The Millers' Review: Devoted to Milling, Millwrighting, and Mill Furnishing,
Pennsylvania Millers' State Association,
The Millers' Review: Devoted to Milling, Millwrighting,
How & Why I Became a Miller,
B. F. Isenberg
Editor's Note: Colonial Isenberg needs no introduction to the readers
of The Millers' Review, as he is one of the best known and most popular
members of the milling trade in this eastern territory. During the
nearly forty years' existence of this journal he has been one of its
warmest supporters and we highly appreciate this friendship. After
repeated efforts we have finally induced him to relate some experiences
of his business career which had been extended through a period of
considerably more than half a century and we feel sure that all our
readers, and particularly the elder generation, will be interested in
his contribution which follows. Colonial Isenberg concludes his paper
somewhat abruptly, but we hope to persuade him to continue the story in
following issues of this journal, as he must have a large fund of
recollections to draw upon, both serious and amusing, that will
interest his readers.
I was born at Spruce Creek, Huntington County, Pennsylvania, on the
banks of the beautiful Juniata River, on the 24th day of June 1844.
Before I was fifteen years of age I started to take care of a small
store and a set of double entry books for Jacob F. Steiner, who was
located within a mile of Phillipsburg, Center County, Pennsylvania. Mr.
Steiner had, at that time, one of the largest sawmills in Clearfield
County, Pennsylvania. There was no railroads in the county then and
what lumber was not hauled over the mountains was rafted down Moshannon
Creek in what was called a three platform raft to the mouth of the
Susquehanna. There a number of small rafts were joined together and run
down the Susquehanna River to the eastern markets.
I was getting along nicely and thought I was a man because I had charge
of a small store and a set of double entry books. Then the Civil War
broke out and caused lots of excitement, especially with the log and
lumber employes. A town meeting was held one night to raise a company
for the war. A number of Mr. Steiner's men went to town and enlisted
and I was one of that number.
I boarded with Mr. Steiner and at the breakfast table the next morning
I told him what I had done, that my trunk was packed and that he should
see that it was sent home on the first wagon that would be going that
way. He replied that he would attend to that, so I bid the folks
goodbye and off I started. When I got to the town the captain told me I
had made a mistake in handing in my age (this was very fashionable for
the period: I was not the only one).
Mr. Steiner was always a very early riser and that morning he was
unusually early, because he had seen the captain before I got there.
Well, I turned back, unpacked my trunk and that settle the case. A few
months later I received a letter from my brother who owned and was
operating a water mill two miles below Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. My
brother wrote me his miller had gone to war,; that the mill had
to run night and day, and asking me to assist him and learn the milling
trade. I showed the letter to Mr. Steiner (who, by the way, was
intensely patriotic) and he said, "I do not like to give you up, but
you can do more good for your county by going to your brother."
Now, then, here it where I begin - the story just told explains how and why I became a miller.
First Milling Experiences.
The mill I learned my trade in was on the banks of what is called the
Big Juniata River. It was, at that time, one of the largest mills in
the county, four stories hight, with three run of French four-foot
buhrs, and one four-foot stand stone chopper. There wasn't an elevator
in the mill. The wheat meal ran into a chest and was shoveled into an
oaken barrel by a wooden hand scoop. The barrel was well bound by hoop
iron and well riveted. This barrel when filled - if the grist was large
enough to fill it - was hoisted to the fourth floor and dumped into
what we called a hopper-boy. This hopper-boy had an arm in the shape of
an "S" attached to a small upright shaft and revolved slowly, it being
so arranged that it fed the meal gradually into an opening in the
bottom of the hopper-boy, until the meal had all passed from the
hopper-boy into the bolt, which consisted of a reel about 14 to 16 feet
long, octagonal in shape, with different grades of cloth, the bran
falling into a chest by itself at the end of the reel.
We cut off with our hand scoop, just as our fancy dictated; that is, we
had to learn to know our customers. If the farmer wanted a big yield of
what he called flour, the dividing line would start in rather close to
the tail end and when the division was made the flour was pretty
thoroughly mixed - that is, the shorts that went in with the flour. It
was then ready to put in bags, ordinarily three bushel hemp or linen
bags; it was then tied and wheeled out on a bag truck made of wood,
including the handles the wheels, and even wooden pins, instead of iron
bolts; the linch pins were even made out of wood. We were always very
careful to set the bags up straight and very gently so that the grist
would look big. The average grist was three bushels, sometimes five or
ten bushels; it depended on how far the farmer had to come and how
large a family he had to feed. Occasionally, just before harvest and
after corn planting a farmer would turn in with 15 or twenty bushels.
Harvesting in those times was all done with a cradle and it took more
men, but the average grist was three bushels, and the farmer would come
to the mill with on horseback.
In taking in a grist, either from horseback or a wagon, we had to go to
the fourth floor with it, and in the grinding, as I described putting
the meal in the barrel, we had to go to the attic to hoist it. Before
starting up we would attach the rope, and once in a while, say twice a
month, the rope would become detached, and as I lived in a Presbyterian
settlement, we did not swear, but trotted down the stairs to the bottom
and made the adjustment. This always took a lot of traveling up and
We got our pay with a toll dish. I haven't seen one for years. We had
one cleaning machine, a vertical one, and I have been puzzling and
quizzing my brain trying to recall the name of it. These buhrs, the
cleaning machine, and the hand scoop, together with the barrel were
about all there was in the mill as far as making flour went.
The chopping process was as primitive. All grain was hoisted by a rope
outside of the mill to the fourth floor, and if for stock it was
emptied through the floor into bins, one hole for each bin, and the bin
when full, would hold from 300 to 500 bushels. The grain was set on a
platform in bags, and the scales were old style steelyards. There were
two platforms, one to set the bags on and the other to set the weights
Improving the Processes.
After my first year the era of improvement began to bud. My story up to
this point is all grist work. We bought wheat and put the flour in
wooden barrels (sacks at that time were not used). We had to pack this
flour by hand with a paddle made from wood, about 10 to 12 inches wide,
with a blade about 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick and about 16 inches long,
the corners rounded off and the point leveled down to about 1/2 to 1/4
of an inch.
We would shovel in 50 to 75 pounds of flour and then go to it like your
mothers used to work the old fashioned up and down churns, and after
vigorous punching put in another patch of flour until we got to the
top. Then it was necessary to put a vessel the same diameter as
the barrel on top and fill that, then put it under a large lever,
sometimes similar to the principle out great-grandads used in making
cider. This thing worked for a while and then we got a packer, which
consisted of a small upright shaft, with three balls. These balls were
about 6 inches through the outer end, about 6 inches in diameter and
tapered down to about 2 inches at the end next to the shaft. The shafts
at the bottom end had three iron shafts, about one-half inch in
diameter, set at right angles to uprights and triangular and the balls
had holes bored through them large enough so that the balls would go on
these triangular shafts; this upright shaft traveled about 30
revolutions per minute, as the flour came from the bolt and struck the
barrel these balls packed the flour in fairly good shape. We had to be
very careful to have the speed of his shaft and the flow of the flour
to equalize, or the result was the flour would be packed too tight or
vice versa, not tight enough. It did not matter so much if it were
packed too tight, but look out if it were too loose, we had then to put
it under the cider mill pressure.
A three ball or roller flour packer
similar to the one discussed in this story. The chute that feeds the
packer is just to the upper left of the photo. The top or bottom of a
flour barrel is 16 inches in dameter. This one is located in
the Kennedy-Wade's Mill, circa 1750, Raphine, Rockbridge County,
How times change. I spoke of many grists coming to the mill on
horseback. I built my present mill in 1889 and I never saw a farmer
bring grist to my mill on horseback and I never saw a toll dish in my
The McFeely Diamond Millstone Dresser
Speaking about making flour on buhrs being back vivid recollections of
our beloved and much esteemed friend, Tom McFeely. In the beginning of
his reminiscence I said I went to my brother to learn the milling
trade. I did not say I had learned it with him. I was young and active
and was ready and willing to do anything but dress buhrs, so I shirked
that duty, and my brother seemed to be willing because he was a fine
buhr dresser and very particular. He got it on me, however, on the
choppers. He played miller and I played buhr dresser when it would come
to the chopper.
Well, what I started to tell you was about Tom. The hurst in our mill
was up about feet feet above the grinding floor (not the second floor).
I was sweeping and Tom drove up the door in his automobile of that day.
He hitched his horse and came in, and if Tom ever wore a silk hat he
had one on that day; that is my recollection, at least. He sized me up
quickly and decided I was not the man he wanted to see. He came at a
very opportune time for my brother was dressing a pair of buhrs. I said
the boss is up there dressing buhrs.
Tom put in about three hours and went away with a good country dinner
and a check on the First National Bank of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania,
for $175. This paid for the first diamond mill stone dresser in Blair
County. I do not know what ever became of it and the advent of rolls
knocked the market on diamond dressers, but it did not cause Mr.
McFeely to lose any sleep, because he turned his talents in another
direction. Poor fellow, he has turned in his checks and I hope to meet
him sometime in the distant future in Heaven.
Happenings in an Old-Time Mill.
Well, I have given you a fairly good description of a mill over half a
century ago and could go on and tell you many, many incidents. I think
I will give you a few.
A Spoon Water Wheel. A water wheel like this one was used at the old
Washington Township Planning Mill in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, but larger
in diameter. The mill dam just next to the mill was a concrete
structure about 4 to 5 feet high. Perhaps it was an old Van Dyke or
Kupper photograph. I have seen an old photograph of this water wheel.
This is a common type of water wheel used in the tidal powered mills in
First, i told you this was a water power mill. We had a home-made wheel
with an upright shaft. I think there were fifteen and possibly
twenty-five arms and, as I recollect, the points of the arms back about
12 to 15 inches had the edges flared (say something like an Irishman's
spoon). These arms and buckets were incased and in hoisting the gates
the water would strike the points of these arms and discharge in bottom
near the center or underneath the end of the shaft. We had a great many
eels in our river and in the fall of the year, the season that they
begin to migrate down to the ocean, these eels, many of them, would get
fast in the buckets and stop the mill. Many a time we would have
to draw the forebay off and get down and clean the paddles, getting
loads of eels, some cut in pieces, while others seemed to be unharmed.
Another trouble that keeps fresh in my mind was a certain spindle to
one of our buhrs. We always had trouble with it getting hot. We had it
off to the machine shop, time and time again, but for some reason it
would not stay fixed. One night it got so hot that I had to stop and
while waiting for it to cool off I conceived the idea of putting a
large old style copper cent in the step in which it rested. That worked
like a charm and always after few weeks we would raise the spindle up
and put in a copper cent. (I haven't seen one for a good many years).
Garlic frequently bothered us. We would have to take up the buhrs and
wash them off. We ran day and night, all the time, starting Sunday
night at 12 and closing Saturday night at 12; and semi-occasionally we
ran all day Sunday in war times. A "Trick" was breakfast before 7 A.
M., work all day and up to 1 o'clock at night or rather morning. The
other fellows got up at 1 and worked until breakfast, got breakfatst
and then back to the mill and worked until 6 P. M., got supper and went
to bed. So it went day after day. One thing that tried out patience was
to shut down about midnight, take up the buhrs, wash off the garlic I
spoke about, get the buhrs down and start up again. Generally it would
be about 2 o'clock A M. before things were going right again.
One of my rules was, in fact it was a general custom, that you would
have your mill running in good shape before you called your relief.
One Man - Two Shifts.
One winter, or fall, rather, my brother went down with typhoid fever. I
ran the mill night and day for five weeks. I think I hear some one say
how could he do it? I milled wheat in day time and at night ran the
choppers on a Government contract, one hundred bushels of corn, rye,
oats, one-third each. In the afternoon I put the grain on for grinding.
I shoved the big chest away and let the chop run on the floor; the next
morning the driver would hold the bags and I would scoop it up. I had
an alarm bell rigged up that would ring should anything get in the
spout leading to the chopper and cut the flow off.
I slept propped up against the hopper, sometimes an hour at a time and possible sometimes longer.
Water Power By Day and By Night.
Another experience in the fall of the year, when it gets dark so
quickly about 6 o'clock, while we would be at supper, it was a common
thing to find our return to the mill, the mill running wild. We
would then have to put on more feed and take off the water pressure.
The same thing would occur in the morning . While at breakfast,
daylight would appear and we would find the mill mill nearly choked up,
then we had to take off the feed and add more water. This question does
the change from daylight to night have any effect on water mills or on
water pressure had been discussed in the milling journals ever since I
saw the first one. I always thought it did.
Now, about time and half time, you young fellows; if the occasion
occurs that it becomes necessary to put in a few extra hours, don't get
a pain. Work does not kill a fellow, it is worry that does that. If
milling 18 to 24 hours a day would kill anyone I would have been dead
Another Try At Enlisting.
I spoke in the early part of this story about enlisting, but was turned
down. I got the war fever once more and Judge Smith's son, our nearest
neighbor and myself figured out that we would take French leave and
enlist. We decided we would go in the navy. To do this we had to go to
Harrisburg to enlist, and to do that we had to get up at 4 A. M., and
walk to Hollidaysburg to take the cars. In going to Hollidaysburg we
had to cross the river. A flood having taken the bridge away, a foot
bridge had been erected by stringing logs from one section to another.
The logs were hewed, giving about ten inches of flat surface to walk
on, the time was the month of October and there was a very heavy frost.
The moon was about full size, but about ready to pass over the hill.
Well, we got about half way across and the frost making treacherous
walking, Smith slipped off and as he was going over, caught hold of me,
and the result was we both landed in about five feet of water, and that
was the end of that enlistment, for that period.
We went back to hour homes and I got interested again in the mill
improvements and induced my brother to get a millwright and we put in
an elevator to carry the meal to the attic or fourth floor from the
buhrs. This elevator had wooden buckets and was set so that we could
spout from two runs of buhrs. This innovation worked so nicely that a
few months later we had a conveyor to gather the meal from the three
runs and empty all in one elevator. You see, we were gradually
progressing and we were getting a great mill.
News and Politics.
Millers in those days were looked upon as being a little superior to
the common herd. We took the Philadelphia daily North American,
published then by Morton MacMichael. We got it by mail and it was
always one day old when it arrived. We took the pater for the grain
markets, and at that time it was the only daily newspaper received in
our valley. Farmers would come or send some of their family to learn
the news, especially when there had been a hard battle fought. The mill
office was packed full many times to learn the war news.
My brother was what is frequently called a ward politician. He was king
bee of the township, always a delegate at the conventions and was
looked upon as the township boss. Conventions in those days were quite
different from the present ones. If a man were a candidate for office
he traveled over the different townships soliciting votes. After the
primaries the follow who could capture the most township delegates was
supposed to get the nomination at the county convention. It did not
always turn out that way, however, for my brother and eight or ten
other leaders, always got busy with the delegates the night before the
convention, and very frequently a fellow who had 75 per cent of the
delegates was put on the shelf. with some moral persuasion and
frequently a pot of money, the county delegates, many of them, changed
their minds over night and when the roll was called the next day at the
convention the fellow who had come into the county seat with the fewest
delegates, got the nomination.
This system would be termed today corrupt practice, but it seemed to
work all right in those days, for a matter of fact it was not always
the best man for the office that got the most delegates. It was
frequently the fellow who could tell the biggest stories, and give out
some money in each township, presumably to get out the volte.
Enlists At Last - He And Sherman End The War.
Well, matters went drifting along and the Civil War still raging, one
day on the side of the Union and the next on the side of the
Confederacy. The boys who had enlisted in 1861, many of them were
coming home, some minus a leg or an arm, and some who had been shot
through, but had their wounds healed. I again began to scent excitement
in the air, and one morning in August, 1864, while eating our
breakfast, my brother asked me if I would drive the team to
Hollidaysburg with a load of flour (the regular driver was on the sick
list). he said he did not like to leave home that morning, that Colonel
McAllister, who was setting up his pins for Congress, was coming over
the mountain to see him.
I took the load of flour to town, and after unloading it, I tied up my
team, went to the recruiting station and enlisted. i got a furlough of
24 hours to take the team home and report for duty the next morning.
At that period of enlistment a soldier could enter any branch of the
service he would elect. I choose the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry. I knew
it was in Kentucky and Tennessee. I landed all right and about that
time the regiment was put in a division of cavalry under General
Kirkpatrick and made the cavalry escort for Sherman's Army and away we
went from Atlanta to the sea.
I want to tell you right her that as soon as Jeff Davis learned that
General Sherman and Corporal Isenberg had started through Georgia, the
Confederacy soon got cold feet and it took us just a few days less than
eleven months to finish the job.
After the war I put in four years as teller in the First National Bank.
Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Had I stayed at that job I would either have
been the president of the bank or a book keeper in the Western
Penitentiary by that time. However, neither happened.
I had saved a little money each year, even the first year in the mill,
when I got three dollars a month, together with my boarding, washing,
mending and the free use of a horse and buggy or sleigh on a Sunday
night to take my best girl out to view the moon and stars. You may
wonder how i did it, but my brother gave me the sweepings of the mill,
and with them I always had two good fat hogs for sale each year.
i quit banking and with my savings bought a third interest in a general
store, coal yard, lumber yard, etc., letting my profits go towards
paying for my interest in the business. I had no lost my interest in
milling, and the first year I persuaded my partners to buy a mill,
which at that time was all buhrs, but a few years later was converted
into a roller mill.
Now my story is ended, and if I do say it myself, I have as complete adn up-to-date mill there is in the State of Pennsylvania.
Copyright 2009 by T. R. Hazen.