By John. M. Utley
Growing up, Smith Mills seemed like a sprawling metropolis—a coal town. But once I came back many years later, it was a tiny spot on the map, barely showing up on Google Maps. When I wrote my book Smith Mills, I did a little research on my birthplace. Here is what I found.
It all started with Robert Smith. He was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to Henderson County when he was fourteen. Sometime after that, he joined the federal army and fought in New Orleans under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. He eventually achieved the rank of colonel.
Coming back to Henderson County, he became a magistrate. Since the area lacked a grist mill, he built one. Grinding wheat into flour and corn into meal was necessary for life in the 1800s. Flour makes bread and so many other products. Cornmeal makes grits and is used for coating meats before frying. Everyone wanted to purchase bags of ground wheat or corn because it was too hard to grind it yourself.
Another important product produced by a grist meal is feed for animals. Grinding makes the feed digestible for the animals. Back then, constructing a grist meal was no easy task. First, it has two huge grinding stones, each weighing one-and-a-half tons or more. This took many men and oxen to get the stones to the mill. And don’t forget you had to find a quarry that could make them. It wasn’t an easy task to accomplish. To power the grist mills, most of them used water. The water turned a wheel, which turned the main spindle through the center of the stones. Even though the Ohio River was only a mile away, Col. Robert Smith’s mill used horses and oxen. It got the job done.
The spot he picked for his mill was a high point for the area. It was above the flood plain of the Ohio River.
Over time, folks said they were headed to Smith’s Mill. As you can imagine, time morphed that into Smith Mills. And that’s what we have today. Col. Robert Smith was quite a man. He remained a magistrate for twenty-four years. He also put in two terms as sheriff and another two as a school commissioner. In 1830, Col. Smith’s son, Hosea, set up the post office and operated it.
A small claim-to-fame is John Miller Cooper. He was born in Smith Mills and invented the jump shot in basketball. And he shares the same middle name as me.
Presbyterians erected the first church in 1825. The Baptists came later. The Utleys were early residents of Smith Mills, with J.C. Utley and J.D. Utley the first. They were farmers in the 1840s. Today, Smith Mills is unincorporated. That means it’s really small. Even so, it’s my hometown and holds a special place in my heart.
John M. Utley tells the incredible true story of his struggle to escape dirt-poor poverty by raising himself as a child. Lacking parents who cared whether he lived or died, and demanding he pay rent to live with them, Mr. Utley survived hunger, loneliness, an insane serial killer, bullies, and a system hellbent on keeping him down. Yet he climbed to breathtaking heights, building a massive business from nothing. Today, he is retired, living in Dallas with his wife, Kathy. Smith Mills and The Road From Smith Mills are his first two books.