The Story of West Point on the Eno*

ENO Journal
Volume 3, No. 1
-Jean Anderson & Margaret Nygard

The Eno River rises obscurely in the tobacco fields of Orange County, having two sources and two branches. The upper reaches of the river have historic sites along the way, some of them mill sites from colonial and later times. The town of Hillsborough, fleetingly State capital and summer capital of the State, was built at the juncture of the Eno and the great Indian trading path, where later Frances Nash, hero of the revolutionary war, ran his complex of mills. Along its full length, together with its tributaries, “that never-failing stream, the Eno” was once the power source for 32 mills or more.

Beyond Hillsborough, the Eno gathers strength and breadth, moving in its meandering way through unspoiled wilderness, past curious rock formations, past bluffs covered with mountain laurel, rhododendron, azalea, galax and partridge berry, through swimming holes with strange names and histories, the Bobbitt Hole, Green’s Hole, the Sennett Hole, past fording places that old timers with clear memories remember well.

At Shoemaker’s Ford where the road to Roxboro now crosses, there was once a small community called West Point whose industrial center was one of the many mills that once dotted the Eno.

This area has always been desirable land. The Eno Indians who knew it first found plentiful springs, tall forests, broad meadows, good fording and good fish-ing. Their long habitation is proved by the numbers of arrowheads and axeheads that have been picked up in the fields around there.

The early white settlers found the same features attractive: the rich bottom lands yielded abundant crops, the springs fresh water, the forests its game and the river its fish. Any settler with some capital to invest might have seen there too an excellent site for a mill—and a whole series of them did.

No mill on the Eno has had a longer history than that of West Point by Rox-boro Road. The mill that stood there until recently was only the last of many structures on the same site. It ceased operation only in 1942 after 160 years of uninterrupted service when a great freshet swept out the dam.

The first mill on this stretch of the river was located some distance upstream and was known as Synott’s Mill. It was already in operation in 1752 when Michael Synott was granted 100 acres on both sides of the river “including his mills.”

Michael Synott comes down to us in both history and legend. We know from records, that he was a miserly old bachelor given to fast dealings in real estate and in constant trouble in the courts. He kept tavern at his house and there he entertained the Moravian Bishop Spangenberg and gave shelter for three months to the sick members of his party. The brothers had fallen sick on their way to look for a good place for a Moravian Settlement. Synott was so intrigued by Spangenberg’s mission (which resulted in the Unitas Eratrum of Wachovia) that he rode on with them for three weeks.

There are many legends about Captain Sennett, as he came to be called, of how the devil came to get him, of his pot of Spanish gold, and of the fateful end of his mill at the Sennett Hole. Old Mr. Numa Horton told one such tale:

“Old man Synott used to run a mill and he got drownded. He was a bachelor and he kep all of his change in the mill. He had Vs pot of gold and silver. The water rose up and carried him in and tumbled the mill into the deep hole. More people been diving to get that pot of gold. They say they’ve never found a bottom the water’s so deep. But I reckon there must be a bottom.”

In 1780, shorthly after Synott’s death, William Thetford and Charles Abercrombie bought the adjacent tract downstream and built a mill on the site we know as West Point Mill, possibly because the excellent ford immediately next to the site and a new road leading both north and south from it made that a more advan-tageous location.

Mill Stone Patterns
from “British Water Mills” by Leslie Syson –

William Ansley, one of the many industrious Quakers of the Eno River valley, bought Abercrombie’s mill in 1786, and bought, as well, the old Synott tract and additional land to the south of it. Later he moved to join his brother Timothy in Georgia at the Quaker settlement of Wrightsboro which was planned along the lines of Hillsborough. The substantial Ansley rock house, built to withstand Indians, is now being restored in Georgia. William Ansley sold to George Carrington, perhaps on his departure to Georgia.

It was under Carrington that the mill lands grew to their largest bulk of over one thousand acres, all of which passed into the hands of Herbert Sims in 1817 when Carrington’s financial affairs grew so tangled he was forced to sell. Herbert Sims ran the mill from 1817 till his death in 1843, after which his widow and then his step-son continued the operation. This period of over fifty years was the hey-day of West Point Mill. Herbert Sims was a justice of the peace, colonel of the militia, representative to the General Assembly for Orange County, a politician and a powerful man in the county in every way. He knew how to marry well, too. His first wife was a daughter of John Carrington, one of the largest land-owners in the county in the late 18th century. After her death, Sims married in 1831 the widow of Moses McCown and daughter of John Cabe, Rachel Cabe McCown.

Squire John Cabe, Rachel’s father, was a biblical figure, the Abraham of the Eno, and head of a mill oligarchy on the rivers of the region. He had three wives, no sons and nine beautiful daughters, and, as the story goes, it was “not a little singular that each of the eleven men the nine daughters married all owned a merchant mill.”

John Cabe himself had early established his own mill on the Eno River at just about the time Abercrombie was building his. Cabe had also helped his fifth daughter, Rachel, by locating her husband Moses McCown with another mill downstream from his own near the present Cole Mill road crossing. Traces of the mill dam and the mill runs still remain at the river, and the house that Rachel once lived in before her widowhood still stands by the old mill road. After Rachel’s second prosperous marriage to Colonel Herbert Sims, she moved to West Point. With this advantageous marriage, Sims came to control two mills on the Eno and a large share of the milling business.

Mills were community centers back then, places where business of all sorts was done, and places where men met to gossip and gamble, to lay plans and discuss the important issues of the day. And so it was natural enough that in 1839 a post office was set up at Sims Mill which by this time had grown to be the largest community center on the river this side of Hillsborough. The name West Point was given to the post office and to the mill as well as to the community which had grown up around the mill of about 200 persons. As West Point was the most westerly stop on the mail route from Raleigh to Roxboro, it may have received its name from that fact; we have as yet found no other explanation for it.

Today a handful of structures remains on the mill lands but probably none that were there during the ownership of Herbert Sims unless Sims first lived in the plain white house shaded by century old oaks south of the mill. Besides.-the house and grist mill, we know there was also a saw-mill, an oil mill, a blacksmith’s shop, a still, a cotton gin, and a general store that sold everything the farmers needed and supplied other mills as well. Two old ledgers show over three hundred names of charge customers and their accounts and give a complete picture of the goods sold: clothing materials, groceries, furniture, coffins, meat, whiskey, books and stationery supplies, and medicine including the much-hawked panacea the Abys-sinian Mixture guaranteed to cure colds, piles, gravel, and female complaints.

Cook’s map of 1859 shows West Point. From Civil War records we learn that Sherman stationed Kilpatrick’s cavalry unit there during the last days before the Surrender, at Bennett Place. Refugees from other war zones had been congregating at West Point, some engaged in business but the majority probably unemployed and causing the usual kind of unrest and potential trouble that idleness and over-crowding engender—thus the military reason for the troops.

Kilpatrick earned himself a reputation as a dashing cavalryman, given to women and drink. There are tales still told today of how he harried the countryside, of how he threatened to hang the miller of West Point, and of how people buried their molasses and hid their daughters. Some fragrance of these adventures is caught in the stern words of General Sherman’s field orders:

“The general commanding announces to the army a suspension of hostili-ties, and an agreement with General Johnston and high officials, which when formally ratified, will make peace from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. Until the absolute peace is arranged, a line passing through Tyrrell’s Mount, Chapel Hill, University, Durham’s Station, and West Point, on the Neuse River, will sepa-rate the two armies. Each army commander will group his camps entirely with a view to comfort, health, and good police. All the details of military discipline must still be maintained, and the general hopes and believes that in a very few days it will be his good fortune to conduct you all to your homes. The fame of this army for courage, industry, and discipline is admitted all over the world. Then let each officer and man see that it is not stained by any act of vulgarity, rowdyism, and petty crime.”

When the final peace was signed on April 26, 1865, at the Bennett Place, we know from family traditions that the Cabes, the Sims and McCowns were there to witness the formalities, mustering from their several mills on the Eno to join their relative Martha Bennett, grand-daughter of John Cabe and widow of the unfortu-nate Lorenzo Bennett who had died on the battlefield.

The peace though it came with surrender, was celebrated like a victory.

Another tale is told of John Cabe’s great grand-daughter. Sally McCown who lived at West Point, and of how she danced all night long in celebration.
Miss Everett told the story:

“I remember the miller John McCown. He was a prominent man, with curly hair that was gray when I saw him. He had a beautiful daughter named Sally. Her hair was curly, too, but it was black and pretty. After the war they had a ball. Sally rode horseback to the party and she danced all night till she danced the soles off her shoes. Then she rode home on horseback and took a cold and never spoke out loud anymore. I remember going with my mother to see her on her last bed. It’s like a dream seeing the sick woman in the bed.”

There is mute testimony to this story in the mill ledgers with the entries “a horse and a pair of shoes for Sally.”

There are happier stories of West Point, of picnics and weddings. There were corn shucking dances with the McCown’s at Squire Guess’ place. There were big weddings at the Lipscomb’s, descriptions of which are left in family letters. One letter tells of the wedding of William’s sister Rebecca to Robert Russell on October 16, 1866.

The wedding:

“was a very swell affair and I don’t know how many bridesmaids she had. They were married at Granpa Lipscomb’s and wnt afterwards to Grandma’s at Tally Ho. [The groom] fell out of the buggy and snagged the lining of his coat. I have the coat now—snag and all.
“Speaking of hospitality—an example was exhibited at this wedding. The entire country was invited, not only to witness the ceremony, but to share the wedding feast, which consisted first of what they called the meat table and two hours later the dessert table . . . [The servants] stole 40 pounds of cake that night.”

During the Reconstruction era the West Point Mill suffered the same economic depression that gripped the rest of the South, and though John Cabe McCown managed to keep the mill running he was forced to sell half-interest to William Lipscomb in 1869, and lost the other half to him in 1873. But as Lipscomb then married McCown’s daughter, Mary, the mill was actually still in the family.

In 1888 Lipscomb sold the mill to W.J. Christian and the next year he sold the house tract to P.J. Mangum. To this family belonged Hugh Mangum, an early photographer of Durham, whose glass plates numbering many hundreds have been given to us by Mangum descendants. To him we owe many old pictures of the West Point Mill. Both Christian and Mangum like Limscomb himself were associ-ated with the burgeoning little town of Durham, a few miles south of the mill.

Christian and Lipscomb were mayors of Durham; Mangum was its post master. John Cabe McCown’s son, Moses Ellis, was also a mayor of Durham, all of which shows how the power-center had shifted. The mills on the river were no longer the social, political and commercial centers. The City was taking their place and drawing to it the men who counted. The Civil War had ended the possibility of plantation existence and rural self-sufficiency; the industrial revolution and the railroad were making possible the rise of the town.

But that town as now we know was to grow and spread eventually to move back again to the river. Mrs. Mangum, living behind the mill in the old white house with her beautiful garden around her had premonitions of the coming of the town. In 1909 she wrote to her son Hugh Mangum:

“We had a big rain Friday and the branches and river was out of the banks. Knox Vaughan’s corn land was under water yesterday. He had it already to plant. I think he will have to plow it again before he plants it now. Christian has sold the mill to Jim Hopkins and Will Holloway so it is no more Christian’s Mill; some way it makes me sad to think about it, but I guess it is for the best for they intend to improve things around there, and Christian would not as long as he could get 30 dollars rent as it was. They gave him forty-five hundred for it. After they bargained for it, another man offered him five thousand, but it was too late. I know it made him sick to lose that five hundred dollars. Durham is still moving out this way; it will get here some day if it keeps on. I don’t expect to see it, but some one will if time still lasts.”

Our hope is to put West Point on the map again. Though sad things have happened on the river, though the millstones were stolen and the mill declined and fell, and though growth of a density Mrs. Man gum never dreamed of has come to the Eno east of Roxboro Road, yet west of Roxboro Road where West Point used to be, the lands are green still and are destined for a river park of magnificent dimensions which will be run by the City and State together.

We hope to recreate some of the life of West Point and make this area a historical focus for the river park. Mill machinery has been given to replace some of what was stolen. A log farm house has been given to use as lumber for the mill. Gifts of money have come in. But we need more machinery, more structural timbers, more money, more helping hands and enthusiastic hearts.

There is much to be done. There is the mill to be rebuilt, the fields to be cleared, the barn mended, the outbuilding, granaries and blacksmith shop to be brought back together again. And we have still standing waiting to be restored, the fine old house itself. When we have worked together to complete this restoration, we will see yet another mill on the foundation of the old, standing in familiar surroundings, her wheel churning the waters and turning the stones and grinding the corn.

With West Point on the map again with its small and natural industries and folkways there would be a place to visit for recreation and reflection, to consider the mixed blessings of our past which are inextricably a part of present day Durham.

Such a living, working museum will recapture our rich historical heritage and a way of life now disappeared.


*Note: We use the name “West Point” rather than any one of the ten mill owners’ names by which the mill has been known, because “West Point” commemorates the whole community that existed under that name for over forty years and under three different mill-owners, its time of greatest and longest prosperity.