Just a few miles outside Rainsboro, the Barrett family farmhouse looks over Cave Road, gazing toward a gap in the roadside foliage where a covered bridge once stood.
Though mills stood for decades before the Barrett family built the farmhouse, today, the farmhouse is the only remaining fragment of the Barretts’ mill operation, which at its peak covered approximately 1,000 acres.
The Barretts were not the first to operate mills on the property, however. In her book “Hills of Highland,” local historical author Elsie Johnson Ayres wrote that a Quaker from North Carolina named Jesse Baldwin built a grist mill and a sawmill on nearby Factory Branch Creek in 1805 and, over the following 15 years, added a carding and fulling mill, which could process cotton or flax and produce cloth, and a woolen mill.
In 1823, Baldwin sold the mills to Hillsboro physician Dr. John Boyd, who later converted a building near the woolen mill into a makeshift hospital to house patients during cholera epidemics of the 1830s. Boyd operated the mills until 1855, when he sold the property to David Barrett.
Almost from the beginning, the Barretts began reshaping the mills and surrounding land. After tearing down the older buildings located along Factory Branch, Barrett built a much larger mill near Rocky Fork in 1858, Ayres wrote.
In the 1880s, a few of Barrett’s eight children assumed more active roles in the family’s business endeavors. According to Ayres, Barrett’s third-born, Morgan, took over the woolen mills in 1885.
Also in 1885, the Barretts opened the Barrett Mills Post Office to support the growing community around the mills, and Barrett’s fourth-born, Horace, became the post office’s first postmaster. When Capt. Barrett traveled west in 1886, he left Morgan and Horace in charge of the mills, and Barrett’s fifth-born, Newton, took over the family’s farming operations near the mills.
In the summer of 1890, Morgan and Horace installed a telephone box with direct lines to two local stores in the mills’ office. Ayres wrote, “The phone was to be used for emergencies only, but if a bird [sat] on the lines, the phones were out of order.”
In 1895, the Barretts switched the mills to steam power, and the family maintained their mill and farming operations into the 20th century.
According to information compiled by local historian Larry Chapman, Highland County businessman Jack Hope purchased the mill in the 1960s and reopened it as a tourist attraction in 1968. In “Hills of Highland,” Ayres noted that Barrett’s Mill included a souvenir shop, a blacksmith shop and riding trails, and tourists could observe the mill in operation.
The attraction closed in 1970, and fires razed some of the property’s historic landmarks — first the woolen mill in 1975 and, in 1980, the covered bridge and grist mill.
The farmhouse remained, however. From 1876 to 1978, generations of Barretts spent their lives in the farmhouse on Cave Road, according to descendent Paul Barrett.
Paul remodeled the house in the early 1990s, and he, his wife, and their two sons lived there until the early 2000s, when Paul approached Arc of Appalachia Founder and Director Nancy Stranahan about purchasing the farmhouse property.
“I applied for a Clean Ohio Grant to buy the land, but Clean Ohio is not very pleased about buying houses, and there were two houses on the property — a blue rental house, which is now no longer there, and the big Barrett house, which is historic,” Stranahan said.
After separating the houses from the land, Stranahan needed to close on the property quickly, which meant she was unable to wait for the grant. Reluctantly, Stranahan approached some of the organization’s top donors and asked if they would be willing to purchase and hold the land and houses.
“It cost me a lot of sleep. It was probably one of the worst years when I look back,” Stranahan said. “Three households came together and bought the whole thing. These people were holding the property for us, so it was very stressful. Clean Ohio is very competitive. They knew that if we didn’t get the grant, we’d have to help them put the property back up for sale to get their money back.”
Ultimately, Clean Ohio awarded Arc with the grant.
“Clean Ohio only covered the land — not the houses. The plan was to either find a solution for the houses or sell them off. We got the Clean Ohio grant and had to match it with 25 percent cash and then that left our owners holding only the houses,” Stranahan said. “When we bought the land, two [households] got everything returned to them. A woman named Sue Kellogg held on to the remaining balance.”
According to Stranahan, Kellogg was a major supporter of Arc of Appalachia. She lived in Cincinnati, but loved nature and what the organization was working toward.
When Stranahan realized Arc would not be able to afford to purchase the Barrett farmhouse, she called Kellogg.
“I said, ‘Sue, it’s time to face reality. We’re going to have to sell the farmhouse. We can’t afford it. I can’t buy it from you; I’ll never be able to raise the money. We need to sell off the farmhouse and the blue house. And she said, ‘Nancy, do you want the house?’” Stranahan said. “I was like, ‘Sue, this year, we don’t need the house. One hundred years from now, we would be so grateful to have this property intact and have this house serving our education missions — but we’re not ready. It’s going to take a while to catch up to a project of this immensity.’ And she said, ‘Well then, it’s yours,’ and she donated it. Her act of philanthropy was stunning and filled with trust — she knew we weren’t ready, but she was willing to invest in a 100-year dream. We cannot squander this donation.”
For over a decade, the organization was unable to work on the Barrett farmhouse. After Arc had enough money left over after completing its 2019 projects, Stranahan said she decided to use some of the money to begin restoring the farmhouse.
“This house is history. It needs to be kept alive, it needs to be part of our community, and it needs to engage with people,” Stranahan said.
With the help of Columbus interior designer Julie, who requested that her last name be withheld, Stranahan is working to outfit the farmhouse with light fixtures, furniture, appliances, drapery and rugs that might have been found in a farmhouse between the 1870s and 1915.
“We thought if we shoot for around the turn of the century — any of the antiques from around 1850 to around 1915, it’ll give us a very open time period,” Stranahan said. “We want you to feel like you walked into the Barrett house around 1900, 1910 and in that house is a collection of various ages of antiques. People didn’t throw stuff away — you don’t walk into a house where all the furniture is from 1910 — so we thought that would be historically accurate.”
Stranahan said they still need to replace the windows and complete work on the bathrooms, but since the coronavirus pandemic forced the organization to cancel its natural education workshops, the restoration process has slowed.
“It’s like climbing a ladder for us financially,” Stranahan said. “But we were like, ‘It’s sat there and waited for us all these years — let’s get it started.’”
Today, Arc of Appalachia owns approximately 300 acres that used to house the Barretts’ mill and farming operations.
For more information about the Arc of Appalachia, visit arcofappalachia.org.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.