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Basic Principles for the Restoration of Old Mills

Old Mill, Nyack, New York,, photographed prior to 1914, from a colorized postcard. The George Washington connection could not save this old mill. The Old Mill had ground wheat for George Washington's army. There was also burned at the stake the last witch of Rockland County.*

Basic Principles for the Restoration of Old Mills,
by Theodore R. Hazen, March 1998.

Old Mills are an irreplaceable of our national heritage. Mills at one time were an important part of our traditional landscape, and have an significant place in the history of America. Mills are sources of the history of industry, engineering and technology. Mills were important source of power to process a basic food product. Each mill is unique, as different as individual fingerprints in their structure, arrangement and collection of machinery which represent a time of craftsmanship long past. Grain, flour and grist mills hold a unique place in history, and deserve out protection, restoration and to be continued as as living history museums.

Unfortunately, the majority of mills have already been lots, due to changes in milling technology, commercial competition, consumer consumption, federal and state laws, neglect and decay. For years, when a mill would stop operating, its machinery at times would have been removed, or their structures have been poorly consider for conversion to other uses. Mills are found in different regions of the country, and the have their individual characterizes to that area, as to construction materials, structure and machinery. Not all mills can be saved, and not all of them are worth saving. Mills that represent the historical and technical development of flour milling should be the main candidates for restoration and preservation. The greatest limitation of mill restoration has been the individual ownership to find restoration funding. Other consideration must be applied such as non-profit foundations and friends groups. However, the main aim of preservation out national milling heritage should be in developing a federal agency which would be a branch of the National Park Service which would establish guidelines for conservation and repair standards which would apply to period restoration which has never been put in place, and followed on a large national scale. Too often, most mill restorations are are planned out by individuals who have no background in milling, millwrighting, milling technology and its development. A mill restored incorrectly, a mill-wrong does a disservice to history and to future generations. This branch of the National Park Service would function in a similar manor to the National Historical Trust which has a checks and balance system between the owner and their responsibilities as to maintaining historical structures.

There is no "old mills" car license plate, not even in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia where the greatest number of mills are found. There is no national milling day observance, no postal stamps to commemorate developments in flour milling such as bicentennial of the 200 anniversary of Oliver Evans automated flour mill. No historical marker on Oliver Evans automated flour mill on Red Clay Creek along the Faulkland Road in New Castle County, Delaware. Milling societies are afraid that they would loose their non-profit status if they pressure local, regional, state and federal agencies and legislatures to develop mill awareness and monies for restoration. There is no professional national milling heritage museum, mills never became part of a national heritage system of technology as originally planned by the National Park Service to go along with coal, steam, steel, textiles, water power, etc.

A mill is more than just a structure or building, it is a large machine. The building outward appearance is integral to part of that machine, the mill is n its entirety a building and a collection of machinery which is important. The true nature of restoration of any sort of machinery is to achieve its working order. There are many degrees as to periods of restoration which a building can represent to mills and their machinery. Multiple usage should not be an option, along with alternative usage.

Mills are deserving of our protection, and should not be let stand to abandonment and decay because of problems with ownership, funding, and modern development. Holding repairs and lockout by weatherproofing is as important as keeping vandals from harming our heritage. Foundation repairs are also critical to maintain a straight roof line and keeping all the various levels in place.

The main aim should be to seal as much of a mill structure as possible to keep all existing structures, machinery, and artifacts in place, and not to let individuals remove them for commercial gains. If the artifacts and material culture have been sold and auction off before restoration consideration becomes possible a great deal of its historical and technical integrity have been lost for that individual mill.

The original rule for mill restoration has long been to restore it to "day-one." When the mill was first build or constructed. We should try and avoid restoration because of popular fads of our culture. Some mills should be restored from the day that they stopped operating because that is how people living remember them. The main reason for this is if you remove all of the changes, additions and machinery from various time periods you loose the history and the ability to compare and contrast. Some mills that have stood and operated for several hundreds of years, there may be no longer any of the original fabric which remains in the mill.

Which period of milling development does the mill most represent?

(1) Is the mill a pre-Oliver Evans mill, (2) is the mill an Oliver Evans mill, (3) is the mill a "new process " mill, or (4) is the mill a "gradual reduction" mill?

What milling operations or plants are found in the mill?

(1) Is the operation a flour mill, (2) is the operation a corn mill, (3) is the operation a buckwheat mill, (4) is the operation a feed or speciality feed milling operation? Several of these operations can exist in one building or plant.

What type of milling operation is the mill?

(1) Is the mill a "custom mill," a "batch mill," or a "grist mill," (2) is the mill a "merchant mill," (3) is the mill a plantation mill, (4) is the mill a combination mill?

What is the main and secondary methods of grain milling?

(1) Traditional horizontal millstones, (2) ending stones, (3) middling stones, (4) burr mills, (5) roller mills, (6) attrition mills, (7) hammer mill, (8) combination of millstones and roller mills.

What secondary industry operations may have taken place at the mill?

(1) Was there also a saw milling operation, (2) was there a plaster mill, (3) was there a wool carding mill, (4) cider mill, etc.?

What is the source of power for the mill?

Horizontal water wheels: (1) Tub water wheel, (2) Johnson Water Wheel, (3) water turbine.
Vertical water wheels: (1) Undershot water wheel, (2) flutter water wheel (3) low breast shot water wheel, (4) middle breast shot water wheel, (5) high breast shot water wheel, (6) pitch-back water wheel, (7) hybrid water wheel of breast shot, pitch-shot, and overshot type, (8) Fitz Water Wheel, (9) Campbell Water Wheel.
Combination power source: (1) Two water wheels may be of different types, for example pitch-back and overshot types, (2) water wheel and steam engine, (3) water turbine and steam engine, diesel engine, or gas engine, (4) water wheel and electric motor operation, (5) modern source of power being either steam engine, diesel engine, or gas engine, or electric motor operation.

What is the source of lighting in the mill?

(1) Natural lighting during daylight hours, (2) candles, (3) oil or gas lighting, (4) kerosene lanterns.
Electrical lighting: (1) Generator for lights in mill powered by water wheel, (2) Utility company electric lighting.

The main aim of repair should be to retain, and to maintain as much as possible the existing structure and machinery in order to preserve the historical, and unique qualities of each mill. As a general rule, a mill should be repaired to the same appearance as when it was last operated until decisions are made otherwise. All auxiliary machinery, buildings, alternative power sources, miller's house, granaries, shops, and other related building on the property should be part of the history and development of milling and community. Other than modern buildings all additional structures were part of the community which the mill served. Modern structures can be used as visitor centers, book and gift shops, freezer storage for grain and flour products, and restrooms.

The mill should be documented along with the site before any process occurs in its restoration. Any original features that relate to the workings of the mill should be kept in their proper context whether the mill is to function as an operation mill or not, being a static exhibit. When the replacement of mill parts is necessary, such part replacement should be done "in-kind" This means that replacement should be carried out using the same materials, and methods of manufacture as the originals. New parts should be faithful copies of the originals as if they were period replacement parts, and not modern made. If no original parts survive to be used as a pattern, then the design of new parts should be based upon all evidence found on the site or using traditional methods and practice of construction of that time period. Any old parts which are removed by replacement should be preserved separately from the mill structure, as they may be of historical and technical importance. Original mill parts may need to be stored in climate control conditions which are not found in most mills, restored and heritage operating mills.

When mills are restored to operate, it is important that the machinery be set up to run in a smooth, efficient, and safe manor as possible. A system of effective maintenance should be followed as to repairs, with a regular working schedule of regular checks and running adjustments, referable by the miller, millwright or capable technician or custodian. Operation and maintenance manuals should be created along with volunteer handbooks.

Removal of any items of mill machinery from the mill should be avoided when new or modern machinery would replace it. It should be done in-kind. Moving the mill to a new site is not advisable unless the mill cannot remain in place and be restored when all methods of protection have failed, and the building and its machinery is threatened with certain destruction. For mills to function, water (stream), wind, tidal, or boat mills they should have a close relationship to their natural sources of power supply. Artificial methods of energy generation to operate the mill would not work, and are not cost effective. This means a stream powered mill cannot be operated on electrical pumped water, or a tidal mill cannot be operated on artificially generated tidal flow. Windmills need to have their space around them, and be maintained to be clear of buildings and trees to allow the free flow movement of the wind. The water supply of a water wheel or water turbine should not be interrupted with additional power to force it into operation, you loose control of the milling process and a great deal of the safety factors are lost, and out of control. Maintenance of mill streams, dams, weirs, races, sluices, control and head gates, and mill ponds should have provisions to allow for access for their repair and management, along with visitor safety and interpretation.

Mills are primary machines, and proposals to convert them to other uses should always be avoided. What happens is the contemporary spoiling of history, craftsmanship and the true intended use is lost. This makes for restoration is a distant future a greater impossibility. All work on mills should be done and answered by those who have adequate knowledge and practical experience. Advice should be sought and considered before any action concerning the mills future is taken. Proper repairs mean just that, this will ensure that mills are truly representative examples that will survive so future generation will study, learn, experience, and enjoy them. We may not be able to find examples of different types or examples of different period in technical development in one part or region of the country, a countrywide collection of the diversity should be preserved as an alternative. Regional mills, mean just that, mills of New England for example were very different than mills of the Middle Atlantic or Western States. The same is true with technological development, mills of New England for example were very different than mills of the Middle Atlantic States or of Western States.

This document is a broad philosophy of the restoration and preservation of old mills. More detailed and specific guidance on the historical technical and practical aspects of mill protection, and repair are found as source material on the various pages of this web site. Mills is a very broad subject, much greater then the average person would realize. This web site may never be complete. I wish my late best friend Charlie Howell would have lived long enough to see personal computers, and the internet to get his impression of it. When he suddenly passed away in March of 1992, he had just discovered video tape. The past was seen by some, the present is viewed by all, and the future is left to those who dream.

Nottoway Falls Mill, Crew, Virginia.

* Today the modern story of the Old Mill, Nyack, New York, is: It was also where the last witch trial in New York was held. The witch was known as Naut Kanniff. The people weigher her against the Bible but she was heavier. In those days if you were heavier than the Bible you were not a witch. So she was not a witch.

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Copyright 1998 by T. R. Hazen