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Sylvanus Walker Blackburn is noted for building the first gristmill in Benton County, locating his mill on War Eagle River. After selecting a site, Blackburn built a home, followed by a gristmill, blacksmith shop, carpentry shop, sawmill, and school. Today, Blackburn’s two-story home still stands, while a 1973 reproduction of the mill sits on its original spot. War Eagle Mill is Arkansas’s only remaining working mill and is believed to be the only undershot waterwheel now in operation in the United States. This is also the site of the well-known annual Ozark Arts and Crafts Fair, generally known as the War Eagle Fair, established in 1954 and held in October.
Born on February 15, 1809, Sylvanus Blackburn was the son of Josiah Blackburn and Rachel Bryant Blackburn, who had three other boys and two girls. Raised in Hickman County, Tennessee, he married Catharine Brewer when both were sixteen; they had nine children and later adopted eight Civil War orphans.
When Blackburn turned twenty-one, he set out with his son Josiah and two other families for the Arkansas Territory. Removal of Native Americans opened new areas to white settlers, with land offered at five cents an acre. Blackburn arrived in Lowell (Benton County) in December 1832, spending the night at the home of John Fitzgerald. The next morning, father and son scouted out a local ford on War Eagle River four miles below the eventual village post office. Here, Blackburn selected a 160-acre site just below the first white settlers of the area, brothers Isaac and Levi Borne, who arrived from Illinois earlier that spring. After passing the winter in tents, he returned to Tennessee the following spring to gather his family. His parents, some other family members, and their slaves all made their new home on War Eagle River.
By 1838, Blackburn, a Baptist preacher, built a two-story home on the west side of the river; he built a gristmill on the east side. The 1848 flood washed away the mill, but Blackburn rebuilt it and added a sawmill and blacksmith shop and eventually a cabinet shop, general store, and Masonic lodge, which also served as a school. With the addition of Blackburn’s sawmill, sawed lumber became accessible to residents of northeastern Benton County. Blackburn also formed the county’s first school.
The Blackburns’ settlement was prosperous by the time of the Civil War, enjoying a healthy lumber and mill business. All of Blackburn’s sons joined the Confederate army while he, his wife, and their daughters went to Texas. In March 1862, the area saw both Union and Confederate soldiers use the mill to grind grain. However, the Confederate general directed his soldiers to burn the mill two days before the Battle of Pea Ridge to prevent its capture by the Union army. Ambrose Blackburn, the second son, died from wounds received in the war.
By 1873, James Austin Cameron Blackburn, the sixth Blackburn child, had rebuilt the dam and mill. The mill continued to operate until destroyed by fire in 1924. He also married into the family of Peter Van Winkle, another northwest Arkansas lumber baron.
On March 13, 1890, Sylvanus Blackburn’s wife died. Blackburn, as the story is told, directed that her grave be dug but not closed until he was buried beside her. Five days later, on March 18, he, too, died. The two were buried side by side at the Blackburn family cemetery at War Eagle. Within Benton County, the following locations bear the name of Blackburn: Blackburn Cemetery, Blackburn Creek, Blackburn Hollow, Blackburn House, Blackburn Mill, and Blackburn Mill Road.
For additional information: Abbott, Virginia. “War Eagle Revisited.” Rogers Daily News. April 29, 1971, p. 9.
Benton County Heritage Committee. History of Benton County, Arkansas. Rogers, AR: Benton County Heritage Committee, 1991.
Black, J. Dickson. History of Benton County. Little Rock: International Graphics Industry, 1975.
Key, Vera. “History of the Blackburn Family.” Benton County Pioneer 1 (September 1955): 1–4.
Rogers Historical Museum. Rogers, Arkansas.
Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. Springdale, Arkansas.
John SpurgeonBella Vista, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/9/2013
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