The Full Story of the Waterwheel on Lyons Bend

Creekside mills were the hydropower of earlier generations

Photo with no caption

Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection

Dear Doc Knox,

I am sure there is interesting history behind the waterwheel down Lyons Bend Road. There is a tiny bit of background and a picture or two online from the McClung Collection. After reading your story about the papermill of Papermill Drive, it made me think of items around Knoxville that we see all the time but do not fully understand the background. Can you tell us the background on this landmark in Rocky Hill? Thanks for your insightful stories.

Harrison S.

My Dear Mr. S:

Creekside mills were the hydropower of other generations, a semi-dependable energy source a century and a half before TVA: Hydroelectric dams are waterwheels without the charm.

For most of the 19th century, First, Second, and Third Creeks were churning with water-powered mills. You can still see some surviving waterwheels here and there. Some of them were classic grist mills, used for grinding grain. Some were power generators, useful in the early days of electricity if you lived outside of the city and didn’t have any way to plug appliances in. But some were built to pump fresh water up to a residence. The well-known waterwheel at the entrance to Westmoreland, at the corner of Sherwood Drive and Westland, was built in 1923 to pump water before there was dependable water service there. Though property owner Daniel Clary Webb—attorney and father of the guy who founded Webb School—built that one to catch the eye (enlisting one of his era’s best-known architects, Charlie Barber, to design it), it did serve that practical purpose for about five years.

The waterwheel in the ravine off Lyons Bend, which is about a mile and a half southeast of Judge Webb’s waterwheel, is much larger but was built about the same time and served the same purpose. Few get to see it up close. In our experience, Lyons Bend is a curvy, narrow road for people in a very big hurry. Slowing down to look at an unusual waterwheel is, by the standards of Lyons Bend drivers, mere foolishness and not to be tolerated. However, inspired by your query, a consultant who used to tend the Westmoreland waterwheel found a way to hike in, and had a look.

It’s built almost like a suburban house, finished with a stucco exterior and a good slate roof, and has two small rooms not counting the wheelhouse itself. It has a four-cylinder engine with a patent date of 1923, so we suspect the waterwheel was built soon after that. Though there’s some damage to the back of it, the house and the apparatus are in remarkably good shape. The wheel can’t turn now because some of the spokes are twisted, but the grease on its axle suggests it has operated within your memory and mine, and it looks as if a day or two of hard work could get it running again.

A good-sized mill pond, a few hundred yards to the north, is not as visible from the road; approach it via a scant path, and a “Keep Out” sign may convince you to turn back. This pond is depicted, coincidentally, as the January illustration in the public library’s “Knoxville Remembered” 2011 calendar, in an artful 1926 shot of skaters upon its frozen surface.

We made some inquiries and learned the waterwheel was associated with the Van Deventer property. Born in Iowa, Hugh Van Deventer moved with his family to Knoxville as a teenager in the 1880s. It was an ambitious family. His older brother, Horace Van Deventer, became prominent in progressive civic issues. He ended up as an aide in the State Department and an associate of Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

Hugh studied metallurgy and mining at Harvard and became a successful industrialist who founded of the Southern States Portland Cement Co. Though its major operations were in Georgia, he remained here. He married a Baltimore lady, Garafilia Lyon, in 1898, and they had two sons. And in his early 50s, Hugh Van Deventer became kind of a suburban pioneer.

Before World War I, most Knoxvillians, rich and poor, lived within walking distance of downtown. But in the 1920s, the affluent, who owned the first generation of automobiles dependable enough to allow multi-mile commuting, discovered other living options. Van Deventer was a member, and eventually president, of the vigorous Knoxville Automobile Club, a group that pushed better roads and interesting destinations in the days before most Americans had cars. Many of the early auto-club members chose to live outside of town in the 1920s, well off the streetcar grid.

It was pretty daring to build this far out, where one had few neighbors, and one of the closest was what was known then as the Lyons View Asylum for the Insane. Was Garafilia Lyon kin to the Knoxville Lyons who settled along the river generations before them? Did the Van Deventers find Lyons Bend appealing for that reason? It’s not obvious in the records, but Van Deventer built a particularly fine, modern house well outside city limits on Lyons Bend.

Van Deventer had been particularly interested in hydroelectric power, and had been involved in a project of that nature on the Hiwassee. We wonder if the waterwheel was a particularly picturesque experiment. What also strikes you, when you look at it closely, is the amount of poured concrete in both the waterwheel house and the dam. Would someone who didn’t run a large concrete company have used it quite so proudly?

What Van Deventer established here was almost a self-sustaining suburban paradise by the river, between the woods and the city. But by the time it was completed, he may already have been seriously ill. He went to a specialist in Richmond, Va., for surgery and treatment of a condition not named in the newspapers, and he unexpectedly died in March 1925. Records differ about his age at the time, but he seems to have been only 53 or 54.

Later, Van Deventer’s son married Bill Haslam’s grandmother. So the builder of the waterwheel was sort of our new governor’s step-great-grandfather. As a result of that complicated connection, the Big Jim Haslam family now lives in the old Van Deventer house, but the waterwheel is now on another homeowner’s property.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

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