Francis Richard Mill and Mill Pond

Written by Cleve Powell
Originally published in the September 2006 OAI Newsletter

Having grown up on what is now Tree Hill, one of my earlier memories was my family telling me that during the Civil War the man that owned our property back then (John Sammis) buried a pot of gold under a big oak tree behind our house. This was passed down by a black lady who I believe was “Aunt” Laura McQueen ca. 1914. She was supposed to have been a young girl during that time and said that Tree Hill was an island, and was farmed. When the war started, he put his gold in an iron pot and had two of his strongest workers blindfolded and he rowed then to the island where they carried the pot up the hill blindfolded. He took off the blindfolds and they dug a deep hole and buried the pot. He then blindfolded them again and walked them in circles back to the boat. This island was created by a dam at the junction of Red Bay and Strawberry Creeks for operation of a mill.

Shortly after hearing that story, ca. 1945, I was fishing off the old wooden bridge on Arlington Road over Strawberry Creek and (besides seeing some huge alligator gar fish) I saw what I remember as some large wheels nearly buried in the bottom of the creek east of the bridge. One of them had cogs and one was smooth as I remember. My mother told me they were part of the old grist mill that was there during plantation days. She also told me that Strawberry Creek was named after the plantation and that they had fields of strawberries and other crops planted on the low land by the mill pond.

Francis Richard and his wife Donna Bianne owned a sugar cane plantation on the Island of Hispaniola. Francis was from Italy and his wife was from St Marc, Santo Domingo (her parents were from France). They were warned of a slave rebellion by their workers, and left the island on Richards’s schooner with their four children along with many of his workers. They arrived in Florida during the second Spanish period and settled on the East Bank of the St. Johns River ca. 1795 after a brief stay in Cowford. In all, Richard was granted some 30,000 acres in northeast Florida of which some 16,000 were located in or contiguous to the Arlington area. He got several grants along the east shore of the river from Chaseville Point south to his 600 acre grant in the Clifton area, which he called Strawberry Hill. One of his sons, John William Richard was granted 250 acres in 1803 south of Strawberry Creek and generally bounded on the west by Silversmith Creek and what is now Arlington Road on the east, running south crossing what is now Atlantic Boulevard. I believe his plantation was called Oakwood.

In 1817 another of his sons, Francis Richard II applied for a special 250 acre grant, which would allow the family to place a dam across Strawberry Creek at the intersection of Red Bay Branch, which came in from the north. The area was described as Red Bay Hammock. A survey was finished in 1819, which was the year that Francis Richard Senior died in Georgia. The dam was believed to be operational ca. 1820 and can be recognized today as the berm for Arlington Road where it approaches the bridge across Strawberry Creek. The dam was designed to have 12′ of head at the dam at mean low water (1868 deed), and impounded a lake with two prongs. One ran north along Red Bay Branch and the other east along Strawberry (Mill) Creek. Together they flooded about 150 acres of land.

Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821, which was also the year that Donna Richard died and left her last will and testament, recorded in Camden County, Georgia. Her oldest son, John William had died in 1810, and she left part of her estate to his children, the Strawberry Hill Plantation to her youngest son John (who was christened in SaintXAugustine), and the mill operation apparently to Francis II. When the “amity treaty” with Spain was passed, it provided for the Spanish grants to be retained if they were in use. It forced Francis II into court proceedings to establish his 16,000 acre holdings associated with the mill. In 1822, Francis II took out a mortgage with Antonia Alvarez, giving among the lands his 250 acre grant described as “Boggy at Red Bay” and included a sawmill, cotton gin and grist mill houses. In 1924 a survey was finished to be attached to his claim, which showed all the improvements. Title was granted by Congress in the 1830s.

At this point I would like to digress from the usual history and try to imagine the thought that it took to set up this mill. First Richard had to establish the need and scope of such an endeavor. It is possible that his family used a water powered mill in Santo Domingo to process their cane so a cane mill was one consideration. It was evident that The Arlington area provided a great resource of timber: Live Oak used for ship building and cedar, pine and cypress also used for ship building and for homes and farming so a saw mill was needed. Also Sea Island cotton was already raised in the area by the Kingsley’s and others, so a cotton gin was a possibility. The need for a grist mill was evident as corn grown in the area and perhaps other grains could be ground into meal to feed the plantation workers, and for profit.

The first order of business was to establish a site for the mill that would provide sufficient water power and access both by land and water to bring in the raw materials, and disburse the finished goods. The intersection of Strawberry Creek and Red Bay Branch was chosen as there is a natural bluff on the south bank and clay on the north bank that would be helpful in the creation of an impervious core for the earthen dam. Also Strawberry Creek could be channelized out to Pottsburg Creek to float in logs for the mill, and barge out finished goods. I imagine that material for the construction of the mill was ordered from the US, possibly Savannah. The 16,000 acres provided for timber land for the saw mill would be divided as 14,400 acres running from the current location of Terry Parker south past Beach Boulevard and west to Little Pottsburg and beyond in places, and a grant known as Cedar Swamp for 2,600 acres, an area east of what is now Craig Airport. It is believed that what is now Lone Star Road is located on the haul route from Cedar Swamp to the mill crossing Red Bay Branch at the head of the mill pond. What is now Century Boulevard is another road that would have crossed Mill Creek at the head of the pond. What is now Arlington Road would have tied into Lone Star, which continued west to a dock near Jones College.

Imagine the physical effort to do all this. Cutting logs with crosscut saws and axes, and dragging them with oxen, and digging the channel with shovels and moving the earth with drag buckets pulled by mules or oxen. Building the cribs for the water wheel as well as building the 16′ +/- wheel itself. I imagine all the timber that would be in the pool was cut into logs before the dam was closed and then floated to the mill as the water rose. Proof of the mill’s productivity comes from a letter written from Francis Richard to John Sammis, who was to became the operator of the mill, and after Francis Richard II’s death, the owner. The letter is dated 1837 from Strawberry Mills and outlines operation of the mill. Some of the highlights are: He gave his workers a peck of corn a week after it is ground, as well as six logs per day. He also, at his whim, gave them beef when he butchered, and salt fish. First quality timber sold for $20 per M (thousand) and $15 on down. The price for gin cotton was from $3 to $5 per hundred pounds; corn cost $1 per bushel.

After Richard II’s death June 30, 1840, his will provided for the sale of his estate, and on 12-1-1840, Robert Bigelow gave an executor’s deed to John Sammis for 5,500 acres, which took in what is now Clifton, all of Arlington Heights and Alderman Park and Oakwood Villas as well as the mill and its components. It is believed that Sammis successfully ran the mill up to the Civil War in 1861. He had put it up for sale in 1860 stating that it was a mill, with cotton gin and sugar mill. Sammis was a plantation owner with slaves but was a supporter of the Union and left Florida during the Civil War deeding his land to a friend to keep it from being confiscated by the confederacy. After the war, he sold the land but it appears that the new owner didn’t finish paying and it was recovered by a Sheriff’s deed and at least part of the land was sold to the Ocean Grove Association in 1873, which became Arlington Bluff, and now is known as Clifton.

The mill pond remained impounded until the dam failed during a period of heavy rain due to lack of proper operation of the flood gates (Arlington history of 1924). This could have been as late as 1886 at which time a deed referred to the mill pond (an 1889 deed referred to the former mill pond).

Imagine the wealth of fish and wildlife that the pond provided, as well as a place for swimming and recreation, and what it would be like if it was still in place today (an industry not dependent on foreign oil and pollution free and a great recreational facility). Also to give you a perspective, if you drove down the Arlington Expressway, the water level of Red Bay Branch would be up to the top of the pavement. Tree Hill might be Tree Hill Island preserve, and as you drive south on Arlington Road past Christ the King Church, you would see a lake to the east and the big waterwheel slowly turning! Imagine!