Historic grist mill, bottling plant await new owner

rburris@thestate.comNovember 9, 2013 

— The wagon wheel on the table at Senn’s Blacksmith Shop in Summerton looks as if the wheelwright stepped away for lunch and would be right back.

Actually, the more than 100-year-old blacksmith shop last operated in 1940. The old grist mill next door operated until 1999, the year before the complex, which also includes a circa 1921 bottling plant, went in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

The historic Senn Blacksmith Shop, grist mill and bottling plant – at 3 Cantey St. in Summterton – have been donated by the owners to The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and the group is actively marketing the property with an eye toward preservation, active operation and opening the buildings up for tours.

John G. Senn was blacksmith at the shop until he was 89 years old, at which time he finally shut the doors, two years before his death in 1942.

The shop hasn’t been used since and appears barely disturbed, though its owners did replace a tin roof that blew off during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

“Our goal here is to try to have this as a cultural heritage site for the community, and to be used,” said Michael Bedenbaugh, The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation’s executive director.

“What we were hoping somebody could do is come in and tap into the history here and help bring forward that legitimacy that we think would help any future business endeavors here – both in the town and at the shop site,” Bedenbaugh said.

Located within the Summerton town limits, the blacksmith shop – opened by Senn in 1903 – the circa 1905 grist mill and the bottling plant property is being marketed for $20,000, Bedenbaugh said.

A couple of blocks away, a three-bedroom house once lived in and owned by members of the Senn family, also has been donated for preservation and is for sale for $25,000.

“It’s just a case of finding the right personality who is willing to come down here and make use of it,” Bedenbaugh said.

The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting endangered historic places in the state via preservation development.

Proceeds from the sale of the Senn properties will go toward preservation projects across the state, officials said.

Established in 1990, the trust has been involved in historic property preservation projects across South Carolina, from ongoing efforts to save Gullah cottages on Daufuskie Island to renovation of a plantation house in Eastover, where the organization has combined forces with the Richland County Conservation Commission, to numerous other preservation efforts in the Upstate.

Recently, the trust put together the purchase in Darlington County of a store built in 1815 in Society Hill.

Members of the trust first met Senn family members about three years ago, Bedenbaugh said, leading to the property donations.

“I was amazed,” Bedenbaugh said of his first encounter with the Senn commercial property. “This is a remarkable place where you can still feel the presence of the past blacksmith,” Bedenbaugh said. “It’s nice and black from years and years of people sitting here (doing the duties of the village smithy).”

“The thing that’s so bizarre is he’s still got this heavy wagon wheel sitting here, ready to be finished working on,” Bedenbaugh said. “Beyond a little clean up, you could easily feel the blacksmith sitting there working, and (you) standing behind the rope, hearing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and wanting to buy something to hang your bird feeders off.”

Small, individually-owned businesses like the blacksmith shop, grist mill and bottling plant once were vital elements of a sustainable community, the preservationist noted, and emblematic of a time when people “made do with what they had.”

While grist mills of the past were essential parts of farming communities, they also are making something of a comeback in today’s local land/local food movement, Bedenbaugh noted.

Consumers increasingly are more inquisitive and concerned about where their food comes from and how it is grown.

Local farmers markets and the underlying farm economies that support them are enjoying renewed significance, experts say.

The Senn grist mill was a place where locals came and purchased their corn meal and grits as late as 1990, Bedenbaugh said, making it likely one of the last such mills of its kind to operate in the country. “This isn’t the romantic, water-wheel old mills that the Boykins have done such a good job of saving up in Boykin,” Bedenbaugh said. “But this was a common fixture in every small town – in every town all over the state – a guy that made the sustenance for people to come and buy right here in town.”

Small communities across South Carolina are failing, Bedenbaugh said, because local money leaves the town, rather than staying, being saved and turning over for better local futures.

“There is a movement of that afoot again, so when this opportunity came up, the Palmetto Trust just had to jump on it for something more than just the building, but the use, which is kind of a new thing,” Bedenbaugh said.

“Usually we don’t really concern with what use it is, as long as they’re being used,” Bedenbaugh said. “This breaks from our normal pattern: we want to focus on use with this.”

The bottling plant would make an excellent location for a town store, for instance, Bedenbaugh asserted, operating alongside the blacksmith shop and grist mill.

Summerton and Clarendon County are nationally known for being the birthplace of the historic and racially charged Briggs v. Elliott school desegregation case filed in 1950, in which blacks, assisted by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, sued the county over woefully unequal educational opportunities. The case was later folded into the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down public school segregation across the country.

Bedenbaugh said Summerton also is known for its proximity to Lake Marion and a busy Interstate 95, which he said could figure the sleepy town into new commerce built up around a network of suppliers and buyers who make new use of the Senn commercial properties.

Jenny Senn Blackmon is a daughter of the late Walter B. Senn Jr., who ran the grist mill for almost 50 years – the last of the Senn family members to do the family business.

The youngest of three sisters, Blackmon collaborated with her siblings after their mother’s recent death in deciding to donate the Senn commercial and residential properties to The Palmetto Trust.

“My mother always hated this (dilemma),” Blackmon said. “She didn’t want to tear it (the family house) down, but we didn’t know whether to put money in to it to fix it up.

“And we didn’t want to sell the mill to someone that was going to dismantle it (for the vintage equipment and furnishings) or tear it down or mow it over and put it in a garbage pile, because it’s a lot of history there.

“It was a community history of the mill and all the people that came there and worked there and traded there,” Blackmon said.

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