The New Nation Mills


The town of Falmouth was established in 1728 on the falls of the Rappahannock River. In the 18th century moving goods overland was extremely difficult due to the lack of roads and the extremely poor condition of those that existed; it was far easier to move goods and people by water. Consequently, early 18th century towns were often established as far upstream as a boat could navigate, thus enabling inland planters to more easily carry their products to ships and markets.

The centerpiece of Falmouth was its wharf. Although not visible today, its massive stone bulk remains beneath the sand just downstream from the Moncure Conway house on River Road. The wharf was constructed perpendicular to the shoreline and was intentionally made low enough to allow water from the frequent floods to pass over it.

From the 1790s until the outset of the War Between the States, Falmouth’s mills manufactured vast quantities of flour. A common concern at any commercial mill was the transportation of tons of wheat to the facility and the shipping of the resulting tons of flour to distant markets. Construction of the R F & P Railroad through this area in the 1840s certainly benefitted local mills. A newspaper notice of 1852 reported on another idea:

“THE CANAL STEAMBOAT. The miniature model of this new order of steamboats was again exhibited in full operation on the Basin, Saturday afternoon. This model was invented by Alexander Bond, of Philadelphia, and has been patented and put in successful operation by John Pettibone, of Washington, D. C. To give a more particular description of the powers of the invention, we will state that it is adapted to either freight or passenger boats on a canal. There is one of these boats now in operation on the Rappahannock River, engaged in carrying wheat to Falmouth Mills. Her length is fifty-five feet, width of beam ten feet, and she travels at the rate of eight miles per hour on the river, and five miles per hour on the canal. It draws only thirty inches of water when loaded, and the wash from the motion of the paddle is very slight, not sufficient to injure or wear off the banks of the canal. The propelling paddle or blade in the stern is four feet in length and twenty inches wide, operating on the sculling principle, and having the wabbling [sic] motions of the tail of a fish when swimming. The machinery is very simple in its character, and can be placed in the space usually allotted to the cabin on freight boats—affording full room for the sleeping apartment of the hands. In fact, but little room if any is lost by the application of steam to a canal boat. A steamboat suitable to run on the James River Canal, ninety feet in length and twelve feet beam, could by this plan make six miles per hour on the canal, and ten miles through the ponds. The cost of fuel for such a boat for twenty-four hours would amount to one dollar and seventy-five cents. On the whole the invention appears to be a very useful one (The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Sept. 6, 1852).

The first Falmouth wharf was built around 1720 at the absolute uppermost limit of navigable water on the Rappahannock River. Silting made this obsolete in short order and a second wharf was constructed a few hundred yards downstream. This, too, suffered from the effects of silting and by the late 1790s, most goods coming and going from Falmouth were landed at the Fredericksburg wharf and were poled on scows between the two towns. Since Mr. Pettibone’s canal boat didn’t leave a legacy in the Falmouth/Fredericksburg area, one tends to think that a combination of river silting and access to inexpensive rail transport made it unprofitable.

While the initial purpose of Falmouth was as a shipping point, men quickly recognized the economic potential from the ceaseless supply of water power there. While Francis Thornton had built a grist (flour) mill on the opposite side in the early 1700s, James Hunter was the first to harness the river’s power on the Stafford side. His iron works and manufacturing facility made an enormous range of domestic goods and military supplies. Most of Falmouth’s mills were built after the Revolution and utilized water from Falls Run rather than from the flood-prone Rappahannock.

After the Revolution, Virginia suffered from a serious economic depression; however, Europe’s Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) had destroyed that area’s ability to feed itself and European countries looked to America for a source of flour. Recognizing the promising market, industrialists began building very large mills for grinding wheat into flour. Called merchant mills, these facilities purchased wheat by the ton and ground it for export and international sale. Within a very short time, American flour was recognized as the finest in the world. Mill owners couldn’t build mills fast enough to meet the ever-growing demand for their product. A canal was built in Falmouth for the purpose of powering these massive flour mills. Some of the industrialists involved with this venture included John Richards (1734-1785), William Richards (1765-after 1815) who was John Richards’ son, Robert Dunbar (c.1745-1831), Joseph B. Ficklen (1800-1874), Montgomery Slaughter (1818-1897), James Vass (c.1769-1837), William Brooke, Jr., and William C. Beale (1791-1850). These men assumed enormous debts to finance the construction of their mills; at one point, there were five merchant mills in Falmouth. Falmouth was not alone in this building surge; merchant mills were being constructed anywhere there was enough water power to run them.

In the midst of this building frenzy, American-English relations deteriorated. English warships began firing on and boarding American ships. Angered by these actions, President Thomas Jefferson convinced Congress to implement an embargo halting all shipping of goods from America to Europe. For the industrialists who hadn’t yet had time to pay off their mortgaged mills, this was an economic disaster. The embargo was enacted in 1807. Almost immediately, it resulted in bankruptcies, not only for the mill owners, but for ship owners, as well. Finally recognizing the magnitude of the disaster, Congress repealed the embargo in 1809. Unfortunately, it was too late for many of the mill owners who, by then, had lost their properties.

The flour industry never recovered its pre-embargo vitality, but the buildings remained and another group of industrialists arrived in Falmouth to take advantage of new technology and a new market—textiles. The Industrial Revolution had originated in the northern states but, once again, Falmouth’s water power enabled men to utilize that technology here. The old flour mills were converted to textile production, primarily the manufacturing of various types of cotton cloth. The primary men involved with this venture were Duff Green (1792-1854), Walker P. Conway (1805-1884), and Joseph B. Ficklen (1800-1874).

The peak years for textile production in Falmouth were 1821 through 1853. By far, Duff Green was the greatest local player in this industry. Green came to Falmouth from Culpeper County. He was involved in a number of industrial ventures including canals and railroads in western Virginia, and steamships on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. He established the Falmouth Manufacturing Company, Stafford’s first company controlled by stock holders. Green purchased cotton from all states in which it was grown and sold his products up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as California. As the railroads spread across America, so did Green’s textiles.

Because of the unpredictable nature of water power, Green embraced steam technology and built the Elm Factory. Located near the base of the present Falmouth Bridge, Elm provided employment for many local men and women. Duff also owned a store and hotel in Falmouth. After his death in 1854, his son, Duff Green, Jr. (c.1833-c.1885), continued to operate the factory. When the Civil War erupted, Green began making fabric for the Confederate service. Not until Union forces moved into Falmouth in 1862 did his manufacturing cease. After the war, Elm Factory was leased to a northern industrialist who promised to restore and reopen it. It operated sporadically for a couple of years but was then closed and abandoned.

Silting in the river, which had always been a problem for a town built so far upstream, became insurmountable. Boats could no longer pick up or deliver goods to the Falmouth wharf and the little town quietly faded into little more than a residential community.


  • Johnson, John J. “Duff Green, Falmouth Industrialist.” Fredericksburg Times. February 1996, pp. 5-14.
  • “The Falmouth Canal and its Mills: an Industrial History. The Journal of Fredericksburg History, vol. 2 (1997), pp. 25-43.
  • Virginia Legislative Petitions:
    • “Duff Green,” Jan. 7, 1836, Reel 236, Box 298, Folder 92, Library of Virginia.
    • “Duff Green,” Jan. 17, 1848, Reel 188, Box 239, Folder 66, Library of Virginia.
    • “Falmouth Merchants,” Dec. 8, 1835, Reel 188, Box 239, Folder 47, Library of Virginia.
    • “Merchants and Citizens of Falmouth, Stafford, King George, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Fauquier, Culpeper, and Rappahannock counties,” Feb. 9,
    • 1836, Reel 188, Box 239, Folder 51, Library of Virginia.


This picture of Tackett’s Mill was taken in 1940. It used to be standing in western Stafford. It was removed from this site and placed in Prince William County in Lake Ridge, Virginia. A shopping development is built around it.