Jim Parsons, 90, sees the embers of local history from his front porchx

By Elizabeth Steitz and Jamie Davis

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The smell of burning wood and flaming leaves filled the air. Hot embers being swept up by the afternoon wind crept faster and faster toward the looming sawmill. The spring of 1932 had been particularly dry in the once prosperous valley beyond the Short Hills of south Rockbridge County, a place called Rapps Mill. An assembly line of hopeful men passed buckets of water from the mill’s source of power, South Buffalo Creek, up three stories to fight the fire. But it was no use. The flames devoured the mill that Mathias Rapp had built nearly 100 years earlier.

A 10-year-old boy, Jim Parsons, stood on the roof of his family’s house nearby wetting the shingles to prevent it too from catching fire. It was the least he could do, considering how the fire started.

Now 90 years old, Jim Parsons, Ph.D., stands on his front porch welcoming guests to his home – the same one he protected so many years ago. He looks out onto his yard, full of spring blooms. Wearing a green wool cardigan against the chill that lingers here even in May and oversized brown corduroys, Parsons assesses the beautiful view in front of him. Set back from the road, the home, built in 1836 by his great grandfather Mathias Rapp, has held four generations of Rapp descendants. It seems Parsons is the memory keeper of Rapps Mill. He invites you to take a seat on one of the many chairs scattered across his porch, and begins to tell you about this place.

Parsons came of age in the small town of Rapps Mill. He left in 1939 to attend Washington and Lee University, 17 miles up the road in Lexington. Next, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Virginia and began work as a chemist in New Jersey. There, Parsons met his wife Eleanor. They raised a son and a daughter in New Jersey and returned in 1985 to take care of his parents. He bought his old childhood home, the one his great grandfather built.

Even after a notable career and fulfilled life in the northeast, Parsons still vividly remembers his childhood in Rapps Mill. His family was closely tied with the town. His grandfather, James Buchanan Rapp, worked as the postmaster in the old post office that still stands on Parsons’s property, and his mother was Sarah Beulah Rapp, granddaughter of the man who put the town on the map. After Mathias Rapp arrived in 1836, he built the mill, built his house, donated land for the church, cemetery and school, and patented an improved turbine wheel for hydropower. Rapps Mill Church is still open, and Mathias, who died May 20, 1880, is buried in its cemetery.

The mill produced everything from grain and lumber to carved marble stalactites from nearby caverns. Parsons said many of the tombstones in the Rapps Mill cemetery, on land Parsons now owns, are cut stalactites from the mill. Today the ghost of the mill is clearly marked with a yellow stake near the main road, South Buffalo Road. Set back from the road and partially camouflaged by overgrown vines, a hammered tin plaque reads “SITE MATHIAS RAPP TURBINE MILL 1836 – 1932.”

 

Jim and Eleanor Parsons’s home is a living legacy of the mill – with several walls constructed by stacked wooden 2 x 4s cut from the mill long ago. The unique construction of stacking the planks rather than using them for framing has provided solid wood walls four inches thick for the four generations of Rapps that lived in the home. The Taylor home, across from Parsons’s, was built at around the same time and hasn’t fared so well.

Had it not been for the fateful fire, the mill, constructed with equal care, might still be standing.

“We were burning brush over here and the mill had a shingle roof on it,” Parsons says, “and a wind came up.” It conquered them, he says.

“The fire got ahead of us.” He laughs at the memory of him and his father that day.

Today, Rapps Mill is a shadow of its 100 years of thriving, but Parsons still remembers the town in its heyday. “When you get to be 90,” he says, “you can do a lot of reminiscing.” It seems the spirit of the town is kept in the memories of its last patriarch, the boy who burned the mill but kept the house.