No telling what John Lennon thought when he hopped out of his Rolls Royce at Poplar Grove and saw the tide mill off in the distance. Perhaps the structure’s rustic charm inspired some nascent song lyrics or signaled the peace of mind Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono would invariably find at their country home.
Not that the venerable old mill needed Lennon’s lyrical genius or his ownership to validate its worth, mind you. Even then, in 1980, months before Lennon met his sad fate, the mill was already extraordinary, the last of a kind, a portrait of a simpler time. Now, more than three decades on, the tide mill at Poplar Grove still stands–aging, weathered, in need of a little TLC, but a surviving and extremely rare example of the energy our ancestors saw in the deep water.
The big house and tide mill at Poplar Grove
Poplar Grove is a handsome estate in rural Mathews County, Virginia, a three-hour drive south of Washington D.C. A stately, eighteenth-century porticoed mansion overlooks ancient trees, a sweeping lawn and the East River beyond. Sally Tompkins, the only woman to be commissioned a Confederate officer, was born here.
There was a grist mill at Poplar Grove in colonial times, grinding into usable meal the grain grown in the fertile fields nearby. George Washington’s troops at Yorktown ate food produced at the mill.
Unlike windmills that harnessed energy from bay breezes or more westerly watermills that captured the power of falling streams, Poplar Grove’s mill used tidewater to turn its gears. Slaves built a dam across a finger of water that reached eastward off the wide river in front of the plantation. That created a lagoon, or millpond, where a tidal creek had once been. Two sets of gates allowed the miller to manipulate the water level in the millpond. The gates would be shut until high tide in the river, then opened, letting the water rush through the mill’s narrow opening, or sluice, turning the wheel that ultimately ground grain. There’s an added feature of tide mills, too: they are reversible. By means of shutting the gates and holding the high tide in the millpond, the miller could also use an outgoing tide, opening the gates when the level in the river was lower than that behind the dam. The ancient technology is simple, ingenious.
The tide mill, left, is built on a dam. Right: the sluice.
The colonial-era mill at Poplar Grove burned in the Civil War. So valuable was that source of power, however, that another soon went up when fighting stopped. That’s the mill that stands there today.
The tide mill operated until about 1912. Steamboats, railroads and industrial-scale food preparation plants made humble country grist mills obsolete. Nevertheless, the Poplar Grove tide mill has remained a notable landmark, a source of community pride because of its character and longevity.
Tide mills generally did not fare well after being abandoned because they were often situated in precarious spots, on an edge, next to tidal water, as if taunting erosion and violent weather. There were once 300 in North America and nearly two dozen in the Chesapeake region. Today, the Poplar Grove tide mill is one of five that still exists in the United States. The other four are in Massachusetts and New York.
Inside the tide mill.
The Poplar Grove tide mill has taken its share of beatings over a century-and-a-half. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 dislodged the waterwheel, for instance, but the old mill is hanging tough. The wooden frame is mostly in good condition. The weatherboard siding is grayed and cracking. The roof could be patched in a couple spots and the outside latches and hinges are rusty. The millpond’s dam has long-since been breached.
Remarkably, the mill’s hardware is still all there–the wheels and gears that turned at the motive power of rushing water. The millstones lay motionless on the second floor. The inner workings have a frozen-in-time appearance, ready for work at the next flood tide.
No telling what plans, if any, Lennon and Ono had for the tide mill. They purchased Poplar Grove, as well as the nearby Auburn estate, in early 1980 through a real estate investment firm Lennon created called Pentacles Realty. The couple had a caretaker at Poplar Grove, a Norwegian named Oggie, and would visit from time-to-time to get away from the hustle of the big city.
Lennon owned Poplar Grove for less than a year before a deranged fan shot him outside of his New York City apartment. Ono donated the plantation to charity, a nearby boys’ home for abused children. Bereaved fans flocked to Poplar Grove to capture some fleeting memory of their beloved folk hero.
The mill’s hardware.
Poplar Grove’s current owner bought the property from the boys’ home in 1985. She is a spry and gregarious octogenarian who balances the demands of work (she’s an active businesswoman) with those of Poplar Grove, her home. When she is not spending eight-hour days in the office, she can be found hauling wood in her full-sized pickup, mowing grass on a tractor or addressing the endless list of issues that arise at Poplar Grove. She once helped install a renovated cupola atop a barn adjacent to the big house.
Over the years she has given the tide mill a new cedar-shingle roof, patched siding and affixed new doors and shutters. She would like to see the mill properly preserved, although it’s not practical for her to devote all her resources to the tide mill when so much else on the historic property needs attention.
Recently a professional millwright took a look at the tide mill. He estimated it would cost more than a quarter-million dollars to see it thoroughly restored. Moreover, experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said that the mill needs to be raised to protect it against the rising sea level. That hasn’t dampened her optimism, though. She’d ultimately like to return the mill to working condition once again. All the pieces are there to make that happen. She knows she has something special in the Poplar Grove tide mill, a gem that has defied the destructive forces of time, weather and obsolescence.