The Hydraulic Mills-Union Ridge community:
For more than a century, the Hydraulic Mills at the junction of Ivy Creek and the South Fork of the Rivanna River were the commercial hub of a large rural area northwest of Charlottesville. A bustling village grew up around the two grain mills, with a store, a sawmill, blacksmith and cooper's shops, a wool carding machine, dwellings, and a post office. Grain raised in the surrounding farms and plantations was brought to the mills for processing into flour and cornmeal, and the flour was shipped down the Rivanna to distant markets. Although the mills were plundered by Union soldiers during the Civil War and badly damaged by the great flood of 1870, the millstones continued to grind the grain produced in the local community. In 1872 the African-American miller at Hydraulic, Rollins Sammons, purchased the mills in partnership with a white man, W. W. Worledge. Sammons ran the milling operation into the 1890s. In the twelve months ending in June 1880, the flour and grist mills ground 8,000 bushels of wheat and 6,000 bushels of corn. In 1966, what remained of the village of Hydraulic Mills was flooded by the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
During the hard economic times after the war many large estates were dismantled, including that of the Burnleys, owners of the Hydraulic Mills for forty years. The newly-freed men and women worked to acquire their own farms and banded together to establish their own churches and schools. A vital African-American community---in which members of the Sammons family played a central role---grew up around the commercial center of the mill village. The large farms, like that of Hugh Carr, produced crops of wheat and tobacco, while corn, potatoes, and vegetables were raised on the smaller farms. Almost everyone eventually had an orchard as well as hogs, poultry, and a milk cow, and some had beehives and grapevines. For many, it was necessary to combine farming with work as blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, dressmakers, and teachers. In its extent and importance, this community can be seen as a rural equivalent of Vinegar Hill, the center of post-Emancipation life in Charlottesville.
The African-American community that grew up around the Hydraulic Mills is a perfect illustration of historian Edward L. Ayers’s statement that “the growth of black land ownership was one of the most remarkable facets of life in the New South.” Freedpeople found ways to acquire pieces of the land on which they had once been enslaved. Some could earn more money through practicing skilled trades or being farm managers. Others worked cooperatively to achieve landownership. In 1868, six men joined forces to purchase a fifty-acre tract near the intersection of present-day Earlysville, Hydraulic, and Rio roads, which they then divided. By 1891 there were almost sixty black landowners in an area that included the interconnected neighborhoods of Georgetown, Webbland, Hydraulic, Union Ridge, Allentown, and Cartersburg. Most had smallholdings of five to ten acres, several owned thirty to eighty acres, and Hugh Carr was the largest landholder with over a hundred acres. The 1930 census demonstrates the steady expansion of black home and farm ownership. See the appended maps for a graphic representation of the belt of black-owned farms and homesteads that stretched for two miles from Georgetown in the south, along present Hydraulic, Rio, Woodburn, and Earlysville roads north to Cartersburg and Allentown.
At the heart of the Hydraulic Mills-Union Ridge community was the Union Ridge Baptist Church, founded as the Salem Church two years after the Civil War ended. The establishment of independent churches was frequently the first activity of newly-freed people. Berkeley Bullock and Albert Wheeler were among Union Ridge’s trustees and Jesse Scott Sammons was the church secretary. In 1876 an African-American preacher, George Crawford, one of the six men who had bought land as a group, gave the congregation a quarter-acre for a church building. The Union Ridge Church still stands today as the home of an active Baptist congregation.
The Hydraulic Mills-Union Ridge community is an extraordinary example of African-American belief in the importance of education. Its early school evolved into the Albemarle Training School, the first black high school in Albemarle County and a magnet for African-American students outside the city of Charlottesville. Jesse S. Sammons, Rives Minor, and Hugh Carr’s daughter Mary Carr Greer were all important figures in this development, as teachers and principals. Sammons’s and Minor’s daughters, Albert Wheeler’s son Thomas, and others in the community also became teachers. Like the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, the Union Ridge/Albemarle Training School paved the way for many African Americans who aspired to full participation in the American dream.
Leaving the Land
In the early years of the twentieth century, limited opportunities in the Jim Crow south caused some Union Ridge residents to begin to migrate northwards and by the 1940s the encroachments of an expanding suburban Charlottesville started to alter the makeup of the community. Only remnants of the once-thriving African-American community survive today, some of them in the direct path of the proposed Route 29/Western Bypass.
The following families lived in this community: Allen Armstead Beck Blakey Bowles Brown Bullock Burkett Byers Carey Carr Carter Clark Clayton Coleman Coles Crawford Dawson Dickerson Douglas Estes Flannagan Fleming Gentry Gibbons Gillette Gilmer Gilmore Givens Gofney Hare Harris Hawkins Henderson Holmes Howard Hughes Irving Jackson Jefferson Johnson Jones Kennedy Key Knox Lincoln Logan Magruder McKenny Mills Minor Nicholas Overton Piper Preston Ragland Rives Sammons Shepherd Smith Solomon Sorrel Southall Spinner Sullivan Thomas Tinsley Tyler Walker Watson Wheeler White Williams Winn Winston Wood Woodfolk Young
Figure 1: Union Ridge Church