The Mills River community is a beautiful, fertile valley containing some of the most productive agricultural land in Henderson County.
Two of the county’s rivers, the French Broad and the Mills River, flow through the community creating vast and extensive flood plains.
The traditional and historical community extends to the Buncombe County line on the north and Transylvania County to the west. The extreme northwest tip of the traditional community meets Haywood County. To the south are the communities of Etowah and Horse Shoe, and a section of Transylvania County. To the east, the community is bordered by the communities of Fletcher, Naples and Rugby.
The traditional community contains some of the highest mountain peaks in Henderson County. These peaks are now located in Pisgah National Forest. One must remember that the national forest, once owned by George Vanderbilt, was not formed until the early 1900s. Appalachian Mountain people, most with many descendants still living in the county, once lived in what is today Pisgah National Forest.
Of the 42 highest mountain peaks in Henderson County, 13 are located in the traditional Mills River community, including the four highest peaks in the county.
Little Pisgah Mountain at the extreme northwest tip of the county, east of Mount Pisgah, is the highest peak in the county at 5,300 feet. This mountain is followed by Johnson Knob, Candler Knob and Stony Bald, all within today’s Pisgah National Forest. Laurel Mountain and Rich Gap Mountain, also in the national forest, are also in the top 10 highest peaks in the county.
Other high mountains today in the national forest and within the old community of Mills River are Black Mountain, Double Head, Queen Creek, West Knob, and Kramers Vista.
Pine Mountain in the southwest part of the community at Boyleston on the border with Transylvania County is also one of the county’s highest peaks.
And Forge Mountain, with its many myths and legends about gold ore, is also within Mills River at 3,278 feet.
Visit http://hendersonheritage.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/COMMUNITIES-2.pdf on this web site.
People have lived and farmed in the Mills River valley for thousands of years. One of the largest and earliest documented Indian sites in today’s Henderson County was located in the Mills River Valley, approximately at today’s intersection with N.C. 191 and N.C. 280, along both sides of the river.
This large Indian village, most likely the ancestors of the Cherokee, was located at this site earlier than 1,000 AD. Most of the artifacts found are from prehistory. The village appears to have been abandoned prior to 1000 AD.
Origins of the Name – Mills River
In early colonial history of today’s United States, the French claimed the land west of the Continental Divide. The Mills River empties into the French Broad River which then empties into the Mississippi River, flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. French explorers and fur traders named most of the rivers flowing into the Mississippi River.
The English owned the land on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge (Continental Divide) and the French claimed all the land to the west, including all tributary waters of the Mississippi. In order to distinguish the Broad River in East Tennessee from the Broad River belonging to the English on the east, the Broad River claimed by the French came to be called, French Broad. In some of the early maps it is named Frank River, referring to the French. The name of French Broad was given to it before 1763, when the French formally relinquished all claim to this region after the French and Indian War.
Early maps and the earliest deeds spell the river for which the community is named as “Milles” River. Milles is a French word with many meanings. The “es” is silent in French, thus the first post office in the community was spelled as Mill River, as that was the way it was pronounced.
The community was named for the river.
It is true that early settler William Mills purchased land along the Mills River, but he never lived on this land.
William Mills lived in today’s Edneyville community, some folks say the Fruitland community. His home place was located close to where the two communities meet, but most people call this section Edneyville today. It was near where today’s South Mills Gap Road and U.S. 64 East meet.
William Mills was a land speculator. He purchased and owned thousands of acres of land throughout today’s Henderson County. He bought the land in Mills River in 1787. But, he had purchased other land as early as 1785, including the land on which he lived.
There is further information on William Mills on this web site at the “History and Heritage Class” icon.
The river was not named for William Mills. It was named and shown on maps prior to the 1780s.
And for clarification purposes, Mills River is not the oldest community in Henderson County. The oldest communities in Henderson County are those east of the Continental Divide. Again, read information at the “History and Heritage Class” icon, and also information with the following communities: Mountain Page, Macedonia, Green River, Dana, Edneyville and other areas east of the Continental Divide.
William Mills sold the land he owned in today’s Mills River community to other early settlers. He also gave some of the land that he owned to a daughter after her marriage. His daughter, Phalby Mills, married David Myers in 1797. Mills gave them land. The couple moved to Richland County, South Carolina, prior to 1820.
A granddaughter of William Mills, Sophia Melinda Lewis, married Phillip Brittain and also received some of the land that Mills had once bought in today’s Mills River community.
The community of Mills River was within Rutherford County prior to the formation of Old Buncombe County in 1791. Therefore, the earliest deeds are found in Rutherford County. Any deeds to land in today’s Mills River filed in the old Burke County were declared null and void.
Andrew Miller and David Miller were also, just as William Mills, land speculators. They purchased land in Mills River as early as 1788, and began selling their large land purchases to early settlers.
Jan. 18, 1788 – Andrew Miller and David Miller enter land on “Milles” River above John Case’s improvement on Clear Creek
Jan. 20, 1788 – Millers sell land to James Madcalf (Metcalf) on “Milles” River and Clear Creek
March 15, 1789 – David Duncan enters land on “Boilston’s Creek, includes a crab orchard about two miles from Boilston’s line.” Another land entry by Duncan was transferred to James Springfield. And, apparently, Boilston (Boyleston) had land in the community prior to 1789.
On June 15, 1791, Lemuel Moore enters the first of hundreds of acres of land on “the north side of Mills River and on a branch that empties into Mills River at the old Indian camp.”
James Metcalf bought more land in the community on July 25, 1791 – James Madcalf (Metcalf) enters land on a “small branch of ‘Milles’ River and includes Morries Medcalf’s improvements.”
By 1794 Revolutionary War veteran James Brittain purchases land in the community.
Feb. 11, 1794 – James Brittain enters land on Foster’s Branch of Mills River.
In the same year John Ireland enters land on Mills River
By 1796, the Kimsey (Kimzey) family enters the community when David Kimsey records a land entry along Mills River.
In 1797, David Russell enters land on McDowell Creek that he purchased from Lemuel Moore.
And by 1798, the Johnson family, including Revolutionary War veterans Noble Johnson and James Johnson, were purchasing large amounts of acreage in the community, along the French Broad River and the Mills River.
In 1800, Ebezerer (Ebenezer) Fain, whose descendants lived in what is today Transylvania County, enters a land entry on the Mills River.
Revolutionary War Veterans
There is one documented Revolutionary War veteran who purchased land, lived in today’s Mills River, and is buried in the community – James Brittain.
The Johnson brothers owned land in Mills River, but their grave sites are in the Horse Shoe community, where they also owned land.
Again, please note that William Mills was a Tory and never lived in the Mills River community.
Jesse Rickman purchased land after 1800 in the Mills River community and he is buried in the Mills River community. But, there are serious issues regarding his Revolutionary War service. He was born in 1770. The Revolutionary War was fought from 1776 to 1781. This makes him age 6 to age 11. He lived in the Wilmington District of North Carolina after the war ended. It has also been proven that he was not the son of Dr. William Rickman, Charles City, Va., director of hospitals for the Continental Army. Dr. William Rickman did not have any children. It is possible that his father, whomever he was, fought in the Revolutionary War. There is a Revolutionary War marker at the Rickman Family Cemetery in Mills River for Jesse Rickman, but the research is flawed.
Cradle of Education
Mills River is often cited as the “Cradle of Education” in Henderson County.
In 1797, James Brittain set aside 10 acres of land for a building to house a school and a church. Visit http://hendersonheritage.com/mills-river-presbyterian-church-and-cemetery/ for the article on the Mills River Presbyterian Church and Cemetery. This is the first and oldest Presbyterian church in Henderson County.
The school used the same building and later was called the Mills River Academy.
From an article recently written by James Brittain in the Mills River town newsletter:
“In March 1829, Phillip Brittain deeded a parcel of land near his home in Mills River to five trustees for use as the site of ‘a meeting house and a school house.’ The tract originally had been part of the home place of Phillip’s father, James Brittain, one of the pioneer settlers in the community. The deed mentioned that the property already contained a school. It is believed to have been a small log structure where classes were taught for local children and community meetings were held.”
“By the early 1830s, the trustees mentioned in Philip’s land deed over saw the construction of a two-story building to replace the existing school. Located near the present Presbyterian Church on School House Road, the new building became known as the Mills River Academy. The second floor was used for classes with the first floor being used for worship services and other community meetings. The Academy operated as a free public school for about three months each year, or longer for students whose parents were willing to pay a fee. The building was used for county court sessions for a time after Henderson County was formed in 1838. A new building was constructed, using locally made brick, in 1859 and was shared by the Academy and the Presbyterian Church until 1905.”
By this time, there were other one-room schools in the Mills River community, including the Holly Springs School, Mountain View and others.
The Mills River School burned in 1921. This was during a period of school consolidation in the county. A new, brick school was built in 1922 and students from throughout the community now attended Mills River School, located near the site of the original log school. This school was an elementary and a high school until 1960 when West Henderson High School was opened. A new elementary school has also been built.
In addition to the first and oldest Presbyterian church in the county, Mills River is also the site of one of the three first Methodist congregations in the county. Visit http://hendersonheritage.com/mills-river-united-methodist-church-and-cemetery/ for an article on the Mills River United Methodist Church and Cemetery.
Mills River also is the site for one of the early Baptist churches in Henderson County. Baptists in the community began meeting in 1835 and organized the Mills River Baptist Church. In 1836, Jesse Rickman gave the land on which the first Mills River Baptist Church was built. This church is located on South Mills River Road in a beautiful, picturesque setting on the Mills River.
During the Civil War, today’s Fanning Chapel United Methodist Church organized.
Prior to 1873, Boyleston Baptist Church formed. It is located on today’s N.C. 280 closer to Transylvania County.
The 1880s saw the formation of Mount Gilead Baptist Church in the Mills River community.
The three cemeteries at Fanning Chapel, Boyleston Baptist and Mount Gilead Baptist contain the grave sites of Civil War veterans, other veterans and historical persons in the history of Henderson County.
During the Civil War a Methodist minister moved to Mills River. He kept a journal and wrote his remembrances. This is now located at Virginia University.
These are excerpts from “From Sunrise to Sunset Reminiscence” by Frank Richardson. Richardson was a Methodist minister and lived in Mills River during the Civil War
“…not only found that I had stopped in a beautiful, fertile valley, where everything conspired to the healthfulness of the body and the mind, but also that it contained an excellent population.
“There were two large country churches, one Presbyterian and one Methodist. There was also a substantial brick academy, in the second story of which was an excellent chapel, in which the Presbyterian Church worshipped. Rev. Jacob Hood was pastor of the Presbyterian Church and also principal of the academy. The two Churches dwelt together in peace and cooperated with each other in movements calculated to improve the intellectual, moral, and religious condition of the community. I have rarely ever seen a community which devoted more time to the cultivation of social amenities, or in which the social life was more intense and enjoyable. It was so completely shut in by the mountain barriers around it — there being no railroads — that, but for the absence of all the younger men, one would scarcely have realized that the country was involved in war.
“I soon realized that the lines had fallen to me in pleasant places. They took me and mine into the inner circle of their best life, and made us just as comfortable and happy as was possible under the circumstances. I lived among them six years, and learned to love them with an intense devotion.
“The image of many of them is stamped upon my heart to this day. There are the Carlins, the Johnsons, the Joneses, the Summeys, the Copelands, the Henrys, the Millers, the Poseys, the Woodfins, the Warnacks, the Graveses, the Gashes, the Brittains, the Kimseys, the Allens, the Fannings, the Ballards, the Burnetts, the Sittons, the Greers, and others, than whom it were difficult to find a nobler people anywhere.”
“I had been there but a short time when I went to the home of Reuben Ballard, a substantial old Methodist farmer, from whom I had been buying supplies for our table; and he surprised me by saying: ‘I understand that you are a preacher.’ I had to confess, and asked him how he knew it.
“He said that our servant girl had told one of Carlin’s servants, who had told him. He then solicited me to make an appointment for preaching at his house, as his wife was afflicted with rheumatism and could not attend church. I told him that if he would gather in a few of his neighbors the next Sunday I would preach for them. He invited me to bring my wife and spend the day with them. It went abroad that a strange preacher from Kentucky would preach at Uncle Reuben Ballard’s on Sunday; and when we reached the place, the lanes were full of horses and buggies, and the house and porch were full of people.”
“It was a very large, rough circuit, lying on both sides of the French Broad and along the slope of the Blue Ridge, reaching from Edneyville to Shuford’s Bridge and embracing all of Henderson and parts of Buncombe and Transylvania Counties. The war had taken away nearly all the able-bodied men, and was drawing from the country part of the substance produced by the women and children. Our people were able to pay but little, and I had to work with my hands for a partial support of my family. But I had a good degree of success in my work, and found religious comfort in sharing with my people the hardships that were upon them and helping them all I could to bear their heavy burdens.”
“As soon as I had sufficient strength to be driven out in a buggy, I sent messengers throughout the circuit to announce a basket meeting at Johnson’s Chapel, a church at Shaw’s Creek Camp Ground, near the middle of the circuit. I engaged J.S. Burnett, a long time member of the Holston Conference but at that time a local preacher, and William Graves, an aged Presbyterian minister, to do the preaching and otherwise assist with the meeting.”
For more information on early cemeteries in the Mills River community, see the stories under Historic Cemeteries at this web site.
Early Post Offices
The first post office was established in the Mills River community in December 1828. It was, for many years, the Mill River Post Office (not Mills). The first postmaster was John Clayton, followed by James Brittain.
In the 1840s, a post office opened in the Boyleston community of the Etowah and Mills River regions.
By the 1870s and 1880s, more small post offices formed in the community, including the Pink Beds, Angeline, Gypsy and Sitton. All of these small neighborhood post offices closed in the early 1900s with the beginning of rural route delivery. Read the book “Postmarks” by Lenoir Ray for more information on the community of Mills River and the early post offices.
Some residents of the community in the most northern sections were also served by a rural route out of Arden in Buncombe County through the 20th century.
Today, there remains a post office named Mills River.
The Mills River Fire Department was organized in the 1960s.
The town of Mills River, incorporated in 2003, does not include all the traditional and historical community.
For additional information on the Mills River community and articles related to the Mills River community, click on the links below.