Planning commission moves mill plans forward

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By John Barnhart

The Bedford County Planning Commission, Monday night, unanimously approved a request by the Big Otter Mill Foundation that clears the way for the foundation to begin work to open the mill to the public.

The mill is located on a 1.7 acre tract on Va. 122 in an agricultural area, 1.3 miles north of Liberty High School. It was completed in 1920 and is on the Virginia Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. It has also been identified on a Bedford County listing of its historic places. It operated until 1950 and has been abandoned ever since.

The Mill Foundation plans to add a gravel parking lot on the site, with 14 parking places, with a gravel entry to the site. Ben Shrader, a local engineer and surveyor, said that the foundation already has Virginia Department of Transportation approval for the entry. Shrader is one of several volunteer engineers serving on the foundation's board of directors. Installation of a public restroom is also planned.

According to Becky Wuergler, the foundation's president, the plan is to restore the mill and hold demonstrations of how milling was done. The foundation will also eventually have a gift shop in what was once the miller's office.

The first mill to be built on that site was built in 1785, according to Mill Foundation literature. That structure washed away in a 19th century flood. Another mill was built there at the beginning of the 20th century, and burned in 1916.

The current building was designed by Reed Forbes and was known as Forbes Mill. It was later known as Big Otter Mill.

The building was designed with a mansard roof that gave it three floors of working space and was designed to produce both corn meal and flour. It was a busy mill in its day and, during some seasons, ran 24 hours a day.

The structure is sound, thanks to a good roof and a foundation that kept the wood from coming in contact with the soil, protecting it from termites. The equipment is intact and much of it looks the way the millers left it when they closed for business for the last time 58 years ago.

"It's a significant old building," said Planning Commission Chairman Frederic Fralick, who referred to the old mill as a jewel.

Fralick knows a lot about old mills. He came from a family of millwrights and has some of his grandfather's hand tools. He has also toured the interior of Big Otter Mill.

"I'm just thrilled at this proposal," commented District 5 Planner Steve Stevick. "I think everybody in the county recognizes it."

"I certainly approve of this endeavor," added District 7 Planner Curtis Stephens, who called it a worthy project.

The Big Otter Mill Foundation was created by the Bedford County Board of Supervisors to restore the mill. The foundation's mission is to protect the mill's architectural integrity and structure as well as restoring its operation in the interest of historic preservation. The foundation plans to use the mill for educational purposes and as an attraction to promote tourism in the area.

The Big Otter Mill Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit and donations are tax deductible. Information about the mill is available at the Bedford Welcome Center.