For more than 100 years, from the very late 1700s to the early 1900s, the Conestee area was a major factor in the development of what is now the greater Greenville area – particularly its early industrial growth. From the establishment of a mill sometime in the 1790’s and the start-up of the Carruth Armory (gun factory) before 1815, through the operation of the Patterson/Dunham Paper Mill and the McBee Manufacturing/Reedy River Factory complex in the mid nineteenth century, the Conestee area lead Greenville into the industrial age. A lawsuit brought by Conestee Mills against the City of Greenville in 1925 for pollution of the Reedy River was an early landmark in the fight to restore South Carolina’s rivers from the damage done by discharge of municipal and industrial wastes.
Little is known about the Conestee area before the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Cherokee Indians controlled the territory throughout the colonial period. Although the Cherokee did not reside permanently in the vicinity of Conestee, archaeological investigations indicate that they routinely used the area as a camp site.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the new state government often rewarded Patriot soldiers with offers of land. Many of the original landholders in the vicinity of the present day Nature Park likely obtained this land as a result of service in the American War of Independence.
In 1794, a 200-acre parcel of land on both sides of the Reedy River about 6 miles below Reedy River Falls was deeded to Andrew Nelson. This parcel included the land currently occupied by the Conestee Mill and dam, the area of remaining open lake immediately upstream of the existing dam, and both sides of the Reedy River up to about Marrow Bone Creek on the west side of the Reedy River and all the way east to about present Mauldin Road. A 100 acre parcel to the north of the Nelson holdings, on the west side of the Reedy River, which included most of the existing park wetlands and the Henderson Avenue trailhead, was deeded to Patrick Lafferty in 1785. Adjacent to the north edge of the Patrick Lafferty parcel lay a 313 acre parcel, on both sides of the Reedy River, which was deeded to David Reid Evans in 1784. The Evans land, which included most of the existing Augusta Acres subdivision and the City of Greenville’s closed landfill, only included existing Lake Conestee Nature Park land along its very southern edge.
Between the recording of these original deeds and about 1825, the land in these three parcels was expanded, subdivided and deeded to numerous other individuals.
In 1800, Adam Carruth and Lemuel Alston purchased 213 acres of the land included in the 313-acre tract originally owned by David Reid Evans. Although Adam Carruth also purchased several other parcels of land in the vicinity, it is believed that this 213-acre parcel, at the very northern edge of the present Park land, was the site of his musket manufacturing operation, which became known as the South Carolina Armory, the Carruth Armory, or the Carruth Gun Factory. Subsequent deeds to this property identify it as the “Gun Factory Tract” or the “Carruth Old Place.”
Carruth apparently established the Gun Factory in 1814 or 1815 to manufacture arms for the States of South Carolina and Georgia, but in 1816 he received a contract to manufacture a large number of muskets for the U.S. Army. After borrowing a significant amount of money, it is believed that Carruth produced over 2,000 muskets at the Gun Factory. Apparently, however, there were a number of disputes between Carruth and the government over the quality of the weapons produced. Adam Carruth lost his business and went bankrupt, and in 1824 he lost the property as well. One of the muskets produced at the Gun Factory is on display at the South Carolina Museum of History in Columbia, and the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville also has one of the Carruth muskets in its collection.
Patterson and Dunham Paper Mills
The August 22, 1835 edition of the Greenville Mountaineer announced that Andrew Patterson would soon be building a paper mill “about four miles” below the City of Greenville and intended to “…make as good paper as is furnished from the Northern Mills.” In 1836, Patterson purchased a plat of 313 acres, which is recorded as including the site of the Carruth Gun Factory, where he constructed his paper mill. Hand drawn maps of the last half of the 19th century show the location of the paper mill on the east side of the Reedy River downstream of Brushy Creek and upstream of what appears to be Marrow Bone Creek.
The paper mill apparently operated successfully for some years, but by 1841 Patterson was in some sort of major financial trouble. On December 31, 1841, the Greenville Mountaineer carried a legal notice from the Sheriff’s Office stating that, as the result of a lawsuit brought by Benajah Dunham against Patterson, the land Patterson owned, which included not only the paper mill he had built on the site of Gun Factory but an additional 226-acre parcel acquired by Patterson “between the Paper Mill place and McBee’s Factory place,” would be sold “before the Court House door.” Benajah Dunham purchased the Paper Mill and surrounding land, which included “an excellent saw mill and blacksmith’s shop, together with a good dwelling house and all necessary out buildings,” in 1842. In 1843, Benajah Dunham became the first mayor of Greenville, which at that time was a town of 1,100 people. In a May 3, 1844 notice in the Greenville Mountaineer, Benajah Dunham announced that he had established a book bindery at his paper mill “where I will have Binding, in all its varieties, done at the shortest notice.”
An article in the May 30, 1851 edition of the Southern Patriot describes how Dunham’s paper mill “converted old rags into (paper for) love letters” with “machinery propelled by water.” The article includes in its description the following: “Col. Dunham is a man of great enterprise and energy. He has all his arrangements, in regard to the business of his mill, well planned. He manufactures tin, sends it out and exchanges it for rags. His paper he sends to Augusta, in part, and exchanges for tin plate. He has a store, in which most of his operatives, hired, are paid. But the principal mechanics and paper makers about his mill, are his own slaves, and cost him nothing for wages.”
In 1852, Benajah Dunham sold the paper mill and surrounding property, which by then had been expanded to 840 acres, to the Greenville Manufacturing Company, which had been incorporated “for the purpose of manufacturing paper and cotton goods.” Dunham became president of the new company. The deed of sale includes the remarks that this Greenville Manufacturing Company property was that “whereon the paper mill now stands and known as the Gun Factory site.” By 1869 the owners began to subdivide the 840-acre parcel, which had extended as far south as Marrow Bone Creek. In 1890, the southern part of the property was sold to the Reedy River Manufacturing Company, which apparently needed the undeveloped property to incorporate the northern portions of the expanded lake which resulted from construction of the present dam structure.
McBee Manufacturing – Reedy River Factory
In 1799, Andrew Nelson sold the downstream 100 acres of his 200-acre parcel to Andrew McDavid for $150. The deed noted that the land included a “mill seat and yard” on the south side of the river, so apparently a mill of some type had been constructed near the approximate site of the present day Conestee Mill sometime between 1794 and 1799. The presence of a major shoal along the river at this location lends credence to this, as some sort of mill was developed at most locations where settlers could harness the power of the river. In 1807, McDavid sold this “land and mills on the Reedy River” to Josiah Thompson for $800, who subsequently deeded the property to his son, Samuel Thompson, through his will. The property deeds involved in all these transactions record that there was a mill or mills on the site. By 1820, a small community had grown up around the mills and the village of Conestee was established. The nature of the mills themselves is unknown.
By 1827, Samuel Thompson had consolidated and expanded his holdings to 400 acres, including a short upstream reach of Laurel Creek (but not the mouth of Laurel Creek) on the east side of the Reedy River and extending on the west side of the river downstream to below the confluence of both Laurel Creek and McWilliams Branch with the Reedy River. Between December 1831 and October 1832, 295 acres of this parcel, including the existing mill buildings and machinery, were sold to Vardry McBee. The type of mills at the site at the time of sale is not known, but they likely included a gristmill and a sawmill. It is possible that some sort of very small dam had been constructed at the site of the mills before McBee purchased the property, but this is also unknown.
McBee Chapel, Main Street – Conestee
Having acquired the property and the existing mills at what is now Conestee at the age of 56, Vardry McBee set out to expand and improve the mill site and the village. The milling operation soon incorporated both a new paper mill and a textile operation. Although unconfirmed, it is believed that sometime in the 1830s McBee constructed the first significant dam on the Reedy River at or near the site of the present Conestee dam. By 1847, the Greenville Mountaineer newspaper was being printed on paper manufactured by V. McBee, Sons & Company at Conestee. At that time, the McBee paper mill and the paper mill of Benjamin Dunham, located about a mile upstream of McBee’s mill on the Reedy River, were the only two paper mills in the vicinity of Greenville. According to an article in the Southern Patriot newspaper, by 1851 the McBee Factory property, under the direction of
A March 17, 1856 article in the Greenville Patriot and Mountaineer reported that a new Meeting House for the local Methodist Church, which had been established in November 1841, was about to be erected in the vicinity of the Cotton Factory and Paper Mills at Conestee. Alexander McBee funded the construction of this new chapel, which was built under the direction of millwright John Adams. This octagonal brick church, with a capacity of 150, is known today as “McBee Chapel.” It is located on what is now Main Street in Conestee and is still in use as a Methodist Church.Vardry’s son, Alexander, and his superintendent, John Adams, included a cotton factory, a paper mill, a gristmill, and a sawmill. There were about 50 operating personnel, and a community of more than 150 depended on the McBee Factory for support. The capitalization of the operation was stated to be nearly $40,000 in 1851. The product of the cotton mill was cotton yarn and “linsey-woolsey,” both manufactured from cotton grown in fields surrounding the mills owned by McBee and possibly others.
McBee Manufacturing apparently thrived during the 1850’s, and numerous homes were constructed for the workers and their families. In 1862, Vardry McBee, who by then was 87 years old, sold the mill complex and land to J.W. Grady, D.O. Hawthorn, and W. Perry. At that time, the mills apparently employed about 225 workers. Although unconfirmed, legend has it that the mill manufactured material for Confederate Army uniforms during the Civil War. Sometime after the sale by Vardry McBee, the mill complex was renamed Reedy River Factory.
Sometime around 1890, the Reedy River Factory acquired additional acreage on the north side of the Reedy River Factory property, which included the site of the old Dunham Paper Mill, the larger parcel of which had previously been subdivided. So by the 1890’s, early in the textile mill period of Greenville’s growth, the Reedy River Factory included the sites of the Carruth Armory, the Patterson and Dunham Paper Mills, and all of the present day Lake Conestee Nature Park. Also about this time, the existing mill building was constructed next to the Conestee dam site. Around 1892, the rock dam as it appears today was constructed (or at least raised to its present height), creating a 130-acre lake. One likely purpose of the dam expansion in 1892 was the generation of electricity to power the mill. By 1892, the Reedy River Factory property included all of the present day village of Conestee and the Lake Conestee Nature Park. In 1909 the mill was incorporated as Conestee Mills.
During the first several decades of the 20th Century, the Reedy River Factory was a major textile mill, complete with mill town and a company store, which still stands. However, between 1890 and 1915 the number of textile mills and supporting mill villages upstream of Lake Conestee increased from 2 to more than 12, and all of these mills and mill villages discharged their wastes directly into the Reedy River or its tributaries. The City of Greenville and other supporting industries grew dramatically in this same period, and all discharged their wastes into the Reedy. The raw sewage and industrial discharge contaminants reaching the river flowed downstream, where they settled out in the lake (mill pond) behind the dam at Conestee Mill. The effects of this pollution were made worse by construction of the City of Greenville’s first sewers in 1892, which discharged raw sewage into the Reedy River, accelerating the waste discharge to Lake Conestee.
The collection of pollutants behind the dam created numerous problems for both the mill and the village of Conestee. Untreated sewage was a breeding ground for pathogens, creating noxious odors and a significant health risk. Algae blooms in the lake caused by nutrients in the sewage discharges depleted the oxygen content of the lake, creating further odor problems. Water in the lake and river was unfit for any use other than the generation of power for the mill.
In 1925, Conestee Mills, as it was now known, sued the City of Greenville in Circuit Court for damages suffered by the mill and residents of Conestee by the City’s use of the Reedy River as a sewer. The case dragged out until 1931, and was heard twice in the Supreme Court of South Carolina. The City of Greenville ultimately conceded that it had caused the pollution, “notoriously, conspicuously, and necessarily”, as that was the way waste was treated during that time. By the time the case was resolved in the Supreme Court in 1931, Conestee Mills had begun to fail because of the protracted litigation and the effects of the Great Depression. Not only was it damaged by the pollution from upstream, but it was fighting the general economic catastrophe which extended throughout the Country. However, the lawsuit had a major impact in the City’s construction of its first wastewater treatment plant in 1928, less than two miles upstream of the mill, and the creation of the Greater Greenville Sanitary District (now Western Carolina Regional Sewer Authority). Also, by taking a public stand against rampant degradation of the river by its use as a public sewer, the lawsuit by Conestee Mills was an early landmark in the fight to clean South Carolina’s rivers.