased. Although Click does not know how it was used, there is also a “garlic extractor” inside the mill.

Mayor Eddie Bratton, who grew up in Chase City, has memories of Hupp walking home from the mill covered in flour, looking like a ghost after a day of grinding flour and cornmeal.

Behind the mill was the scale used to weigh the grain. Farmers would drive onto the scale and get a reading, before depositing the grain for processing. Down Endly Street, there was a kiln used for drying the grain before grinding it into flour or processing it for feed (Southside Supply also owned and operated the hammer mill on Randolph Street. The mill processed feed grain for farmers until 1985).

Today, the scale is long gone and the kiln building has fallen into disrepair, much like the Roller Mills and the hammer mill buildings. Click does not own the kiln or hammer mill buildings.

Inside the Roller Mills, grain would travel down a system of wooden pipes through grinding machines and sieves — all of which are still in the building before collecting in a series of final pipes attached to the flour dispenser. Hupp installed a series of “trap doors” along the wooden pipes, into which he could insert a wire to unclog any grain trapped in the pipe. Click said he was told that before Hupp would allow any flour to flow into the barrels or sacks, he would first open the dispenser, stick his finger into the flour, and taste it — Hupp’s version of quality control.

Shipping the flour and cornmeal to market was made easier because the first owners of the mill had a railroad spur built next to the Roller Mills plant. The cars were loaded after pulling alongside the mill.

Despite his best efforts, Click is still stymied by two parts of the mill history. The first is the grain towers attached to the building. No one can tell him when or why these were built. The second greater mystery he learned while studying the outside of the building.

“There is an obvious roofline” on the backside of the building, he notes. No one that Click has spoken with recalls any building connecting to the Roller Mills, and there is no evidence that someone could access the Roller Mills from the site.

Even without the answers to those mysteries. Click says he is now ready to begin the work of restoring this Chase City landmark. Having restored other historic structures while living in and around Washington, D.C. Click is not daunted by the task. He is also careful to preserve the features that testify to the building’s original purpose.

For example, the upper floors are filled with a spidery series of wooden tubes, once used to carry the grain to the various pieces of equipment. While removing some or all of these tubes would allow Click to open the space for commercial or other use, Click says, “It would destroy one of the best parts of the mill — the hand-made wooden grain tubes.” Many of these, Click believes, were designed and built by Hupp.

Click plans to spend the next year restoring the building. He is working with Justin Kerns, Mecklenburg County’s new tourism coordinator and Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Sandra Tanner as they plan the next best use for this piece of Chase City history.

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