When Judson Manly and Billie Prater walked onto the grounds of Prater’s Mill last week, you could almost feel the history in the air.
That’s not surprising since these two longtime Whitfield County residents are direct descendants of the men originally responsible for the construction and operation of the 160-year-old landmark.
Judson's great-great grandfather was John Pitner, who joined forces with his son-in-law, Ben Prater, to build Prater’s Mill in 1855. Billie, meanwhile, is a descendant of Charles Prater, a Cherokee Indian boy whose parents chose to stay legally in Georgia by voluntarily becoming slaves of Pitner.
The two families became connected in 1852 when Ben Prater married John Pitner’s daughter, Amanda, and Charles Prater married Rebecca, an African slave of Ben and Amanda Prater. According to family stories, after the Civil War, Charles and Rebecca chose Prater as their surname at the request of Ben and Amanda Prater. The Charles Prater family settled nearby at Stockburger’s Crossing, a railroad crossing between Varnell and Cohutta, where they farmed their own land.
Ben eventually worked as a miller with a man named Joel Barrett, who had a small mill on Coahulla Creek and could not afford to build the larger mill he wanted. Ben and John Pitner worked out a deal to build the mill for Barrett, who agreed for Ben to be assured of a job and Barrett would pay off the mortgage. The mill was completed in the summer of 1855, just a few months before Pitner died in December.
Pitner’s will left major provisions for his wife, with the remainder of the property divided equally between his son, T.H. Pitner, and son-in-law, Ben Prater. Ben eventually bought out T.H. Pitner’s interest in the mill and became sole owner in 1861; he and his son Bill then operated the Prater Mill complex (which eventually consisted of the mill, store, warehouse, cotton gin, blacksmith shop, and houses) for a total of 86 years until Bill’s death in 1941. Judson Manly’s connection to the mill comes from his grandfather, Frank Manly, who married T.H. Pitner’s daughter, Maggie, in 1892.
Judson Manly, 86, and Billie Prater, 84, were at Prater’s Mill on Thursday to witness the signing of a proclamation by Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Vice-Chair Harold Brooker declaring the mill a Legacy of Whitfield County Tradition and declaring the second week of October, Oct. 5-11, Prater’s Mill Week.
Manly’s son, Mike, and Prater’s daughter, Teresa Prater Burse, were also at the ceremony, where they stopped to take a look at one of the three metal frames manufactured by Manly Steel that will house interpretive signs telling about the history of the mill. Visitors can use their cell phones any time to scan a code on the signs to bring up a video, allowing them to learn more about the mill even when no tour guides are present. After posing for photos, Mr. Brooker quickly scanned the sign with his phone, and up popped a video relating the history of the mill.
The Manlys, who have operated Manly Jail Works (now known as Manly Steel since most jails have done away with metal bars) since 1888, also donated several large laminated posters about the history of their company, including one that describes the Manly Portable Convict Car produced locally from 1907 to 1932 to serve as an “economical, safe, and humane housing of convicts at night on public road work.”
Judson says his grandfather, Frank Manly, didn’t originate the idea of a portable jail but “he improved what was available then.”
“The idea was to drive the jail to the work site and park it and leave it and let the prisoners live in it at night,” he said, noting that the company produced more than 300 units that would hold either 12 or 18 inmates. Several have been restored and are on display around the country, including St. Augustine, Fla., and Cobb County.
Judson chuckled as he showed the posters to Billie and Teresa, telling them another story about his grandfather, shown in one of the photos with a dog at his feet.
“This was in the ’30s,” Judson said. “My grandfather used to take his dog to work with him every morning out on Glenwood. In the middle of the afternoon, he’d take the dog and walk down to a butcher shop, give the butcher a nickel, and he’d put meat scraps and bones in a paper bag and fold the top and hand it to the dog. The dog would grab it and they’d walk back to the plant together. He’d spend the rest of the afternoon eating his daily meal.”
One day, his grandfather was too busy to go see the butcher, Judson continued, but the dog kept whining for something to eat.
“Grandfather finally put a nickel in a bag and handed it to the dog,” Judson said. “The dog took off to the butcher shop, came back with his purchase, and he did his own shopping from then on!”
Judson and Mike also took a few minutes Thursday to look at a heavy metal door saved from the old Whitfield County Jail and produced by their company that will be on display during this weekend’s Country Fair.
A working grist mill, entertainment, Southern foods, canoeing, pony rides, and more than 200 exhibits are at the fair, which will be open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults, free for children 12 and under. Parking is free. The mill is located at 5845 Ga. Hwy. 2, Dalton. Take I-75 to Tunnel Hill-Varnell Exit 341. GPS 34 53.7139N – 84 55.1606 W.
Whitfield County, Georgia
Declaring Prater’s Mill Heritage Site a Legacy of Whitfield County Tradition and declaring the second week in October as Prater’s Mill Week.
WHEREAS, Historic Prater’s Mill was constructed in 1855 and served the citizens of Whitfield County, Georgia as a commercial wheat and corn grinding mill until 1969, and
WHEREAS, the mill was adopted by the Prater’s Mill Foundation in 1971 to be preserved as a historic landmark and recognized as such by the National Register of Historic Places; and
WHEREAS, Prater’s Mill Heritage Site and the cultural programs it inspires serve the community by illuminating the historical and contemporary cultural heritage, traditions, and folk life of the diverse community it represents; and
WHEREAS, it has been recognized as a Local Legacy of American Tradition by the Library of Congress; and a Legacy of Georgia Tradition by the state General Assembly; and
WHEREAS, the annual Prater’s Mill Country Fairs have been recognized as among the finest in the nation; and
WHEREAS, it is only proper to celebrate the contributions of Prater’s Mill to Whitfield County and the extraordinary contributions to our lives that this historic mill and the programs it has inspired by dedicating it a Legacy of Whitfield County Tradition.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE WHITFIELD COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS that Prater’s Mill Heritage Site is declared to be a Legacy of Whitfield County Tradition.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the County Clerk of Whitfield County is authorized and directed to transmit an appropriate copy of this resolution to public and press.
BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS OF WHITFIELD COUNTY
Read and Adopted
September 14, 2015
Marcelle White, official Whitfield County historian, offers this brief appreciation of Prater’s Mill:
“I was raised in the vicinity of Prater’s Mill, and Prater’s Mill was and is dear to my heart. We children would stop by and talk to the millers who’d come out on the porch. Most of the time they’d tease us.
“Prater’s Mill is important to all of my family. I would like for my grandson, Jacob Hixenbaugh, to pass his love of Prater’s Mill on to his grandson.”