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Story of the Billy Booth Mill

The Billy Booth mill on Lower Devil's Creek


Sometime in the mid-1800’s, William Booth, Jr., built a mill on the banks of Lower Devil’s Creek in Wolfe County. According to tradition, Billy built the mill solely by hand from a diagram found only in his head. During construction, a problem was encountered over the making of a critical part. Billy thought and thought about a solution to no avail. After eating lunch one day, Billy stretched out upon his yard under a shade tree. It was during a peaceful nap that a vision of the needed part appeared. After waking, he promptly ran down the path to his mill on the creek and fashioned the part exactly as seen in his dream. With the fix, the mill was soon operating.

The original mill was of the “overshot” variety, having a trough carrying water that poured over the top of the wheel. Wood from the heavily forested area was used as the primary building material. The gears that turned the huge millstones were even made of wooden pegs fitted into wheels, also made of wood.

Being the only mill in the immediate area, the local residents brought their corn to be ground into meal, and their wheat to be ground into flour. Billy, as other millers of the day and age, charged a “toll” for his services. This meant that a certain portion of each bushel of ground wheat or corn went to Billy as payment. Cash was scarce during this time, so bartering was the most common form of transaction.

It was not long before the mill became the meeting place of the entire community. With increasing settlement of the area, the talk around the mill turned to the subject of spirituality. Billy Booth, along with John D. Spencer and Joseph McPherson, recognized the need and founded the Free Will Baptist Church. During the first meeting, officers of the church were elected. John D. Spencer and John Collier were appointed as ministers with Billy Booth as moderator.

About 1855, several church members petitioned for the organization of a branch Baptist church to be built on Lower Devil’s Creek near the Billy Booth mill. The church was built and became known as the Spencer Church. John Collier was appointed pastor with John D. Spencer preaching a portion of the time. Billy Booth was the moderator.

During the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, public criticism grew regarding the Masonic order. It was only a short time before the congregation brought the subject of lodge membership to the church. John Collier was totally opposed to any type of membership in a secret order, especially the Masonic order. John D. Spencer, on the other hand, was an active Masonic member and defended his membership.

One Sunday the matter came to a head when John Collier preached a heated sermon. In a Baptist fervor, Collier stated that the Masons were bound for a hotter climate and predicted that two members would soon die with their boots on. A portion of the congregation was enraged by Collier’s words, but others agreed with his beliefs. It was quickly suggested that the church should divide according to those beliefs. Spencer stood at the front of one aisle and Collier another. The church members chose the minister of their choice, and the split was almost half and half.

Shortly after the church divided, death came to two Masons in Wolfe County. Nathan Hollon and William L. Byrd, both Masonic members, were in Campton one day when a terrible storm approached the town. Heavy rains were accompanied by severe lightening and thunder. The two men ran for shelter and started ringing a bell. Lightening struck their building, and a portion ran down the bell rope, killing both men.

Also soon after the division, John Collier preached a fiery sermon on the evils of alcohol consumption and drunkeness. Just days later, the infamous June Tide struck the area bringing torrential rains that flooded the entire area. Many of the whiskey establishments were destroyed, along with the churches on Lower Devil’s Creek. During the same June Tide, on 26 June 1882, the mill built by Billy Booth was washed away. This became known as the June Tide that John Collier prayed down.

A rebuilding of the community began as soon as the water receded. The residents paid special attention to their recent lesson in nature and built their churches on the ridges above the flood plain. Neighbors pitched in and helped Billy Booth rebuild his mill. It is unknown when Billy’s second mill ceased operation but the structure remained until the turn of the century. Billy passed away on 10 Jan 1908 and was buried on a hill near his home.

The only remaining remnants of the Billy Booth mill are three huge, notched timbers laying wedged in the waters of Lower Devil’s Creek. The sounds of the turning water wheel and giant mill stones are now replaced by the trinkling of the water as it passes through the notches of the largest remaining log.

The above article is based upon the writings of the late Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Booth and Nevyle Shackelford. These three individuals have done much to preserve the rich history of Kentucky and Wolfe County.

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E-mail me at: hbooth@mrtc.com