By Patrick Farris
The Front Royal area's water power helped create a milling industry which dovetailed nicely with the increased reliance upon cash-cropping wheat by the late 18th century, and such private enterprises would spawn the need for public improvements to the region's transportation network.
At the bottom of the hill on which the 1790s Buck family home known as Bel Air is located, Happy Creek runs in a steady flow around the bend of the property. By the late 1700s, the creek - really a small river - was turning the water mill of Allen Wiley, a miller and preacher in Front Royal.
From Charles Buck's mill near Limeton, great quantities of flour floated down the Shenandoah to the Potomac River and on to Georgetown, and Bowman's mill on Cedar Creek and McKay's mill on Crooked Run also were active by this period.
Milldale, located northeast of Front Royal across the Shenandoah River, was named for its mills, including the two grist mills operated by the Timberlake family of "Sherwood" and the old "Mt. Zion" mill. On Passage Creek near Waterlick, stood the Wakeman Mill, a five-story frame structure which remained a revered landmark in the county until the 1930s, when its lumber beams, limestone burs, and huge, overshot wheel were all removed to Mount Vernon, and there rebuilt on the foundation ruins of George Washington's Dogue Mill - remember that the next time you take a tour of Mount Vernon!
The next step in the progress of providing locally for increasing travel due to larger population, the growth of industry and the need of added markets was made when the Front Royal and Winchester Turnpike Company erected in 1854-55 two wooden bridges of the usual covered type bridge of that day.
The lower valley by 1850 was one of the most prosperous parts of Virginia, with land values comparatively high. On the western side of the valley especially there existed a lower percentage of slaves and a higher number of freedmen than elsewhere in Virginia. Wheat continued to be the great cash crop followed by hemp. Quantities of corn were raised to feed local livestock.
Illustrating the development of the valley at this time compared to surrounding regions, the following description by one of her sons as he left his place of birth to move west to Kentucky shows the perspective of a valley-raised man when confronted with Southwestern Virginia:
"The river being low, we went by rail via Wheeling to Harpers Ferry and Winchester, Va. We traveled by stage on to Front Royal, the entire trip consuming ten days. We spent a happy summer in the vicinity of Front Royal and by October were ready for our departure for Kentucky by private conveyance, as I wanted to move some servants who begged not to be sold from the family. We also wanted to take some brood mares and a Virginia-made wagon and carriage.
"Finally all was ready and one bright October morning we set out upon our thousand-mile journey. By noon we were at Strasburg and taking the southern end of the Great Valley Turnpike we were at Edinburgh by night. My wife and I went into the hotel while the servants camped near town.
"I had a fine blooded saddle mare (named) "Cricket" with me who, after the first day followed like a dog behind my carriage with saddle on. I would frequently mount her and go ahead to select a camp...buy forage or supplies of any kind. The weather was fine, the roads were good and the scenery was magnificent. With hearts full of hope we proceeded toward our Kentucky home.
"We traveled from 20 to 25 miles a day. After some two weeks on the road we had passed many beautiful towns and places of note such as Natural Bridge. We were now in the rugged mountains of southwest Virginia. The Cumberland Mountains were finally sighted.
"We were headed for the great Cumberland Gap, the only passage for a hundred miles. For many days we were much impeded by droves of cattle and hogs which blocked the narrow gorges. These animals were being driven to the Eastern markets. We laid-in extra supplies and prepared to camp with the servants as the country was rugged and sparsely settled.
"Finally we entered the funnel of the Pass and gradually climbed through the gorges. Soon we met a drove of mules being driven from Ky. to the Eastern states. We met several more droves during the next few days. This was the only break in the isolation which separated us from civilization."
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.