Warren County's Great Flood of 1902

By Charlien McGlothin, Falcon Rest, for The Southern Standard, April 2002

Warren County, Tenn., saw more than its share of floods in the first months of 2002, but they paled in comparison to the devastation caused by a flood that occurred 100 years before.

The Great Flood of Good Friday 1902 dumped 11 inches of water on the county from 8 p.m. Thursday, March 27, to 8 p.m. Friday, March 28. It claimed five lives and forever altered the face of Warren County’s economy. It is still holds the record for the most rain in a day's time in Tennessee.

 

Water-Driven Mills Pre-eminent

With the abundant supply of water in the area, it is only natural that the main industry during the 1800s was water driven milling. Water provided power for everything from sawmills and grist mills to cotton mills and clothing manufacturing plants. In 1895, according to Walter Womack’s “McMinnville at a Milestone,” there were 32 water driven mills operating in the county.
After the 1902 flood, less than 12 remained.

Among the largest employers, and hardest hit, were four mills established by the Faulkner family, two of them in the Faulkner Springs community just north of McMinnville to which the family gave its name. Asa Faulkner was hailed in his 1886 obituary as the “nestor of all Warren County’s manufacturing interests.” His father Archibald brought six-year-old Asa and the rest of his family to the county in 1808, shortly after it was opened legally for settlement. Archibald built a carding mill at Hickory Creek, which processed raw wool to prepare it for spinning. In 1812, another early settler named Henry Briddleman opened a small cotton factory on Charles Creek in what is now Faulkner Springs and soon took on young Asa as a machinist’s apprentice.

In the 1840s, Asa purchased Briddleman’s property, established the Central Cotton Factory on the site, and built an imposing Federal style home called Falconhurst on the bluff overlooking the mill for his growing family —13 children by 1851!

Asa, who grew up poor himself, envisioned the cotton mill as a means of providing support for poor widows and orphans, but at first he encountered prejudice against people working in factories. Not to be discouraged, he put his own daughters and a son to work in the mill, and it was not long before there was a ready supply of willing laborers convinced that it was an honorable occupation.

In 1861, Asa dammed the Barren Fork River near the present Frank Clement Bridge and established the Woodman Cotton Mill. Union troops burned the mill during the Civil War — ignorant of the fact that Asa was a staunch Union sympathizer — but he and his oldest son W.P. rebuilt it in 1867 with an investment of $100,000, calling it the Annis Cotton Mill in honor of their wife and mother.

Asa’s other sons followed in his manufacturing footsteps as well. T.H. and Clay took over the Central Cotton Factory in the 1870s and renamed it the Tennessee Woolen Mill, then established another factory just up the road called the Mountain City Woolen Mill. They split up few years later, with Thomas and his father-in-law Judge Robert Cantrell retaining the older mill, and Clay devoting his energies to the Mountain City Mill.

Clay inherited his father’s mechanical genius, but he had his own genius for promotion. He manufactured jeans and pants under the label of Gorilla Pants -- “so strong even a gorilla couldn’t tear them apart” -- and boasted, “Gorilla grip; they’ll never rip.” He did quite well indeed, and the “Southern Standard” reported in December 1896 that “The Mountain City Woolen Mill is one of the best equipped and best managed manufacturing plants in the State, and its product of Jeans and Gorilla Pants are growing in popular favor and demand.”

Clay’s success is still in evidence today with the mansion he constructed for his family across the road from the mill. Called “Falcon Rest” by the Faulkners, it is now open to the public for daily tours.

Even in old age, Asa’s plans for expanding industry to employ more widows and orphans continued full force. In the 1880s, he bought the land surrounding the Great Falls of the Caney Fork River at Rock Island, built a bridge across the Collins River there, and planned to erect a giant cotton mill in partnership with Clay and W.P.’s brothers-in-law Jesse and H.L. Walling.

After Asa’s 1886 death, Clay continued the project. He completed construction of the Falls City Cotton Mill in 1892. The building still rests solidly on the bedrock at Rock Island State Park — three stories tall, six bricks thick, with over 23,000 square feet of floor space. The mill was well known for its “heavy sheeting” which Faulkner supplied to the U.S. government for use during the Spanish American War.

But fortunes turned that fateful Good Friday in 1902.

The flood waters rose rapidly, just as they did this past January. The first word of destruction came from the Yeager community, several miles west of the present-day fairgrounds. At around 3 p.m. the waters of Charles Creek swelled to wipe out a dam, mill, store and blacksmith shop there.
M.T. Bass, manager of the Tennessee Woolen Mills, got word in town by telephone of the damage at Yeager, and by the time he reached Faulkner Springs the flood had destroyed $25,000 worth of property at his mill.

At 5 p.m., a call came from Clay Faulkner’s Mountain City Woolen Mill that he and his workers were trapped by the flood waters. Apparently Clay had gone to the mill to try to rescue the workers and got stuck there himself. Several townspeople tried to answer the summons, but the Bybee Branch had become a “roaring torrent” and blocked access by Faulkner Springs Road. The newspaper reported that “Mr. Faulkner and his hands were imprisoned in his mill for hours, the waters driving around it in such mad fury on all sides that it was impossible for them to either escape or for others to reach them.” The water began to fall at dark and they were finally rescued.
Everyone at Faulkner Springs, however, was not so fortunate. Henry Madewell had tried to escape from the Mountain City Woolen Mill building by a rope when the flood waters were at their height, fell into the swirling waters and drowned. Madewell was 28 years old and had been married for just three months.

Mrs. Jennie Blevins and her three daughters, aged 8, 10 and 13, were in their double log house between the two Charles Creek mills when the flood waters demolished the dwelling. It was several days before their bodies were recovered. Madewell and the Blevins family were all buried at the Faulkner Cemetery just above Falconhurst off Pike Hill Road.

Flood waters of the Barren Fork reached the second story of the Annis Cotton Mill, wrecked its office, and destroyed the power house of the McMinnville Electric Light and Water Works which was powered by the Annis Mill dam.

The mill wheel at Rock Island, which was turned by the powerful force of the Great Falls themselves, washed away in the flood waters, as did the Collins River Bridge. Four other county bridges were destroyed as well.

 

Aftermath

The Falls City Mill never reopened, and the majestic building has not been used for anything besides storage to this very day.
Work resumed at the Annis Cotton Mill, but the next year it too closed its doors, the toll of weather, aging machinery, and the high cost or raw cotton (driven up by “stock gamblers, the highwaymen of the 20th century,” according the newspaper) being too great to make it profitable.

Damage to the Mountain City Woolen Mill was not as great, but the flood affected its fate in a different way. When he was clearing debris, Clay Faulkner discovered the source of a manganese spring, a mineral which was thought might cure rheumatism. He had already been peddling “Faulkner Mineral Water” in limestone, freestone, and sulphur varieties, since it “cured” his kidney ailment in 1896. The additional discovery encouraged him to go full-time into the health resort business. By 1908, he had closed the mill, remodeled the building, and opened the Faulkner Springs Hotel, “an ideal health and pleasure resort,” where people came from all over the country to enjoy the country atmosphere and “take the cure.”

Ironically, the Faulkner family mill to stay in business the longest was the one with the shakiest financial history. Just days after T.H. Faulkner’s death in 1889, his partner/father-in-law Cantrell put the business into receivership, the Standard reporting it as “the first business failure of any consequence in the county for many years.” A consortium from Lebanon including M.T. Bass and probably Clay Faulkner took over the business, and Bass managed it into the 1930s. After manufacturing “jeans, linseys, cassimeres and convict stripes” for many years, the Tennessee Woolen Mill began producing blankets exclusively in 1925.

The dominance of water driven milling was over, but fortunately for Warren County, a new industry had been founded in the 1880s by J.H.H. Boyd. The area’s reputation as the “nursery capital of the world” was well on its way to being established with its first large out-of-state shipment around 1900, a million seedlings shipped in a refrigerated railroad car to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

 

For additional information contact
Charlien McGlothin, General Manager
Falcon Rest Mansion

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2645 Faulkner Springs Rd. | McMinnville, TN 37110 | 931-668-4444 | falconrest@falconrest.com