History of the land that is the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center
Over its history the 46-acre Autrey Mill property has changed from dense forest to fertile farmland, and now back to woodlands. 400 years of history are showcased at the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center through its protected woodlands, the historic buildings of Autrey Mill’s Heritage Village, and the new Indian Village under construction.
Creek and Cherokee Indians: At the time of the first European settlers arriving in the New World, the Creek Indians roamed this area and lived in small villages. By 1755 the Cherokee Indians had pushed the Creek south of the Chattahoochee River and that landmark became the new border between the two tribes, making the land that is now Autrey Mill at the extreme southern end of the Cherokee territory. In the 1830’s the Cherokees were forced from their land and traveled the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma. Indian dwellings currently under construction will be used to teach the history and culture of the American Indians with emphasis on their relationship to and respect for the environment.
Rural Farmers: The Cherokee land was given to Georgia residents in the 1832 land lottery. Autrey Mill sits on several of the 40-acre “gold lots”, though the land was found more profitable for farming. This meant clearing the land and planting cash crops, principally cotton, but also corn and wheat. Several families have owned the property. The first deed on the land was in 1860 to L.P. Howell, who bought 40 acres for $175; this land ran along the creek and Old Alabama Road. From the 1860’s, the deed went from one member of the Howell family to another, then to the Autrey family in 1877. Ownership passed among several members of the Autrey family until 1907, when the land was purchased by Mr. Copeland. The section of land where Heritage Village buildings are today was owned by the Summerour family, although they did not live here. The historic buildings in our Heritage Village, collections of artifacts, and an on-going project to record oral histories of this area all help to preserve and showcase the life of the rural farmers from the mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s.
Recent History: The last private owner was the deBray family, who owned the property from the 1960’s until 1988. In 1988, based on the property’s history and environmental importance, a grassroots effort by community activists saved this property from development. The deed was transferred to the City of Atlanta and Fulton County and the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Association, Inc. was formed as a non-profit organization to protect, operate, and improve the preserve. In 2007 after the creation of a new city, the deed transferred to the City of Johns Creek with the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Association, Inc. maintaining its original role.
The Story of Autrey Mill: Owned and operated by the Autrey Family from 1877 to the early 1900’s, the mill was located on property west of the center along Sal’s Creek.Five stories high, the structure was built for grinding wheat flour; corn was secondary. However by the late 1890’s, the flour facilities were discontinued because people could buy flour in the store. By the 1920’s, the mill had been abandoned; it was decaying and falling apart. The best account of the story of Autrey Mill comes from a book, The Cotton Renter’s Son, by G.L. (George) Vaughan, published in 1967. The Vaughans were tenant farmers who lived in the area in the 1890’s.
The dam was built of stacked rock about 300 yards upstream from the mill. Built into the banks of the ravine, the rock extended into the stream with wood filling in the center. This dam blocked the water up into a natural ravine, which formed the lake that powered the water mill.
A few years ago, an archaeological survey was conducted on the Autrey Mill property. Among the clues uncovered to the property’s past were the foundation stones of the old mill. They can be seen next to Sal’s creek along the River Loop Trail.
Autrey Mill is working to preserve the history of the people and land of the area now within the CIty of Johns Creek.