Skip to content

Historic gristmill featured at Discovery Park

Historic gristmill featured at Discovery Park
Historic gristmill featured at Discovery Park | Discovery Park of America, gristmill

Weakley County volunteers Bill Austin (left) and Wil Brewer
Like a giant puzzle, the pieces are finally coming together for Union City’s $100 million Discovery Park of America.
One significant piece of the puzzle is nearly completed at the park site — a working gristmill with grinding stones and a water wheel that date back to the late 1700s or early 1800s.
The historic gristmill is being pieced together through the combined efforts of volunteers WIl Brewer of Dresden and Bill Austin of Martin.
Together, the two Weakley County volunteers have been working for the past five years on their project.
Brewer and Austin first met in 2007 when ideas and plans were discussed for the Discovery Park project.
Brewer retired from Pitney Bowes after working for the company for 37 years. Austin is a retired math professor who worked at the University of Tennessee at Martin for 42 years.
Together, they have formed a special bond working on the gristmill project. Their passion for the project is evident watching them work together on the mill.
Brewer took advantage of a retirement program offered by Pitney Bowes that allowed him to study building methods dating back more than 200 years. He first got interested in learning carpentry when he was watching a “This Old House” television program.
The work being done by Brewer and Austin involves a unique mix of art, science and old-fashioned carpentry.
Brewer and Austin may be volunteers, but they work just as hard on the gristmill as any of the paid workers and they have been overseeing every aspect of the project since construction of the gristmill began on the 50-acre park site.
They have even joined SPOOM, the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, and that has helped Brewer and Austin gain an appreciation for the art of building an old-fashioned gristmill
The partners first began their work on their project by visiting working gristmills in northern Pennsylvania. It was during a visit to a gristmill in Sevierville that the volunteers found what they were looking for and then brought the mill to Union City.
The gristmill is actually a tall building with a working wheel at the base that uses water power to turn the mill, which will eventually be used to grind corn.
“It was just something we threw up (as an idea) and wanted at the park,” Brewer said.
“We’d like to have the water wheel turning before the cold weather this year,” he added.
Right now, the water wheel structure is in place and workers are finishing up work on the framework for the unique building. It’s a timber frame structure with no nails or bolts, and instead was built the old-fashioned way with pegs and notches.
“It’s a great example of local craftsman and local volunteers creating something extraordinary at Discovery Park,” Discovery Park’s Larry Snider said.
Brewer said he believes there were gristmills in operation in Obion County, and said there was a working gristmill in Troy at one time.
In fact, Austin said he has seen an 1850s map of Weakley County with about 20 or 30 communities with “mill” in their name, which would indicate they had a working gristmill at some time. The historic gristmill will function as the “head” of the park’s water feature.
There are actually two ponds at the park site. The gristmill is situated on the north pond, which empties into a stream that will weave through the back side of the park, behind the Discovery Center, and will travel under a covered bridge to it’s final destination at the south pond.
Discovery Park of America is scheduled to open in early 2013 and will feature the Discovery Center, the main 100,000-square-foot exhibit building with nine galleries covering three floors.
The building has a 200-foot tower and multi-story atriums, and once completed will contain a variety of exhibits ranging from natural history to transportation. A 20,000-gallon Reelfoot Lake aquarium and a theater with an earthquake simulation are also planned as part of the Discovery Center.
The Discovery Park complex also will feature a log cabin village, a large farm equipment showcase, an amphitheater and great lawn area, themed gardens, a historic train depot, a chapel, a main street area and a town center.
Editor’s note: Kevin Bowden is a staff reporter at The Messenger in Union City. He may be contacted by email at

WCP 7.26.12

Leave a Comment