Poplar Grove; Imagine There’s No Tide Mill

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.

Poplar Grove    Poplar Grove Tide Mill 8

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.

Poplar Grove Tide Mill 7      Poplar Grove Tide Mill 6

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.

Poplar Grove Tide Mill      Poplar Grove Tide Mill 1

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.

Poplar Grove Tide Mill 3      Poplar Grove Tide Mill 2

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.

Poplar Grove Tide Mill 5      Poplar Grove Tide Mill 4

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Earthworks, Food, Ghost towns, Industry. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Poplar Grove; Imagine There’s No Tide Mill

  1. K Miller says:

    Thank you for such an informative and well written article. My ancestors owned a tidemill on Sarah’s Creek in Gloucester County back in the 1700-1800s; although the structure no longer exists the area is still known as Tidemill. Your story and photos helped me envision what their tidemill may have looked like and how it worked.
    I too am interested in old abandoned structures and locations around the Chesapeake that the earth will all too soon take back as its own. Keep up the good work telling their stories.

  2. Nice article and photos. My 9th great-grandfather was Samuel Williams, who I think built at least part of the mill. I’m glad it’s being restored.

  3. Terry Hudgins says:

    Loved this article. I have a table that was my grandmothers that came out of the mill. Popular Grove has tremendous history. Glad to have read this article.

  4. Billy Hudgins says:

    I remember as a youth, my aunt Mrs. Virginia Taylor of Port Haywood worked there as a domestic worker for a lady name Mrs. Upton. Circa early 1950’s.

  5. Anne binford says:

    One of my favorite places to go…..a lot of great childhood rememories. I lived just down the road. Great article.

  6. Sharon Johnson says:

    I am from Mathews County and did not know the history of Popular Grove. I later learned in 1980 that John Lennon had purchased it. Thanks for the information.

  7. Ida Trusch says:

    I am a native of Mathews County and grew up with Poplar Grove as one of the most historic landmarks of Mathews. I spent many a happy hour playing with C. W. Hudgins, Bobby West, and other school friends in and about the property including the Tidemill and taking adventurous forays into the wooded areas on horseback inspecting the discovery of the old ice house pit. We had grand time and
    I am thankful to have these memories. I remember being intrigued by the “workings” of the mill.

  8. Brian Dawes says:

    I am a native of Mathews and grew up less then a mile from Popular Gove as a young child I spent many hours riding my horses around the property of this estate, also fished from the banks right beside the mill. I always admired the majestic beauty of this building. Happy to here it’s being restored, would love to be a part of that task

  9. Jeff Davidson says:

    My childhood home was less than a half mile of Poplar Grove. We played in the fields, forests, barns, creeks, and rivers that surrounded Poplar Grove. A favorite was the remains of the old ice house, just northwest of the estate. There were so many wonderful places to explore from Christ’s Church to Poplar Grove, I don’t think there could have been a better place to be a kid! I’ve seen many castles and palaces of Europe, but Poplar Grove, Mathews County, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown will always be the most greatest historical sites in the world!

    • amy says:

      Dear Mr. D: Were there ever any tales of ghosts or hauntings in either the mill or the mansion or the property surrounding that you know of? amy

  10. I was blessed to have lived on this lovely historic estate, Poplar Grove in the 1960’s. My mother and I lived in one of the tenant farm houses. Our home boarded the water’s edge and sat peacefully on a private point where we gazed at the old mill and Best of all…the big red barn with a Wonderful old work horse named Dot. She was a gentle companion and friend. We gleefully trotted one crisp Christmas day on the shorelines that graced Poplar Grove and that I’ll will never forget.
    There was never anyone at the main home much then, but we were friends with the farm manager and family, Clyde Hudgins. Inside was very large and stately with an elevator in the grand foyer. In later years after John Lennon, I took my daughter there to share my youthful memories and a charming lady came out to meet us. We talked for a long while about her love for ponies and how she loved the home as well. When driving away, I thought, I felt more at home here than anywhere.
    Thank you for this enlightening article of days gone by. Poplar Grove is truly a Special piece of our Virginia history.

  11. Seldon Taylor Tompkins, Jr. says:

    Fantastic Article! I was looking for pictures of Poplar Grove online to show my children (ages 12, 11 and 9) and came across this story. Capt. Sally is my great, great, great, great aunt and my grandparents, Bill and Rhoda Tompkins, used to live at Port Haywood. I have wonderful memories of going to their home there across the cove from Poplar Grove. I live on Dividing Creek at Ditchley outside Kilmarnock and have been to Mathews about a year ago to show my children the area including Poplar Grove and Tompkins Cottage.

    Thanks again,

  12. Wade Brooks says:

    I am a life long resident of Mathews and have had the pleasure of seeing most of Poplar Grove. I live about 3 miles away and am very glad to see it being restored.

  13. The Williams says:

    We hope the restoration of the Mill is actually happening! It would be so tragic to loose such a gem. It is the centerpiece of our view across the East River and we treasure it for its beauty, its history but most of all because it is an iconic part of the East River and Mathew County.

  14. Katherine Kearney says:

    My curiosity about Poplar Grove started with pictures posted by Brian Lockwood of a wooden wheel being towed down the East River. A new Wheel was installed by Wesley Sanger this past week. Before Labor Day weekend 2015. I have been visiting Mathews since 1979 and never new of the history of the tide mill until this week. Thank you for keeping the history alive. I took pictures of the tide mill with the new mill wheel installed. It you would like to post them please contact me. I am also very interested in learning of more history of the plantation. Thank you Katherine Kearney.

  15. Page Mauck says:

    I grew up in Gloucester and my heart is still there. Can someone tell me where Poplar Grove is on the East River?

  16. Al and Liz Sutherland says:

    Heading south from Annapolis to “somewhere” in Florida we anchored in front of Poplar Grove and read the history. How amazing and wonderful to see such a beautiful and historic landmark and read about. It would certainly be a venue opened to the public so it can be appreciated and perhaps restored.

  17. Wesley Cox says:

    My husband’s father, Charles Cox Jr now 92 yrs old, grew up spending summers with his mother’s family, Borum, in Mathews County. His cousin, Clarence Kirwin, had a home on the East River. My husband and I have inherited several antiques from that house. We are now downsizing and would like to donate a wonderful washstand set that belonged to that house. chamberpot, bowl & pitcher, a smaller pitcher, covered soap bowl, a vase, and a smaller covered soap bowl. Each piece is in excellent condition..none has broken. I would guess that this set is from around the 1800s We would love to see this set return to the area. If anyone is interested please let us know – a museum or even Poplar Grove.

  18. Wesley Cox says:

    I should have mentioned that the Kirwin home was near Port Haywood.

  19. Gloria B. Tulip says:

    Mr. Wesley Cox:
    Did anyone accept your generous donation?

    I live across the creek from the mill. Did not know until I read this that John Lennon actually owned it at one time.

  20. Joe Upton says:

    Wow.. my grandfather, George Upton, bought Poplar Grove in the 1930s and we spend many great summers there. I think he undertook the first restoration of the tide wheel that powered the mill.

  21. Shawn says:

    When I was maybe 10 or so my family went to spend some time at Poplar Grove. I believe artist Michael Stolzer and his wife were caretakers there in 1987 and my parents knew them. I remember a tour of the main house. Michael had a studio there and did sculpture. I believe Yoko hired him to do a piece depicting her late husband. It was a beautiful spot. Great memories

    • amy says:

      Wouldn’t we all love to see a photo of that sculpture. Maybe you could track it down. I am still interested in hearing if anyone ever had any “paranormal” experiences in the mill or in the mansion. It would certainly not be surprising given the age of both, as almost everybody will agree, old houses will reveal certain areas where people “feel” or experience something that cannot be explained.

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