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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Solved: The Case of Kerrville's Missing Mill

All that remains of the missing mill.

Twice this year, I’ve written here about my search for an 1860s water-powered mill which once stood beside the Guadalupe River “2 miles above Kerrville.” Though I spent a lot of time searching for the missing mill, I couldn’t find it. I have photographs of the mill in my collection of historic Kerrville and Kerr County images, but I wasn’t sure where they were taken.

I think the mystery has been solved, thanks to Gary Saner and Bryant Saner.

Gary, who is Bryant’s cousin, noticed some cut-stone rockwork on the edge of Lake Nimitz between the AT&T store and the old Fuddruckers Restaurant building.  Emailing Bryant about the site, he learned Bryant had written an article about the old mill for the Hill Country Archeology Association’s journal, “Ancient Echoes,” which was published in 2005.  The article was “Archeological Reconnaissance of the Starkey-Saner Mill (41KR130), Kerr County Texas.”

Since I last wrote about the mystery, several other history sleuths have sent in hints about the site of the old mill. Several noticed an unusual concrete wall below Guadalupe Street, just upstream from the dam impounding Nimitz Lake.  That wall is intriguing, and I haven’t figured out what purpose it once served, but it wasn’t on the correct parcel of land.  The Starkey-Saner mill almost certainly would have been built on land owned by James M. Starkey, and his land stretched, roughly, along the river between today’s Harper Road and Methodist Encampment Road.

Last June, one person pointed out some cut stone at the same location mentioned by Gary Saner, and I drove to the site and took some photographs, looking carefully into the deep water below to see if any additional structures were visible.  Other than some submerged cut stones, none were, and so I felt the hint was inconclusive.

However, Bryant Saner, in his 2005 article, confirms this was the site of the Starkey-Saner mill. In fact, in 1997 he and the late Bobby Rector photographed stonework at the site.

Why is this important?

Today we are accustomed to all sorts of devices that do work for us.  Some operate using electricity, and others using gasoline.  The ‘work’ they do includes mowing our lawns, or using an electric saw to cut lumber. 

In 1868, when the Starkey-Saner mill was constructed, a lot of work was done by harnessing water power.

If you have a mill, you can saw lumber. That means you can construct things with lumber, like houses and barns.  You can use water power to make shingles from the local cypress trees.  You can also process agricultural products, like grinding grain or ginning cotton.

In other words, you can harness the power of the river to help build a community. A water mill was more than a water wheel, a drive shaft, pulleys and belts: it was also an economic engine. It turned raw materials into valuable products.

That’s why noting the site of a mill is an important part of recording local history.

What happened to the old mill site, which is now below the water of Lake Nimitz?

According to the article written by Bryant Saner, “In the late 1970s, the Guadalupe River Authority (UGRA) built a dam on the river approximately 0.15 mile down from the old mill site creating a reservoir that impounds water far upstream. Prior to the building of the dam an archeological survey of the impoundment area was conducted by Grant Hall of the University of Texas at Austin, Balcones Center (now known as the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory). A letter, dated May 10, 1971, was written to Mr. B. W. Bruns, General Manager for the UGRA at the time, describing two archeological sites that were found. One was a prehistoric encampment, 41KR131, on the of the river approximately 0.2 upstream from the dam. Very little of this site remains due a gravel quarrying operation carried on long before the dam was planned.… The other site was the Starkey-Saner Mill Site (41KRJ30). It is described as being "two dressed limestone block walls recessed into terrace edge above the river. The foot of the walls are at the level of the flood plain below, at a depth of perhaps fifteen feet. No superstructure remains. Recommendations to the UGRA were to leave the rock walls, but clear the brush and trees around them on the flood plain and terrace face….”

“According to the present owner of the mill site [the Lester Overstreet family], the bulldozers took out everything, trees, brush and rock walls.”  That means the only thing left today of the Starkey-Saner mill are a few cut stones along the edge of Nimitz Lake. (Those cut stones are located at 30°03'43.5"N, 99°10'21.1"W.)

But at least we now know where it was, thanks to the Saner cousins.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who enjoys working on history mysteries. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times October 30, 2021.

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