One highlight of my teenage years was visiting John Littlewood’s woolen mill. It still stands across Helton Creek from N.C. 194 N in “downtown” Helton.
As Mr. Littlewood showed me around one day in 1954, several things caught my attention. One was the power systems. The mill could be operated by a steam engine, water power or electricity. The steam engine was favored in winter for the heat also warmed the building. Helton Creek was dammed upstream and a sluice carried water to a turbine.
The original electric system was dependant on the water volume to turn the turbine. When Blue Ridge Electric arrived, it replaced their generator. Either system drove a long overhead shaft by means of a drive belt. Each machine, in turn, operated off this main shaft by smaller belts. Another interesting feature was the machinery itself. Drive belts, bobbins and thread remained intact as if the employees had simply gone for the day.
Winfield and William Perkins built the mill and began production June 20, 1884. The new facility provided sheep farmers a local market for their wool. Employees carded the wool, colored some with natural dyes and dried it on the mill’s metal roof. Machines produced wool thread that wound onto bobbins. Some yarn went to market while the rest went to produce the mill’s popular lightweight wool blankets.
Helton native, Kelly Roe, wrote an article about the mill in volume one of Mountaineer Heritage, a local historical publication by the journalism class at Northwest Ashe High School. According to her research, lightening struck the mill and reduced it to ashes June 25, 1894. One building survived.
The Perkins brothers sold the mill to Englishman John Littlewood. He contacted his brother, Herbert, who was employed at a similar facility at Mouth of Wilson, Va. They rebuilt the mill and resumed production. Wool socks joined colored yarn and blankets on the list of products.
The reputation of Helton wool products grew. The new Pennsylvania State House ordered enough material for drapes and furnishings. World War I brought orders for army blankets as fast as the little mill could churn them out. World War II brought even more orders.
The tired little mill clanked to a permanent stop in the early 1950s. It could no longer compete with more modern machinery that required less labor and increased production. The Littlewoods cranked up the mill for the last time in 1964 as a demonstration for a group of interested onlookers. Today, it sits silent beside Helton Creek as if awaiting the next shift to arrive.