Tale Of John Grigsby's
Mill Stones In Breathitt County
Granddaughter Tells How The Old Mill Stones
Became Part Of Her Home Located At "The Knob" At Lost
Carol Fields Shepherd - 2005
the 1960s and 1970s a large formal photograph of John Grigsby
and his wife, Polly "Pop" Campbell Grigsby, my great-grandparents,
had a place of honor on the dining room wall of the farmhouse
where I grew up at Lost Creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky.
That same photograph now graces my own dining room wall, in a
log house built on the tract of land that John Grigsby referred
to as The Knob. I learned at an early age that John and Pop were
the parents of my paternal grandmother Sallie Grigsby Fields
and that they had left the farm to Grandma Sallie and her husband,
my grandpa, Henry "Sugarfoot" Fields. My father, Quentin,
was the youngest child of Henry and Sallie and heir to their
property. Since 1954 my father and mother, Flossie Noble Fields,
had made their home with my Fields grandparents in order to assist
them with the maintenance of the farm. I joined the household
on August 17, 1957, and spent my first 13 years in the house
that Grandpa Sug built in the 1930s to replace the original two-story
Grigsby house. John and Pop were both buried in the cemetery
on the property, and Grandma Sallie placed her prized peonies
on their graves every Memorial Day, or "Decoration Day,"
as we mountain folk call it.
I grew up knowing a great deal about John Grigsby, as his memory
was kept alive by my grandparents and father. My elders told
me that I would someday inherit his farm, the cemetery where
he was buried, and even his photograph that hung on the dining
room wall. What they didn't tell me, because they could in no
way imagine that such a thing could happen, was that I would
also come into the possession of John Grigsby's mill stones.
John's mill stones have long held significant status in the Grigsby
family, because they are the stones of one of the first grist
mills in Breathitt County. Those stones are the basis of the
tale that I shall now relate.
treasured old photograph of John Grigsby and his wife, Polly
"Pop" Campbell Grigsby graces the dining room wall
of their great-granddaughter's (Carol Fields Shepherd) log home
at Lost Creek, Breathitt County, Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of
Carol Fields Shepherd.)
Tale Of The Stones
My great-grandfather, John, was born February 19, 1850, near
what is now the community of Ned, in Breathitt County, Kentucky,
to Samuel Grigsby and Eliza Napier Grigsby. He married Polly
"Pop" Campbell, daughter of John "Blackbeard"
Campbell and Sarah Lewis Campbell of the nearby Perry County
community of Ten Mile in 1872. John was an industrious man, who
earned money from the sale of livestock and corn. John had long
been keenly aware of the need for a grist mill, which could serve
not only his family, but also those of the surrounding communities.
Sometime around the turn of the 20th century John decided to
construct and operate one himself in the waters of Lost Creek,
which ran by his Ned home.
James Clell Neace, in his book George Washington Noble, mentions
the well-known account of John Grigsby venturing to Virginia
to obtain a pair of mill stones. Mr. Neace undoubtedly heard
the tale from his own elders, who had resided in the area at
the same time as my great-grandfather. That story is still familiar
to many Grigsbys of Breathitt County origin today. John had heard
of a man from the Black Mountain area of Virginia, not far from
the Virginia-Kentucky border, who made and sold fine mill stones.
John's ancestors came to Kentucky from the Shenandoah Valley
region of Virginia, so perhaps some of his older relatives gave
this information to him. According to my father, John mailed
$50 (of the $100 total cost) to the Virginian, as the required
deposit for a pair of mill stones of his specification. John
then spent several weeks constructing the wooden building, which
became known as John Grigsby's Mill.
John's mode of transportation to Virginia was one of his oxen.
James Clell Neace, in his aforementioned work, describes John
as he headed to Virginia mounted on his steer "with his
short legs sticking almost straight out." I can imagine
that John's neighbors were greatly amused at such a sight. When
he reached his destination John found the stones to his liking
and paid the Virginian the remaining $50. John's steer pulled
the mill stones, with a wooden pole serving as an axle, along
the rough paths back to Ned, Kentucky. Since the draft animal
was burdened enough with the weight of the stones John walked
the entire distance back home. The round trip, naturally, took
many days and John was disappointed that one of the stones was
damaged by a run-in with a boulder along the way. Luckily, the
mishap in no way affected the stone's grinding capabilities and
soon scores of local residents were paying John to grind their
corn at his new mill.
John Grigsby's Mill was open for business every day, except the
Sabbath. I do know of at least one incident, though, which prompted
him to close the mill for at least part of one working day. One
summer afternoon in the late 1960s I was eavesdropping on a conversation
(a favorite pastime of mountain young'uns) between Grandpa "Sug"
Fields and one of my maternal great-grandfathers, Willie Campbell,
a native of Leatherwood in Breathitt County, who was well over
90 years old. Great-Grandpa Willie stated that he remembered
taking corn to the mill one Saturday in 1907 to find the place
closed. John appeared from his house and told Willie that he
couldn't do any grinding at present. "We're having a wedding
here today, Mr. Campbell. My youngest daughter Sallie is marrying
young Henry Fields from Avawam in Perry County," John informed
him. Then, with customary mountain hospitality, John invited
Willie to join them. "Come on in and eat dinner (as some
in the mountains still call the noon meal) and help us celebrate.
I'll grind your corn when we get through with the merry-making."
Of course, neither John nor Willie knew at the time that two
of their future grandchildren would one day wed. In 1953 John's
grandson, Quentin Fields (a result of the union celebrated that
day in 1907), married Flossie Noble, daughter of Willie Campbell's
eldest daughter, Cora, and her husband, Seldon "Ted"
Noble. I am here as a further result; Quentin and Flossie's only
child and a great-granddaughter of both John Grigsby and Willie
John ran the mill with his usual regularity until the mid-1920s,
when he moved from this home at Ned and relocated near the mouth
of Lost Creek, at the community bearing the same name. John's
younger brother, Samuel, who owned a farm at Lost Creek, was
a colorful character known throughout the area as "Bogie
Hog" Grigsby. Sometime in the mid-1920s the two brothers
mutually agreed to "swap places." John and Pop, who
felt that they were getting too old to continue with the mill
business or to keep house on their own, asked their daughter,
Sallie, and son-in-law, Henry, to sell their farm at Avawam and
share their new home at Lost Creek. Attracted by the convenience
of the nearby Riverside Institute as a place for their children
to get high school educations, my grandparents agreed to the
arrangement. (Note: Riverside Institute, now known as Riverside
Christian School, has been in operation since 1905. Its centennial
celebration was held in September of this year.) Thus, the former
"Bogie Hog" Grigsby Farm became the John Grigsby Farm,
and it has been home to four generations of my direct family
line for almost 80 years.
John missed operating his mill but was pleased that his brother
kept it open on a fairly regular basis. Samuel Grigsby closed
the mill for several days in 1929 due to two sad events in the
Grigsby family. John's wife, Pop, died of stomach cancer in late
August and in mid-October John Grigsby was the victim of a tragic
accident. My great-grandfather died October 16, 1929, after being
struck by a train at Butterfly in Perry County. Saddened by the
recent loss of his wife, John thought that he could boost his
spirit by visiting friends and relatives in Perry County. On
the morning of October 15th John boarded a train at nearby Haddix,
in order to attend the birthday celebration of 100-year-old Irving
Eversole, a former traveling minister whom John knew and respected
who lived at Typo. Grandfather Fields took John in his wagon
to meet the train. Before boarding the train John turned to his
son-in-law and said, "Henry, if I don't make it back, the
mule is yours." Grandpa Sug told me that he was somewhat
disturbed by those strange words of parting, as the train slowly
headed for Perry County. Although he didn't realize it at the
time, my grandfather would remember those words for the rest
of his life.
After attending the centennial birthday event at Typo, John spent
the night of October 15th at the home of Judge J. G. Campbell,
the brother of his late wife, Pop, at the nearby community of
Butterfly. Just before 8:00 on the morning of October 16th, John
was waiting at the railroad tracks for the number four train,
which would transport him home. He was counting his money, when
suddenly he saw the train approaching and realized that he was
on the wrong side of the track to board the passenger car. The
train had nearly stopped and John thought that he had adequate
time to cross to the correct side; sadly, he did not. The train
struck my great-grandfather as he made his way across the track,
and he died instantly. Grandma Sallie saved a newspaper account
describing the accident, and I now have that faded clipping in
my family mementoes.
Fields Shepherd and Elizabeth Ann Roberts Davis sit on the hearth
where the old mill stones belonging to Carol's great-grandfather,
John Grigsby, were placed when the Shepherd's log home was constructed
at The Knob in the Lost Creek Community of Breathitt County,
(Photo courtesy of Carol Shepherd.)
Campbell quickly received word that his brother-in-law was dead
and acquired the phone number of Riverside Institute, the only
Lost Creek establishment equipped with phone service in 1929.
Judge Campbell telephoned Reverend George Drushal, headmaster
at Riverside, requesting him to report the details of John Grigsby's
fatal accident to his family. John's granddaughter, Thelma Grigsby
Watts, a 12-year-old student at the school, was given the sad
task of relaying the message to my grandparents. Thelma, who
had lived at the Grigsby-Fields household, since the deaths of
her parents in a house fire in the mid-1920s, recalled the misery
of that short walk from the school to her home. "I cried
from the time I left the school. Grandma Pop had died less than
two months earlier. I didn't know how I could bear to tell Aunt
Sallie and Uncle Henry that Grandpa John had been killed."
My grandparents, of course, were overcome with shock and grief
when they heard of the horrible accident. Grandpa Fields was
in the process of hitching the mule to wagon, in order to meet
Great-Grandpa John, when Thelma arrived to tell them of the tragedy.
That afternoon Grandpa Sug sadly waited in his wagon beside the
railroad tracks at Haddix and watched the train stop at the same
spot where John Grigsby had board the previous morning. Judge
Campbell had obtained a pine coffin from someone at Butterfly,
in it were the mangled remains of John Grigsby.
Thus, Great-Grandpa John's final words to my grandpa were indeed
prophetic. Grandpa Fields repeated them to me several times,
always with the same sadness and regret. Grandpa Fields told
me that people in the both the Lost Creek and Ned communities
talked for years about the tragic demise of John Grigsby and
how shocking it was that he had died so soon after the passing
of his wife, Pop.
The tragic nature of the death of my great-grandfather disturbs
me to this day, but it truly haunted my father, who was a railroad
engineer for many years. Ironically, my father also lost his
life as a result of accident. Daddy died July 26, 1990, from
injuries sustained when his tractor overturned on the farm that
had originally belonged to John Grigsby. Daddy felt privileged
to be the owner of the greater portion of his grandparents' farm
and took pride in its upkeep. When I was very young, Daddy and
Grandpa Sug made sure that I could correctly identify the various
sections of the Grigsby-Fields farm. My mother; my husband, Ray;
and I, the present owners, still refer to those sections by the
names given to them by John Grigsby: The Rainbow Piece, Sal's
New Ground, The Coal Bank, The Orlando Knob, The Graveyard Piece,
The Drill, and the section where my husband and I now reside,
which is simply known as The Knob.
While we remaining occupants of the old farm have endured our
share of heartaches, the Maker has mercifully granted us many
pleasant memories to appease our sorrows. The tale of John Grigsby's
mill stones from the 1960s to the present illustrates that truth.
The stones passed through the hands of several of John Grigsby's
grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom I have had
the good fortune to know during the past 40 years. The humorous
situations that have occurred, as the mill stones passed from
one relative to another, exemplify the zestful nature and craftiness
of many of my Grigsby kin.
Long before Sam Bogie died in 1956 there was virtually no need
to keep the mill open, even in the rural community of Ned. Eventually
the mill building itself was dis-mantled, since the fre-quent
flooding of Lost Creek had damaged its wooden structure. In fact,
family members recall that in the mid-1900s the stones lay covered
by sediment in the waters of Lost Creek. All assumed that the
stones would henceforth remain in their watery grave. Sometime
in the early 1960s, how-ever, Sam Bogie's son Ver-non offered
to sell the millstones to Cousin Ray Haddix (a great-grandson
of John Grigsby) for $50. Grigsbys gen-erally have a sentimental
side where family is concerned, which I feel is due to the Welsh
strain in us. The Welsh influence must have kicked in on Cousin
Ray in a big way, because he jumped at the chance to get the
stones back to someone of John Grigsby's direct line, namely
himself. Being a bit low on cash and finding Vernon unwilling
to accept a check, Ray decided that he had no choice but to borrow
a portion of the $50 from his uncle, Mize Roberts, who was one
of John's grandsons. Vernon apparently failed to inherit any
of those soft-hearted Welsh sentiments, because he could in no
way be persuaded to part with the mill stones for a personal
check of Ray's. It was "cash or nothing" with Cousin
In Cousin Ray's opinion, Mize was a good prospect to help him
with this venture for several reasons. First of all, Mize was
always known for "having a little money squirreled back,"
and Ray needed to borrow a few dollars right then. Secondly,
Mize, being John's grandson, would surely understand Ray's desire
for the stones to belong to someone of John's direct line. Finally
(and most importantly to Ray), Mize owned a big log truck and
all the paraphernalia necessary to hoist those stones out of
the creek bed and haul them from Ned to the Sewell Roberts Hill,
where both Ray and Mize resided. Mize agreed to the arrangement
and Ray was beside himself with joy. Mize loaned Ray a bit of
money from his stash (which Ray did repay, let it be known) and
graciously declined to accept Ray's offer of $25 for the tow
fee. Mize went one step further and volun-teered to store (which
can be interpreted as hide) the stones in one of his many outbuildings.
Cousin Mize rationalized that since Ray was prone to "roam
and ramble," (Some Grigsby males were known for answering
the "call of the wild" in the old days) the stones
would be safer with him than out in the front yard of Ray's little
house. Cousin Ray admitted that he certainly didn't want to display
the stones in clear view, either. They would surely be stolen
by passersby; or worse yet, they would serve as temptation to
other Grigsbys, who might possibly want them for their own personal
collection of ancestral relics!
That arrangement between uncle and nephew worked well for over
20 years. Both Ray and Mize possessed the typical Grigsby craftiness
and humor and greatly enjoyed denying that they had the actual
possession, or even had any knowledge of the whereabouts of John's
mill stones. Elizabeth Ann Roberts Davis, Mize's daughter, recalls
that in the mid-1960s one Grigsby relative tried to "badger"
her into revealing where the mill stones were located. This person
even vowed, "I'll give a large sum of money to anyone who
will come forth with John Grigsby's mill stones!" (The name
of this Grigsby relative has been forgotten long ago by all of
us, so don't bother to ask!) Elizabeth Ann actually discovered
the stones herself a short time later while "plundering"
in Cousin Mize's smokehouse. Since she certainly didn't want
the aforementioned relative to ever get even a glimpse of the
stones, Elizabeth Ann told her father that she wanted them herself.
Elizabeth Ann was ripe for the fun to be had in this, no doubt.
Cousin Mize denied her the stones, but insisted, "Under
no circumstances are you to let on to anybody that you know anything
about Grandpa John's mill stones, no matter how much you get
badgered!" Cousin Elizabeth Ann, then and there, gave her
father a "solemn oath" to do exactly that.
In the mid-1980s Elizabeth Ann again inquired about the stones
and Mize told her that he had only recently given them to Cousin
Luther Grigsby, a great-grandson of John's, who lived at Little
Buckhorn Creek in Breathitt County. She was once more required
to take a "solemn oath" to never reveal the actual
whereabouts of the stones. What did Ray think about this? Actually,
Mize had neglected to tell him of the transfer, but since Cousin
Luther was "a good feller" and the stones were still
in the safe possession of someone of John's direct line, Mize
felt there was no reason to bother Ray about it. After all, Ray
hadn't even mentioned the stones in years, and they were surely
safe as they could possibly be over on Little Buckhorn with Cousin
Luther. Mize passed away in November of 1989 and the inquisitive
Grigsby relative (whose name is still forgotten) again "badgered"
Cousin Elizabeth Ann (during Mize's wake, no less) about the
location of John's mill stones. Elizabeth Ann wasted no time
informing her relative that the stones were not on her father's
property. In fact, she had the opportunity to prove that they
weren't anywhere on Mize's place later that week, when the relative
(whose quest for the stones by now must have become an obsession)
arrived and promptly demanded permission to "pilfer around
and see where Mize had hidden those mill stones." Of course,
no stones were to be found in any of Mize's buildings, and Elizabeth
Ann was confident that they were still at Cousin Luther's place
at Little Buckhorn. Cousin Ray died in 1990 still thinking that
they were in Cousin Mize's smokehouse.
Actually, the stones had changed hands again, but not unknown
to Mize. One day in the spring of 1989 Luther phoned my father
with this message: "Cousin Quentin, if you want your Grandpa
John Grigsby's mill stones that Cousin Mize gave to me, you are
welcome to them. I'm leaving Little Buckhorn for a smaller place
at Quicksand. I don't have any place to store them there, and
if I leave them out in clear view, somebody will steal them for
sure! (You should be familiar with that old Grigsby logic by
now.) I told Cousin Mize that they need to go to somebody of
John Grigsby's direct line, and he agreed. So, you come right
on and get them!" My father didn't have to be asked twice,
especially after Cousin Luther told him, "I won't sell you
the stones for any price, but I'll give them to you!"
Daddy and my husband Ray jumped in the Grey Goose (Daddy's old
1966 flatbed Chevy truck) and high-tailed it up to Little Buckhorn,
before Cousin Luther could get cold feet about the deal. Daddy
always thought that my husband was as satisfactory as a son-in-law
could be, so Mother and I were not too surprised that Daddy asked
Ray to accompany him. More than once Mother and I had heard Daddy
remark, "Ray Shepherd gets about pert, (which translates
as 'doesn't drag ones feet') just like Grandpa John Grigsby."
Ray had been on previous jaunts with Daddy and knew when his
father-in-law said, "Boy, let's light out!" that it
was time for him to be as pert as possible. On the way there
the two put their heads together and came up with a grand idea
of how to put the stones to good use. They were going to embed
them in the fireplace hearths of the log house that Ray and I
were having constructed, right on the top of John Grigsby's Knob.
My parents had deeded The Knob to Ray and me as a wedding present
in 1986, and Daddy was thrilled to know that the stones would
serve as focal points in our new home. After sitting a spell
with Cousin Luther and thanking him kindly, my father and husband
transported the precious cargo to one of Daddy's storage buildings
here on the farm.
Not long after the stones were safe in my father's possession,
Cousin Mize phoned Daddy and told him that he would gladly have
given the mill stones to him in the first place, if he had known
that Daddy had wanted them. Daddy told Cousin Mize, "I know
that you would have given them to me, Mize. I'm just glad to
have them now." I had never heard Daddy mention the whereabouts
of the stones, and I honestly don't think that he even knew that
they had been removed from the creek bed, until he received the
phone call from Luther. Mize Roberts and my father were first
cousins, as Great-Aunt Hannah Grigsby Roberts and my grandma,
Sallie Grigsby Fields, were sisters. Mize and Daddy were life-long
neighbors and good friends to one another, as well as kinsmen.
Mize, who was in ill health at this time, told Daddy, "All
that matters to me now is that the mill stones remain with someone
in Grandpa John's line."
Daddy was as thrilled as I had ever seen him the day that a stonemason
placed the smaller of his grandpa's (John) mill stones in the
center of the family room hearth, on the bottom floor of our
log home during the spring of 1990. Since the remaining stone
was too large to be placed in living room hearth on the main
floor, Daddy suggested that we could later display it at another
location on our property, as we continued with the construction.
The final construction of our house was soon delayed, however,
due to the unfortunate accident in mid-1990 that claimed my father's
life. Grief stricken from losing Daddy we postponed many of the
remaining building details for several years. We agreed to eventually
display the second stone, however, as Daddy had so wished. I
am truly glad, though, that my father did live to see the smaller
stone placed in our hearth. Finally, in the summer of 2000, my
mother and I were visiting Cousin Elizabeth Ann and the conversation
turned to the stones. The three of us, at long last, were able
then to piece together the tale of John Grigsby's mill stones.
Cousin Elizabeth Ann and I had many hearty laughs recalling the
enjoyment that our fathers had in obtaining and possessing those
I trust that Great-Grandpa John would have been pleased to know
that his mill stones were finally brought to the land where he
lived for the last years of his life and where his body was laid
to rest. The back of our house overlooks his grave, along with
those of many of John's kin, which include the following: his
wife, Polly "Pop" Campbell Grigsby; his son, Samuel
Green Grigsby; his daughter, Sally Grigsby Fields; and his son-in-law,
Henry Fields. His grandchildren include: Mae Fields Landrum and
her husband, Robert Landrum; Reverend Ray Fields; Orpah Fields
Nevitt; my father, Quentin Fields; Marion Grigsby (the father
of Luther Grigsby) and his wife, Margaret; and one great-grandchild,
the infant son of Mae and Robert Landrum. In time, Mother, Ray,
and I will be buried there, as well.
What happened to John Grigsby's other mill stone? In the late
summer of 2003 I decided it was finally time to display it in
the backyard. Ray removed the second stone from one of Daddy's
old storage buildings and hauled it up to The Knob in the Grey
Goose, which miraculously is still running. We positioned it
between the garage doors at the back of our log house, which
overlooks The Graveyard Piece where John Grigsby and his kin
I am grateful to be the current caretaker of John Grigsby's mill
stones and I am truly proud to be a descendant of their original
Note: This account is primarily based on information passed down
by word of mouth from various relatives, many of whom are now
deceased. Other than in James Clell Neace's book, I am unaware
of any other published documentation of the tale of John Grigsby's
mill stones. For those interested, Mr. Neace's George Washington
Noble was published by Carlton Press, Inc., New York, NY, 1986.
ISBN-0-806202891-1. The tale of John Grigsby's ox-ride to Virginia
and his long walk back home is given on pages 26-27 of that work.
If any Kentucky Explorer readers are aware of additional published
documentation or orally transmitted knowledge about John Grigsby's
mill stones, please contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
I extend special thanks to my cousin, Elizabeth Ann Roberts Davis,
for providing information from her own experiences concerning
the mill stones of our great-grandfather, John Grigsby.
Portions of this article were originally published in the August
2002 edition of East Kentucky Magazine and permission to include
those portions here has been granted by the editor of that publication.
Carol Fields Shepherd, 610 Marie Roberts Road, Lost Creek, KY
41348, shares this article with our readers.