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History of The Ridge/Berry Waterwheel

By:  Jack Dickey, February 2021

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN IN 1957 when I was a student at Model School at Shannon Georgia when I first heard that the “hub” in the waterwheel at Berry Schools had come from Hermitage, Georgia. It was also being claimed at that time this wheel was “the largest overshot waterwheel in the world”. So, a year or so later when I entered Berry College as a new freshman, I was rather proud to have obtained this bit of special knowledge about Berry’s waterwheel. In that I also had good lifelong buddies who had grown up and lived around the nearby Hermitage Community, I must have deemed myself an accomplished authority on deliberating the subject. As we all know, there’s no academic authority on a college campus equal to that of a first-year freshman in a good late-night dormitory debate. 


SOME YEARS LATER, after I had left Berry, there was a historical marker erected at the waterwheel (the “Old Mill”). As you can see, the marker indicates that the mill was constructed by Berry Students in 1930, and that the “iron hub” had been donated by the Republic Mining and Manufacturing Company. If the information about this giant waterwheel is just left at this point, we will be deprived of one of the most historical and best-preserved artifacts in our Nation. This waterwheel was probably built long before there was a Berry Schools or even a Martha Berry. It most likely predates the establishment of Floyd County (1832) and the incorporation of Rome, Georgia in 1847 when this 15-county area of NW Georgia was known simply as “Cherokee”. We know for sure that this waterwheel powered a cotton gin and could have been designed and built for that purpose. It’s also known that it was located on what used to be Native American, John Ridge’s large red-land farm known as “Running Waters”. 

AFTER THE FORCED REMOVAL of the Cherokees in the 1830’s this area was then named Hermitage by one of the community’s well-known early settlers, Col. Joseph Watters. It is said that Watters, who was a friend of President Andrew Jackson, and had served under Jackson in the Indian Wars, honored the President by naming his newly acquired holdings in North Georgia after Jackson’s own farm in Tennessee, “The Hermitage”.  In order to sort of tie this all together and bring the reader up to date with a more complete knowledge, I must mention that this area of Ridge Valley/Running Waters/Hermitage is now a political subdivision of Floyd County, Georgia known as the Watters District… appropriately named for the family of Col. Joseph Watters. So fittingly, our local historical association and the provider of this document, is chartered under the name: Watters District Council for Historical Preservation, Inc. (WDC).           

CURRENTLY (2021), that “know-it-all”, first-year, Berry freshman is serving as president of the WDC where I’ve been heading up the historical research of the Berry Waterwheel. Several years ago, the WDC obtained an article written by the late Rebecca Watters West. It was with the revelation of this article that I began to further my research into the origin and purpose of this historical and fascinating waterwheel. The more I dug, the more historical and fascinating it became. Mrs. West told about how Miss Martha Berry had made several trips out to Hermitage to see her father, Mr. Tom Watters about getting the giant waterwheel donated to Berry Schools. As typical of Miss Berry, she succeeded with her endeavor and the wheel, along with its iron components, was moved and re-erected on the Berry Schools Campus in 1930. Although I found no record or documentation of the grist mill being moved with the wheel, it stands to reason that it could have been. Otherwise, would there have been any point in Martha Berry having erected a power source with nothing to power? 

ANOTHER FACT I LEARNED from Mrs. West’s account was that while at Hermitage the wheel powered both a grist mill and a cotton gin which were operated by a blind man named Tom Kennibrew, who later died in 1917. It is believed the gin and grist mill were shut down a few years before Mr. Kennibrew’s death. The one photograph we have of the facility, which was probably made in the late 1920’s, shows the wheel in a low state of repair with trees, vines and vegetation growing up around it. This photo would have been representative of the way the facility would have appeared at the time it was donated to Berry Schools. To further ascertain the fact that the wheel powered a cotton gin, Mrs. West’s nephew, Thad Rush, remembers his grandfather, Mr. J. P. Rush, telling him that he had played around that gin when he was a young boy. This would have been shortly after the Civil War in the 1870’s. Now, Thad also has own memories of having played in an old building at the site when he was a young boy in the 1940’s. He describes the building as a warehouse type structure, which could have well been used for the storing cotton bales and cotton seed. 


NOW, CONCERNING THAD RUSH… we find that he is one of the best-connected historical authorities on the Ridge Valley waterwheel and the area around Hermitage of anyone living. Thad has lived his whole life in the area. He owns and farms a large portion of what used to be John Ridge’s “Running Waters Plantation”. Thad and his wife, Nancy, live in the house that was built and owned by the Cherokee leader. Thad’s great, great grandfather, Mr. John Rush, purchased a 160 -acre section of Running Waters shortly before Ridge left for his new home in Arkansas Territory (now Oklahoma) in September of 1837. John Ridge and his family were still living at Running Waters when John Rush arrived, and the records show where Rush paid Ridge a fair price for his unharvested “crops”. Just 0.7 miles up the road from Thad’s house is the first house built in the community by a white settler. This house was built by another of Thad’s great, great grandfathers, Col. Joseph Watters, from whom the area and the WDC is now named. 

SO, IN 2018 I MET UP WITH THAD, and he accompanied me over to the site of the old waterwheel. The pit that had been dug out where the wheel had sat, along with the drainage channel leading away, is still there today. It can clearly be seen in the old photo that this wheel was down in the ground at what looked to be some seven or eight feet.  There is another old photograph that shows a section of the elevated raceway, or flume, that fed water to the wheel from the Hermitage Spring. This spring is located about a mile to the north. One can also see the discharge end of the flume in the old photograph. 

NOW, CONSIDERING THAT this same waterwheel, which is now at Berry, is completely above ground whereas, at Running Waters it was partially in a pit, raises the question… why? My logical assumption was that there was not enough fall in the land elevation from Hermitage Spring down to the gin site to facilitate the flume’s height being sufficient to deliver flowing water over the top of the 42-foot wheel. So, I figured the builders had just lowered the wheel by placing it into a pit to compensate for the height shortfall. However, as it turned out my “logical assumption” was no more than just that… a logical assumption. So much for assumptions.


BACK WHEN I WAS A STUDENT at Berry it was claimed that the Berry Mill’s waterwheel was the “largest wooden overshot waterwheel in the world”. This claim is still being touted around on some of the social media sites. However, it’s been recently discovered that the wheel, when it was at Running Waters, was not an overshot type, at all. Rather, at its original location in the 1800’s it was set up and operated as a “pitch-back” waterwheel. And, for this reason the wheel was mounted in a dug-out pit about eight feet below the surface. The pitch-back system gives the wheel 20% more power than the overshot type, because of the additional push the water exerts to the wheel cups in the discharge trough at the bottom. This extra power would have been very beneficial in running a cotton gin, and this could have indicated that the giant wheel may have been originally and specifically designed for powering a gin.

IN THAT THE HERMITAGE SPRING does not furnish a sufficient flow of water to run this wheel at full capacity, it would have been necessary to have created some sort of storage basin (mill pond) somewhere up-stream. A quick areal search turned up one at about one-half mile to the northeast. The pond is still there today. This discovery solved the water flow question, in that the gate out of the pond into the raceway could have been opened during the times the gin would have been operating, thereby giving an adequate flow of water from the stored-up water supply as needed.

WITH THE FACT THAT there really was a cotton gin powered by a large waterwheel in the 1800’s at the Hermitage location, the next question of historical significance becomes one of whom? Just who was it that would have established a cotton gin here in Northwest Georgia, most likely, even before the Civil war? My pursuit for an answer turned into a most fascinating and awarding endeavor.  Considering that a cotton gin is an integral part of the textile manufacturing industry, and that it must be located in close proximity of where cotton is being grown, it stands to reason that cotton was being grown here in the area of the gin. Also, the cost of establishing and operating a cotton gin would have normally been beyond the means of an ordinary, average, family farmer in the 1800’s.

AFTER ELI WHITNEY’S INVENTION of the cotton gin in 1797, the cotton industry began to expand expeditiously throughout the South. And, by the 1820’s cotton was king, having become the Nation’s number one exported commodity. Interestingly, we find that the Cherokees of Northwest Georgia, of whom had adapted to the European type culture of civilization more than the other native tribes of North America, were into the King Cotton boom every bit as much as many of the Southern plantation owners of the day. Here’s what Colonel Thomas McKenny wrote to his superiors in the federal government about the Georgia Cherokees in 1825: “The natives carry on considerable trade with the adjoining states; and some of them export cotton in boats down the Tennessee to the Mississippi and down that river to New Orleans. Cotton and woolen goods are manufactured here. Almost every family in the nation grows cotton for its own consumption.”

IN 1827 THE FOUNDER AND EDITOR of the Cherokee Phoenix, Elias Boudinot, cited the following “items of civilization” that were in the Cherokee holdings: “22,000 cattle, 7,600 horses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 2,488 spinning wheels, 172 wagons, 2,943 plows, 10 sawmills, 31 grist mills, 63 blacksmith shops, 8 cotton machines (gins), 18 ferries and a number of good roads (emphasis added to cotton related items). Now, with the Cherokee’s vast planting-to-garment industry it is very likely that one of those eight cotton gins mentioned could have been the water powered gin at “Running Waters”. The records also revel that when the State of Georgia took over the Cherokee Territory, John Ridge was reimbursed for his “improvements” to the Running Waters plantation, which in today’s dollars the amount would have been $535,573.00. Most likely there would have been something more than Ridge’s 2,558 square-foot residence which brought the worth of the property’s improvements to more than a half million dollars? Could it have been a cotton gin?

IN ADDITION, JOHN RIDGE and his father Major Ridge were what was referred to as “being very well off”. In his book, Cherokee Tragedy, author Thurman Wilkins states that The Ridge “came to be numbered among the half-dozen richest men in the nation”. So, in that I have been unable to find any written record of the original ownership of the old waterwheel/gin of Running Waters, all evidences and circumstances point to the owner having been John Ridge, Esq. We know that it would require someone who had above average financial means. We know that the facility was located on Ridge’s plantation. We know that with every family in the area growing cotton and with enough of it being produced to export to New Orleans… that someone would have had to have furnished a cotton gin. And, we know that the Cherokee people of Northwest Georgia’s Indian Territory had eight gins. Although not absolute, the preponderance of evidence shows that the original ownership of the gin would have been that of the Cherokee, John Ridge. Furthermore, such circumstantial evidence should be sufficient as to lay claim to its owner having been John Ridge until such time it may be proven otherwise.

WITH ALL THIS IN MIND, Rome artist Frank Murphy was commissioned to paint the waterwheel/gin as it would have appeared in the 1870’s. Frank’s original canvas now hangs in the home of Thad and Nancy Rush, which was also the home of John Ridge and his family up until September of 1837 when he left Running Waters for his new home in Arkansas Territory (now the State of Oklahoma).  So Today, as a fitting tribute to John Ridge and his beloved Running Waters Plantation, a copy of Frank Murphy’s painting covers the wall in the entrance foyer of the Shag Williams Community Center in Shannon, Georgia.

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