During the Blizzard of 1993, Jerry Don Dempsey and his wife Peggy never lost power, although the majority of their neighbors were without electricity for more than a week.
Jerry had just brought online a 16-foot water wheel and that wheel generated enough power during the massive snowstorm to keep the Dempsey family home comfortable and well lit.
The 16-foot wheel replaced an eight-foot wheel Jerry built to "learn just how they worked."
Jerry counts both those wheels as "learning experiences," but there just wasn’t enough water at that spot near his Cherokee County home to keep the wheel running as much as he wanted.
When Jerry and Peggy learned the old Chandler’s Mill site just off Cherokee County Hwy 45 was available, they jumped at the chance to buy a piece of history. So in 2004, they bought 26 acres including the old mill site and the land surrounding what was a mile-long water raceway from Spring Creek to the mill from Austin Ashley, a descendant of the Chandler family.
"You’d never have known a mill was here," Jerry said of the overgrown area. "But I remember my dad coming here and buying a saw mill when I was just a boy. A few old timers can remember coming here for picnics and church outings way before then."
Peggy has been able to come up with some of the mill’s history through local research.
William J. Chandler and his brother, Jimmy Chandler, moved to Cherokee County in 1860. They’d worked in a mill their father owned in Talladega.
Peggy’s research showed the spot they picked for their new homes and store in the Whorton Community was about a mile from Spring Creek.
"The mile didn’t stop the Chandler Brothers. With the help of neighbors and slaves, they not only erected a two-story building but also, with the help of the slaves, hand-dug the mile-long raceway from Spring Creek to the mill house.
"They had to build pond gates so water could run through the turbine at the mill cabin to grind corn meal, grits and flour.
"History showed they were pretty good businessmen at filling a need in the area because they had so much grain coming in to the mill it was necessary to grind at night by lantern light.
"With all those people coming to the mill and waiting, the smart brothers decided to open a country store to sell other goods to the community," Peggy explained.
Jerry began by clearing out the old raceway, this time using heavy equipment instead of slaves and neighbors equipped with shovels.
He then cleared the land around the actual mill site. As he began digging, he uncovered many treasures including the original turban, "buried under a ton of mud and sand," and bearing a bronze plate showing it was manufactured by Munson Bros in Utica, New York, with a patent date of 1860.
"I had the turbine sandblasted and found it was as good as new. I had to replace the grinding rocks inside with ones from Lookout Mountain. Who knows how much corn those older rocks had ground. They were completely worn out!" Jerry said.
In 2007, Jerry designed and started building the 45-foot water wheel to power the turbine and other equipment.
Jerry explained, "The whole family helped in welding and construction" including son Joel, grandsons Bo Dempsey and Joseph Smith, and Jerry’s nephew Layne Hudson.
At first, the wheel ran using wooden paddles, but, in 2009, a metal band and paddles replaced the wooden ones for additional durability.
Jerry and Peggy sawmilled all the huge pine boards for the mill house and Jerry built porches on three sides to house the mill equipment. Some of the massive boards in the walls are more than one-foot wide and approximately three to four inches in depth, with some up to 20 feet and more in length. Those massive pieces were milled from individual trees.
Cedar for some of the temporary hand rails around the porch was harvested from the mill site.
When the metal gate was opened to the wheel, it started turning by water power and moving a series of cables and connections which turn the turbine on the left side porch.
On the back porch is the original corn sheller Jerry also now has hooked up to "wheel power" utilizing a hydraulic pump.
The corn sheller, an ancient mill wheel made of poplar, and some other smaller equipment was obtained from a nearby store owner who rescued the equipment from the old building after it collapsed, thus keeping it all in excellent shape.
The Dempseys now grind corn to make corn meal and grits, and have them for sale in the little cabin on Saturdays and Sundays.
They hope to eventually be open more hours and have more items for sale, but they note the entire operation is a "work in progress, simply a labor of love."
And where did Jerry get all the know-how to do all this? While his "formal" education ended early, Jerry can contemplate and solve just about any problem involving heavy equipment, or anything else concerning the generation of electricity.
He worked at various times, for 12-year stints, for two companies in nearby Georgia which were subcontractors for Georgia Power. He’s also always run heavy equipment, like bulldozers, etc, "on the side," and has always operated a saw mill as well.
He has plans to begin generating some electricity with the new 45-foot wheel once he gets his plans completed.
The turbine is a 55 hp, while the water wheel is 35 hp.
"We’re fortunate to have a lot of waters and rivers in Alabama," Jerry remarked. "I don’t understand why more electricity can’t be generated like this. I’ve built so much of this from just nothing."
Jerry is not "in this for the money…it’s mainly just a retirement project. But we need to remember the history of this mill and so many more like it. We can learn a lot from this history. We might even solve some of our future problems if we’d just pay attention and think about what our ancestors accomplished using what they had on hand and the resources here."
Jerry can be contacted on his home phone at (256) 475-3511 or on his cell phone at (256) 557-3433.
Suzy Lowry Geno, a freelance writer from Blount County, can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.