Philemon Bird Operated Mill At Future Eastgate Site

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 - by John Wilson

For many years, today's Brainerd Road was known as Bird's Mill Road. That title referred to Philemon Bird, a "man of considerable wealth'' who had 37 slaves and operated a mill at the old Brainerd Mission in the 1850s and 1860s.

Presbyterian workers in 1817 had established a mission to the Indians at the location now occupied by Eastgate and Brainerd Village shopping centers on South Chickamauga Creek. The mission had a small grist mill that was used for grinding corn. The water to propel "Missionary Mill'' was brought in a race from Spring Creek about a mile away.

After the Indian removal in 1838, one of the mission workers, John Vail, entered a claim for the mission property. Vail, a New Jersey native who arrived at the mission in 1819, was the only one of the Brainerd workers to remain in the wilderness near Ross's Landing when the mission closed. Thomas Crutchfield Sr., who was a brick contractor, also applied for "the Branard place.'' The issue went to a lawsuit, which was settled in 1842 with both holding the property jointly. Vail eventually sold his share to Crutchfield, who in turn sold to Philemon Bird in 1852.

Bird was a Georgia native "of a prominent and wealthy family.'' In addition to the Brainerd property of 720 acres, he had a large plantation in south Alabama. He lived on a large farm in McLemore Cove by Lookout Mountain in Walker County, Ga. This place also had a mill known as Glass's Mill. In addition, Philemon Bird built a mill on West Chickamauga Creek that was known as Bird's Mill. During the Chickamauga Campaign, there was considerable skirmishing around this Bird's Mill.

At Brainerd, Bird directed that the small mission grist mill be replaced by a larger corn, wheat and saw mill. He did away with the old race from Spring Creek and built a dam on South Chickamauga Creek. The wooden two-story mill extended out into the creek.

Sherman Beck recalled spending a long day hauling corn and wheat to Bird's Mill from across the river in North Chattanooga. He said, "We would finally reach the mill about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Old Harry, the miller, who was as black as the ace of spades but had a heart as white as the driven snow, would meet us and help us unload the wagon. We were ‘foreign’ customers and had a preference over the local customers, and it was not long until our turn was beginning to be ground. I would crawl upon the sacks in the mill and a truly tired boy went sound asleep. About 2 o'clock in the morning I was pulled off the sacks and we would start for home. About sun up we got to the top of Missionary Ridge, where we ate our breakfast of hot coffee, bacon and cold biscuits, and about 5 o'clock that afternoon we would reach home. We can make the round trip in an automobile now (1932) in less than two hours. Then it took 40 hours to make the trip.''

Philemon Bird was a bachelor. But he "lived in concubinage'' on his McLemore Cove farm.He was born in 1822 and his companion was Sheila Wicker, a mulatto born in 1831. She was "a free Negro woman, said to be a cross between Cherokee and black.'' They had a son as well as several daughters.

Just before the war, Bird listed $40,000 in personal estate and $50,000 in real estate.

After Sheila Wicker died about 1859, Bird was staying at a boarding house while attending court at Harrison, which was then the county seat. A mulatto slave girl (Mary Gardenhire) belonging to the innkeeper, Susan Gardenhire Hunter, caught his attention, and he offered to buy her. Mrs. Hunter, it was said, shrewedly threw into the bargain the girl's sister (Martha Gardenhire), who was sickly. Mrs. Hunter asked the high price of $1,900, but Bird agreed to pay it. He offered promissory notes that were made out to Mrs. Hunter's brother, George Gardenhire. Bird had a son by his new concubine.

During the Civil War, he fled south. When he returned, he was facing a lawsuit with Susan Hunter who sought payment for the two female slaves. Bird met this suit by pointing out that the females were warranted to be healthy and "slaves for life.'' He noted that Martha Gardenhire had died during the war (in 1863). And he said the mother of the sisters, Ginny Gardenhire, had come forward and produced a paper signed by William Gardenhire in 1838 freeing his slaves. Jenny Gardenhire said she had been afraid to come forward with the document until after the slaves were freed in the war. William Gardenhire was the father of George Gardenhire and Susan Gardenhire Hunter. After his death, his slaves were distributed to his children. The case was "settled very quickly after the answer was filed and the matter was hushed up.''

When Philemon Bird died in 1871, he left all his far-flung property to his two sons by his two concubines. He gave nothing to his daughters by the first concubine or to his sisters. The sisters filed suit, claiming he had not given them a share of proceeds of earnings from family slaves that were hired out. They noted that his will had only two witnesses. This was enough to get the will thrown out in Alabama and Georgia, and the sisters obtained his property there. However, two witnesses sufficed in Tennessee. The half brothers, Samuel H. and George Bird, obtained a $20,000 estate, including the Brainerd property. They ran the mill and farm there, butf ailed in business and lost the property they had inherited. At the time of the 1880 census, Sam and Gus Bird were living at Brainerd with their sister, Mary, and her husband, Lewis E. Guinn, who was a blacksmith. The occupation of Sam Bird was listed as miller. Also living with them was Amos Wicker, a brother of Philemon Bird's first concubine. In the same household was Tom Polk, who married another one of the daughters of Philemon Bird. He was a barber. Mrs. Polk had apparently died. Their daughters were Betty, Irene and Kate. Also living at Brainerd was George W. Wicker, Philemon Bird's son by his first concubine. With George Wicker and his wife, Susan, were Mary, Florence and Samuel.

The legacy of Philemon Bird was further obscured when the name of the road that ran from town across Missionary Ridge to his once thriving farm was changed to Brainerd Road. But stretches remain of the old Bird's Mill Road on the side of Missionary Ridge and in Brainerd Hills.The Bird's Mill property went into a chancery sale, then in 1901 it was transferred for $14,000 to a group led by Hugh D. Huffaker and Willard Springfield. The sale included 725 acres with the mill, dam and buildings. The mill had been rebuilt after it was washed away in the flood of 1886.

In 1980, during construction of the Brainerd Levee, remains of Philemon Bird's old mill were found. His four-foot dam was discovered along with the remnants of three turbines, gears and hand tools. Archaeologist Jeff Brown said at the time that the large, primitive, wood and cast iron turbines were a link between the old traditional Appalachian mill operation and the modern turbine system. The Bird's Mill items were donated by the city of Chattanooga to TVA for public display.

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