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Interpretative Methods for Understanding the Past

The Grinding Room at Brown's Mill, New Hampshire. The shoe shows clearly under the hopper in the lower right foreground right-hand hopper, but the damsel is not in position. A corn cob crusher or corn sheller is at the left center between the millstones. It removed the kernels of corn from the corn cob or crushes the corn cob to be used in some animal feeds.

Interpretative Methods for Understanding the Past,
Theodore R. Hazen

Interpretive Methods:

I have always disliked the term, "mill tour." People and individuals did not historically tour flour and grist mills. Today they witness the milling demonstrations, and if the mill is not operating, I prefer term: "mill discovery" or "mill journey" into the past. This is a shift from the time-honored manner of giving tours to a thematic approach to looking at the past. Might we loose the intimate charm and the long standing tradition of a personalized mill tour, and the repeated bits of information that was repetitive year after year?

Thematic interpretation is a more intellectual method of rearranging the past. I think the best method of mill interpretation is done by "station interpretation." In this tour method the visitors become more like time travelers, instead of the visitors are basically being escorted though the mill from top to bottom. The visitors are allowed to move as they wish though the mill, and move at their own pace. This method emphasizes the topics of work done in a traditional mill at different important places in the milling process. The mill perhaps served the local community or was built for exporting flour abroad.

I prefer to start the group of visitors outside of the mill before then enter. This is where the interpreter or miller is introduced to the visitors. Then story of the mill's history is told, and its historical changes that occurred in the structure which reflect the continuity of the stages in American technological flour milling development. This is the point where any errors that was told in previous interpretations of the mill should be made to disappear. Correct stories and bits of information can be told, to explain away any antiquarian folklore that over the years that is not accurate history. Finally before the visitors enter the mill as safety message should be mentioned.

The water wheel can be started and stopped for the visitors to see how the water turns the water wheel. This can be done either outside or inside by the miller according to the way the hydraulic engineering is laid out for that particular mill. Visitors can see how much water (and its weight) has to fill the buckets of the water wheel before it starts, and then once it is shut off, how long it takes to stop turning until all of the water exits the wheel. Then the water wheel's weight is once again equalized.

Once the visitors entire the mill by either the first floor, or basement level of the mill, the program should be taken over by the operating mill for the most part. If they entire the basement level they will directly see the connection between the water wheel outside (of the mill), and where the shaft enters the mill, and how the millstones driven on the level above. If the visitors entire the mill by the first floor, they will entire the mill by the path by which the grain would have entered the mill the milling process. Because many mills that have been restored using the Oliver Evans system, it is often difficult to conduct normal floor by floor tours because the grain and flour may travel up and down through the mill a half a dozen times or more.

If the interpreter who introduced the program to the visitors hands off the group to another interpreter inside of the mill, this could be the miller, and they take turns back and forth, this is commonly referred to as tag team interpretation. At times the interpreter who introduces the program to visitors outside of the mill may be stationed at that point while other interpreters are located at key points inside of the mill building.

Many groups and organizations have different options as to the value of volunteers. At times depending upon sources of money, they may run hot or cold about the idea of using volunteers in regular interpretive programs. Some may have the attitude that volunteers are taking over the programs, and other times volunteers are made to feel that the site could not function without them. Volunteers can become millers, miller's helpers, and also provide other forms of related demonstrations to support the programs at the mill. During special events you may have the luxury of having one or more volunteers for each floor level in the mill. During special events volunteers who have other skills and abilities can demonstration them to support the program of the mill. An example would be a blacksmith and how the smith worked with the miller to make, temper and draw out worn down mill picks, along with other items in the mill that the blacksmith made. The blacksmith can talk about his seasonal work for the miller and other trades or craft persons in the community and how he got paid for his efforts.

One of the biggest concerns about an operating mill for historic living history demonstrations is visitor safety. Station interpretation works best because you have people covering areas for visitor safety as well as for programs. Not every site has the luxury of having great numbers of bodies to staff a site on the average day. This is one of the reasons why the old-standby mill tour was a good idea, to keep everyone in a group to keep little fingers, bodies, arms and heads out of the moving machinery. Another concern is the visitors health. This may include being exposed to flour dust, walking on wet surfaces or near the edges of mill races filled with water to consuming the products of the mill.

When I worked at Peirce Mill, often on weekends I had a person outside the mill carding and spinning wool. It was a drawing card to bring visitors into the mill, the same way that when the water wheel was turning more people stopped at the mill. Katherine Colby who volunteered also acted as a introduction for the mill's programs that I was presenting inside of the mill. At times of the year when the weather changed she would be inside of the mill next to the pot belly stone, which also was a drawing card for visitors, smoke coming out of the chimney. It is the basic idea, show movement or motion and it will attract visitors to the site.

The old "Mill-Wright's and Miller's Guide," is a common and plausible tale of perhaps fiction told about any mill built after the time of Oliver Evans, that this mill was modeled after. It may explain were the certain design came from that is in the mill, but was it in reality modeled after the book, or other examples of his application found in existing mills of the time. It is almost a "milling legend," that every mill was modeled from Oliver Evans book. This is even found in mills that have no milling devices of Oliver Evans. Perhaps only a handful of mills that are still with us today, do we know for sure paid Oliver Evans the license fee to use his improvements in their mill.

Information previously presented on mill tours may be simply curious errors that are prone to be told by mill museum staff rather than any thing that is the historical truth. For example, we don't know for sure if the millers of the past dressed their own millstones, or if they were done by itinerant millstones dressers who traveled the countryside. At Peirce Mill we know the last names of a handful of millers employed by the Peirce family but know nothing about their job duties. Another example that is commonly told to visitors is that millers only operated the mill during daylight hours. We have various historical records that talk about some mills having to operate late into the night. In technical milling text books of the mid-1800's, it sometimes discusses about merchant mills having been operated three shifts around the clock, and the duties of the miller. This is why I have printed these lists of miller's duties from different time periods as an insight into the miller's work. In Oliver Evans' book, "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide," it talks about the dangers of forgotten candles that burn down, and catch the mill ablaze.

What is mill interpretation after all? It is either the explanation of milling technology, the process of milling, the credulous telling of history, and the telling of tales to illustrate social history which related to the mill.

Thematic interpretation of the mill does not mean that information should be aimed over everyone's head. Themes are a way of presenting organized information so that tours are not repeated in the same format year after year until an interpreter leaves and is replaced some one else giving their interpretation of known facts. It is nice to include isolated facts, and anecdotes to keep people awake but this should not be the basis for education programs. For example, if the mill is broken down, or the water wheel is locked in ice, then the thematic and education programs should reflect the duties of the miller on events such as these, and not resort back to the factory processed identical tours that are cranked out year after year. The reason that old myths were invented and flourished was that they made the "dry as dust" tours interesting and engaging to visitors.

Any story that is told should be verifiable, and contribute to the understanding of site themes. Having a theme allows the visitor to make better sense of the information presented, and gives them a better understanding of the mill. If the mill's water wheel is locked in ice during the winter months, then work that the miller, and his helpers would have done during this time should be presented. Dressing the millstones; replacing torn sifter screens; repairing the leather belting; replacing torn and damage elevator cups; etc. Don't fill the visitors heads with a lot of indistinct details, and anecdotes about the mill which may, or may not be true, or apply to this mill, but to mills in general. Using films and videos as part of regular programs give the visitors and interpreters each a break, but should not be use in place of regular day-to-day interpretive programs.

Challenges of Interpretation:

When I worked for the National Park Service, it was estimated that we could spent no more than 5 minutes talking to each visitor. Visitors who came in groups that that would be spread out to average about 15 minutes for the basic mill program. Education programs or school groups we would spend a total of 30 to 34 minutes for each group. This was divided in to a number of various different forms of programs. It included lectures, demonstrations, hands-on activities, and often a short film for reinforcement of the learning experience. Educators have estimated that on average the typical visitor has an attention span that limits the number of pieces of information or facts presented on a tour. Any more simply gets lost or forgotten as soon as new bits of information is presented.

If visitors are presented with random series of facts loosely tied together, then they will only remember a random few amount. If these facts are organized by themes, such as presenting only information about millstone dressing and millstones, or millstone grinding and millstones, or the type of grain being ground at the time, then there is a continuity of themes, as a means where more details are retained though having a common related topics to associate the facts with.

In the average mill, there may be only three basic themes: milling, maintenance and power. These are used to illustrate and explain work. Each theme is interrelated and connected with the other, and each has sub-themes that overlap. At Peirce Mill when I worked there, our main theme was "milling along Rock Creek." Just because I had developed a folder that was titled, "Milling along Rock Creek," did not means I could hand it out and never discuss the mills of Rock Creek and of the Washington-Georgetown area.

Most museums and historical homes focus on one person or generation, but historical mill museums should focus on the methods of milling that have changed over the history of the mill's operating lifetime. This allows the interpreters to address topics, and how the millers and miller's helpers achieved a livelihood. The miller's worked changed over the years because the technology changed, and was reflected by that technology, and commercialization. When I worked at Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., one of the most common myths that had to be explained away was that, Isaac Peirce did not run and operate the mill. Isaac Pearce was a millwright who build mills in the area, and owned this mill. He employed millers, and their helpers to run and operate the mill for him. There were various activities on his land at different times of the year. From the operation of the saw mill to working in orchards, cutting ice on Rock Creek, to making rye whiskey and peach brandy. Then there was the daily activities such as running a merchant mill, to cows in the cow barn, making butter and cheese in the spring house, etc. Then the family had greenhouse and nursery complexes nearby and in other parts of Washington, D.C.

The stories and related explanations of historical patterns of change should use correct artifacts in the mill to illustrate the basis of all programs. For example, if the mill was a "custom" or "grist mill," then the mill should have toll measures, toll dishes, toll boards, etc., and if the mill was a merchant mill then the mill should have wooden flour barrels and branding irons, etc. This should go along with the proper furnishing plan for the mill. So many mills either do not have furnishing plans, and they contain only random artifacts thrown together, or the curator had on proper understanding of the mill's operation when it was originally put together. An example of this is when Bob Batte and his helper Brian operated Peirce Mill during the 1970's. The mill was restored in the 1930's to reflect what it looked like when the mill was first constructed in the 1820's. Bob Batte and his helpers were dressed in the costume of the miller of the 1890's, and they interpret the mill as if it reflected that period of technology in its restoration.

Milling is a trade, and not a craft. A craft you can put down and take up when needed. Milling is a trade and industry that requires an investment of raw materials and resources to maintain it. Depending upon if the mill was a "custom mill" commonly referred to as a "grist mill," or "merchant mill" then the occupation may be either a full or a part-time job. If the miller did this as a part-time occupation, then the story of what he did during the other parts of the year should be told as well. For example Ed Mabry who operated Mabry Mill along what is now the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mr. Mabry was a miller at his mill, but was a blacksmith by trade. He also at times operated a saw mill and a woodworking shop. How do we interpret the place of the miller's work? If it was a merchant mill then it was relegated by the local supply of grain, world economy, supply and demand, and even wars in other parts of the world. The merchant mills enjoyed a large increase in income where the Napoleonic Wars began. Flour rose from 4 dollars and 50 cents a barrel to 11 dollars a barrel. Most mills that were operating during this time period do not mention world events that effected the merchant milling trade.

The religion of the miller is important. At one time most people engaged in the milling trade were Quakers. It was the Quakers who developed this radical idea of profit. At one time you could only ask the far market value for an item. Never any more or any extra, it was not your due. Quakers were pacifists, and at one time the miller was exempt from military service. There were and are still many mills found in what could be commonly called, "Amish Country." It is a common myth that the Amish operated grain mills. They have two trades, one being of a craftsman, such as a harness maker or a blacksmith, and the other being a farmer. In Pennsylvania Dutch Country it is the Mennonites who operate grain and flour mills. Then were the mill is located effects what the mill produces and the local people eat. For example in the low lands of Virginia, the people eat grits, and in the mountains the people eat buckwheat pancakes. Mabry Mill sells corn meal, corn grits and buckwheat flour. It is catering to the tourist and no longer the local community.

When you mention the word, "mill" or "milling" most people think of the sentimental terminology, "good old days." A great deal of the "good old days" in people's minds are created by nostalgic notions of the past. The worst mill programing is when the whole interpretation is "dumbed down." Millstones become "rocks" and the milling process is referred to as "mashing the grain into meal." I hate this idea of making things sound old-timey, and taking proper technology terms out of the programs and substituting it with hillbilly talk. It is just not professional and has no place in education programs.

What is necessary for developing a good thematic interpretive program is an interpretive manual. This will bring the interpretive programs up to date, and offer the public and educational and meaningful narrative that accurately representative of the sites history, and place in a larger view of history. This lists all of the necessary requirements for developing profession interpretive programs. What is should include is the following:

An interpretive Manual:

1. A mission statement.
2. The site history.
3. A correct time line of ownership of the mill, and its operation along with products produced.
4. A list of people associated with the site, and short biographies if known.
5. Historical structures report.
6. Historic furnishing plan.
7. Historic landscape report.
8. Previous programs and grant proposals.
9. A list of technical and historical reference works.
10. A list of mill archives and where items are located.
11. A list of the on-site reference library, photographic collection, and papers records.
12. Copies of research reports and related program material.

Each interpreter should have their programs files nearby, handy to pull out to show auditors as to the program information that they are discussing with visitors. Each program file should contains the following information:

1. A lesson plan.
2. A topic outline.
3. An expanded outline (this contains enough information that anyone could give the program using this as a reference only).
4. A written narrative of the complete program.

Copies of each complete program file should also be kept in the education director or chief of interpretation office. Volunteers are should be welcome to develop their own programs, but should not be expected to do so. They can use standard site or preexisting programs. This sort of information should be contained in the volunteer handbook along with the first seven items found in the interpretive manual.

Problems of Interpretation:

One of the biggest problems of interpretation is when the mills interpretation does not match the mill's actual history. The mill may have been restored incorrectly restored and therefore, it can't be properly interpreted. There are mill-wrongs and mill-rights. The biggest problem with mill restoration is that there is a longer list of mill-wrongs than mill-rights.

People who work in theme or cartoon amusement parks are putting on their resume that they have done "character interpretation" when they have paraded around in cartoon animal suits. This may also apply to individuals who have stood in front of restaurants in such costumes in the heat of summer without being able to see without the aid of someone holding their hand. When I have worn the "Smoky The Bear" costume when I worked for the National Park Service, it seems that I was the only person that I knew who wore it, that it was made to actually fit. Does this mean that I am type-cast? In the various classes that I have taken in interpretation, "character interpretation" apples to first-person not minimum wage student summer jobs in amusement parks.

To be continued.

A Sign from an English Historical Site or Living History Park.

Hazen's Beaver County Mill.
Joseph Hazen's North Sewickley mill in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, circa 1876.
Note: A Full-Size image of Hazen's Mill is found on another one of my web pages. Thank you.

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Copyright 2001 by T. R. Hazen