This has been an unusual year for St. John Mill. For the first time in over two centuries the mill is not open for business. In 2011 owner Ron and Betty Dawson decided that it was time to close the doors on the longest continually operating family business in Tennessee.
“The mill has been an active part of the community for 234 years,” says Ron. More important than making money, it is the Dawson-St. John family’s prerogative to make a difference in people’s lives. Feedback from the community is necessary for this to happen, Betty and Ron agree. “We want to hear from you—how can this historic facet of the community be viable and meet the needs that are out there?”
The Dawsons are active at Munsey Memorial United Methodist church in Johnson City. “When a door closes, God opens a window,” they remind us. And even through the doors of the business are closed today, there are new future possibilities for St. John Mill.
When it was constructed in 1778, the large stone waterwheel ground corn and wheat for the surrounding settlements. Builder Jeremiah Dungan, a Pennsylvania Dutch stone mason, had moved south to start a new life next to his brother-in-law’s retired fort on the Watauga River. The mill and the Stone House, both of which are on the National Historic Register of Landmarks, were constructed from the fort’s stone foundation. With each succeeding generation the business and farmstead expanded. In the 1880’s, George Washington St. John, the great nephew of Jeremiah Dungan, became the first St. John to operate the enterprise. Betty Dawson’s father, George St. John was the one to modernize and re-energize (literally) production after several hard years during the Great Depression and World War II, when he connected electricity to the mill in 1935.
Ron and Betty took over ownership in 1975. They continued to grind custom mixed grains and sell farm supply and locally made goods. The barn remains a popular stop on the Quilt Trail as the cheerily painted “Dutch Boy and Girl” mural, honoring Dungan’s heritage, greets passer-bys from Watauga Road.
“My father worked at the mill until well into his 90’s,” says Betty. “For all his life he embraced the changes as they came his way.” St. John Mill has paid taxes to four governments—the Watauga Association, North Carolina, the State of Franklin, and Tennessee—and weathered many changes. Despite the mill’s competitive prices and service and top-notch non-GMO grains, changing consumer patterns and the rise of corn ethanol, necessitated that the business once again change with the times.
Under Ron and Betty, St. John Mill will continue to support the causes that have always been dear to them: supporting the strong tradition of east Tennessee arts and culture, teaching about the rich local history, and strengthening community leadership and education. “We want to continue to play an active and positive role for our neighbors and the larger region,” they say.
With Ron now serving as a member of the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council, which coordinates the Quilt Trail projects and the LocalGoods.org business directory, more and more community leaders are hearing their story and helping them brainstorm a new chapter of that story.
You are invited to share your memories of St. John Mill and your thoughts for a new era. Respond to this post, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on Facebook (the Quilt Trail). And stay tuned for the responses that we receive…