The colonization of Northern Virginia proceeded slowly in the 17th and 18th centuries, usually along waterways as there was little to offer from the muddy pits and scant game paths that were available as roads. Even when waterways were not navigable, they were used for barge transport, irrigation and as power sources for mills. Old maps of Fauquier County are peppered with mills situated on tendrils of blue water snaking out from the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac gathers in the Occoquan River which, in turn, is fed by a combination of Broad Run and Cedar Run. In frontier towns like Warrenton, grist mills were essential to grind wheat into flour. They also served as meeting places where local farmers could exchange news and escape the solitary labor of the farm.
In March of 1770, a mixed race runaway slave named Crispus Attucks becomes the first casualty of the nascent American Revolution when a mob attacked the British soldiers at the Boston Custom House. It was also the year that a Mr. John Churchill applied to build a mill on Cedar Run on what would become the eastern outskirts of Warrenton. The mill was known variously as Churchill Mill, Atlee Mill and White’s Mill as it changed hands and fortunes. It is remembered as ‘small’ but with little else to distinguish it.
There are a few tidbits in the records that give a peek into the life of the times. An Indenture quoted in Water Powered Mills of Fauquier County states that John Churchill is bound to provide one James Bell and his decedents a rate of one peppercorn each year on the feast of St. Michaels for as long as the mill operates or 500 years. Whichever comes first. I’m not sure how many years Mr. James Bell and his heirs enjoyed their September 29th peppercorn but Churchill Mill became White’s Mill in 1812, then Atlee Mill in 1912. The nearby home on ‘Millfield’ also circulated owners as the county grew and changed. There are reports that the mill probably operated until around 1920 when gasoline power was rendering water powered grinding obsolete. The mill, house and mill run have vanished under the current development but once lay to the south and parallel to Cedar Run.
Start in the gravel parking area at the current end of Academy Hill Rd and enter the trail by the kiosk. Turn around for a moment and look to the other side of the road. This section of trail, The Woods at Warrenton portion, will shortly be opened up and add another half mile or so to your Fitbit totals. Turn again to the trail and proceed up a small incline bounded by a timber fence and see the lazy branch of Cedar Run winding into the wetlands. A little down the trail with the wetlands to your right and private houses to the left, note what looks like a dredge hanging from a tree.
Continue along the sunny path with cattails, honeysuckle and stands of maple, locust and poplar to the right. Up the hill to your left, McMansions guard the green turfed ridge in military rows. On a September 2008 ‘Bio-Blitz’, 35 different species of bird, 55 types of shrubs/trees, 10 types of insect, and 55 different types of flowers, grasses and ground covers were observed. Some types of insects I am happy not to observe but there you are.
At about ½ mile the trail turns to the right into the wetlands and crosses a small creek. An old hollow tree to the right is home to a bee colony. After crossing a small bridge you come to a four way stop. The section to the right crosses Cedar Run and ends at a kiosk on the suggestively named Mill House Lane near the Fauquier Swim Club pool. Have a dip if you are a member and it’s summer. For now, head to the left passing the concrete cylinder like a faceless Olmec god standing sentinel over the crossroads. There are several of these mysterious totems along the trail, forgotten and angry deities occasionally emitting pungent aromas from the depths below.
At the next branch in the path, head to the right. To the left, a short section descends to another bridge and access to the development. This is the highest point of the trail. Ignore the cars zooming by on I29 and imagine the sparsely populated fields bordered by virgin forests as the foundations of a small mill were placed nearby in the 1770s. There would be little sound but that of tweeting birds, the wind rustling the branches of virgin stands of oak and chestnut, the crackling of the brook, and an occasional neigh from a horse or bark of a dog. Head back the way you came going left at the split and arriving back at the first crossroad.
Now take the untried option to your left. It leads to another loop under a generously spreading walnut (?) tree. The trail here will soon be extended underneath I29 to continue the Cedar Run Greenway on its journey to the Warrenton Reservoir and beyond toward I17. The Fauquier Trails Coalition and Fauquier Parks and Recreation are focusing on completing this northern section of the Warrenton loop as quickly as time, money, and bureaucracy permit.
Now return the way you came happily observing various ground cover and insects as opportunity permits. See if you can spot the site of the old mill run.