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A Personal Tribute to and Remembrance of Charles Howell

Photo of Charles Howell taken Sunday, June 14, 1987 at Pierce Mill

Charles Howell
January 7, 1926 - March 13, 1993

Theodore R. Hazen

A number of years ago, I had the honor of introducing Charlie Howell at a milling lecture he was giving. I began by saying, "At one of the milling symposiums given by the Colvin Run Mill in 1985, the key to getting registered was that you call up and say, 'I know Charles Howell.' Two years later they held another symposium, and the key to getting in that symposium was not only that you knew Charlie Howell, but that you loved Charlie Howell. And now that we all love Charlie Howell, here is Charlie Howell."

Mr. Howell came to the United States from Great Britain in April 1969 to become the miller at the Philipsburg Mill, Philipsburg Manor, in North Tarrytown, New York. The late Rex Wailes recommended him for the job. Rex Wailes had been in America to consult on the construction of the wind mill at Colonial Williamsburg. Because Colonial Williamsburg and Sleepy Hollow Restorations at Philipsburg were both established under endowments provided by the late John D. Rockefeller,Jr., Mr. Wailes accepted an invitation to visit North Tarrytown. The new position for miller was still vacant. He knew Charlie was the most highly qualified person for the job. Charlie also was able to participate and provide his expert technical advice during the second reconstruction of this mill. Even after his retirement in December of 1988, he would often return to Philipsburg as millwright. He had a wonderful temperament for this work. Once I remember a new water wheel was installed in the mill. After about a month and a half the shaft of the new water wheel failed. Charlie took it in stride and replaced it.

Mr. Howell will always be remembered as the onetime resident English millwright and master miller of Philipsburg Manor Upper Mill. Thousands of young visitors grew up knowing Mr. Howell as the wonderful English miller. Charlie Howell had the ability to explain clearly the working of the mill to whoever visited the mill. This clarity extended to his writings on mills. Charlie made the atmosphere of the mill authentic, even down to the traditional mill cat. Mr. Howell described Dusty as his "little personal cat." Dusty would run along the hand-railing of the bridge over the mill dam next to the Philipsburg Mill as Charlie walked over the bridge. Dusty would then sit there waiting for him to return in whatever weather.

Charlie Howell during the restoration of the Wye Mill, Wye Mills, Maryland.

Charles Howell was born January 7, 1926, at Brooke End Mill, Staffordshire, England. He was from a family which went back many generations with British millers and millwrights. Charlie had worked as a miller since the age of fourteen. At that age he had to learn quickly how to lift 200 pound sacks of grain in his father William Howell's mill. William Howell was a respected miller and taught Charlie everything he knew. His grandfather was a foreman in a steam powered mill which had 52 pairs of millstones. Charlie said they had a crew of men who did nothing else but dress millstones. They would only operate about half of the millstones at a time.

Charlie operated and repaired various types of water powered mills as a miller and millstone dresser in Great Britain. It was often said he was a fifth generation miller, but his family has been in the milling business since 1375. It may have begun with a Mr. Howell of Fayvall who the King of England awarded the lease on the Dee Mills in Chester. Charlie would like to think his long ago relative may have been the one who inspired Issac Bickerstaff to write his poem about the Jolly Miller on the River Dee. Charlie Howell was a short stocky man with a ruddy complexion and a quick friendly smile. Mr.Howell never lost his Staffordshire accent, and he enjoyed displaying it whereever he traveled. He had dressed millstones in 33 states and 7 countries.

In the United States he studied early American mills. Mr. Howell worked as a consultant on mill restorations while at Philipsburg and after his retirement. It would be hard to find one mill that he was not somehow connected with. The first mill he worked on was the Stony Brook Mill on Long Island. He had worked on the Stuyvesant Mill in Renssalerville, New York, for the 1976 Bicentennial. He went to central Africa to build a mill in Malawi and taught them how to operate and maintain it. In 1978 he finished up the work on the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey. Charlie was filmed as the miller in a local bread manufacturer television commercial at the Rest Place Mill at High Falls in Ulster County near New Paltz, New York. There is an endless list of more mills that he had assisted in some way.

The Waterloo Village Grist Mill was originally constructed in 1760, West of Stanhope, New Jersey. The mill was restored in the middle 1970's by Charles Howell. The Nabisco company paid for the modest restoration costs, and in exchange they installed an exhibit on the entire second floor of the mill which consisted of vintage Nabisco ads, cardboard boxes, and metal tins. The grist mill part of the structure had a breast shot water wheel which powered two pairs of millstones, and the saw mill portion had a flutter wheel which operated an up and down saw mill. The configuration of the grist mill is identical to the gear system at the mill at Philipsburg Manor. The mill had been actively used for demonstration, and school group tours besides producing flour for souvenir sales. 

Charlie was an active member of the British and North American Newcomer Societies and the Society for Industrial Archaeology. He left behind a big family of people who loved him, an exclusive club of people, mill buffs across the country. Mr. Howell was a member of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, The International Molinological Society and until his death was their United States representative. Charlie Howell and Jim Owens of Eastham, Mass., organized a mini-mill symposium of mills on Long Island and Cape Cod for T.I.M.S. in August of 1992. Mr. Howell presented a Millstone Dressing Seminar at the Newlin Mill in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania in 1987. At the Colvin Run Mill Symosiums, Mr. Howell presented millstone dressing demonstrations.

Upper Mills, Philipsburg Manor, Sleepy Hollow, New York.
"A Colonial Water Mills in the Wooden Age,"
the mill in which Charlie Howell was the miller.

Mr. Howell's writings began with a chapter "Colonial Water Mills in the Wooden Age" included in America's Wooden Age; Aspects of its Early Technology, edited by Brooke Hindle, 1975, published by Sleepy Hollow Restorations. This book appeared on bookshelves while he was working on The Mill at Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills and A Brief History of Milling, written with Allen Keller, forward by Rex Wailes, 1977 (now out of print). Mr. Howell when traveling to milling symposiums and conferences always had a few copies which you could purchase, sold directly out of his car trunk. This was not the book he always wanted to write. It appeared in this form because he was employed at Philipsburg at the time. Mr. Howell wanted to write a book on the whole history of flour milling: from Oliver Evans to the roller mills. Charlie often said he was always too busy to even write more for SPOOM's Old Mill News.

Charles Howell was on the Board of Directors of Hanford Mills in East Meridith, New York. Being on the Board of Directors at the Handford Mills was something Charlie took great pride in. Whenever Hanford Mills would have a special event, he would go there and operate their corn mill for them. Mr. Howell along with Rex Wailes were among the Trustees of Cheddleton Windmill in England. Charlie worked with the late Tom Rick at his Manitou Machine Works in Cold Springs, New York. After Tom Rick passed away, he worked with James Kricker at Rondout Woodworking in Saugerties, New York. In 1985 Charlie met Robert Grassi, in New Jersey, while they were separately looking at mills. Robert at the time was working in the landscape business, but he would become Charlie's apprentice millstone dresser traveling with Charlie to his regular jobs. Charlie often remarked how good of a millstone dresser Robert had become. On several occasions I also worked with Mr. Howell dressing millstones.

Everyone loved him. I don't remember anyone ever saying anything bad about him. In the time I knew him, once I got past the initial time of awe, we became close friends. More important than the knowledge I've learned from him and all the other Charlie Howells in my life was his example on how to live. He was always honest with people. Charlie never tried to cheat anyone, he told them the truth, just what he thought it should be. Mr. Howell was not one to toot his own horn. Charlie always had good things to say about a mill restoration, even if the restoration work might not be going in the right direction. After a while my own sense of self worth grew by knowing Charlie Howell. I could tell someone something about a mill and after a time, I realized, I could think, "Go ask Charlie Howell, he will tell you the same thing!" And that comes from the grace of having known him. We all will miss Charlie Howell.

Some people may remember him, as always having a funny story to tell, with his smile and infectious humour. And Charlie could talk for hours just about ghost stories about mills. He would stop and tell you that he never had seen a ghost and did not believe in them. But he could go on for hours telling ghost stories set in mills. You could not say Charlie did not know what was going on in the world. Charlie just filtered out the useless things in life. He bought his first TV about 2 years before he passed away, and watched it very little. The late Barton McGuire always said of him, he could tell you every mill that he was ever in and the number of teeth in each gear wheel. I am not sure of that, he could at least remember each mill, but Charlie did keep good notebooks. He had the ability to remember technical details on mill which he had visited years previous. Charles Howell read widely and deeply on the subject of mills, and had an exceedingly retentive memory. I always looked forward to each year receiving Charlie's Christmas cards. Inserted in each card would be a typed letter on his work and travels to mills in that year. In our travels together, everyone would always ask me if I was his son. After a time I decided I would tell the next person who would ask me that I was his personal biographer. There will never be another Charlie Howell, it will be impossible to ever replace him, because we all learned from him, and loved him.

Charlie Howell's family once operated 5 water powered mills in Great Britain, now they operate only one: Howell Bro., Offey Mill, NR. Ecclenall Staffshire, Millers and Corn Millers/Haulage Contractors operated by his nephew also named Charles Howell. The mill Charlie worked in at the age of fourteen is now a restaurant. Charlie often talked about his favorite place in the world, a valley with was lined with flint mills, back in Staffordshire, England. Charles Howell died on March 13, 1993 at New Windsor, New York, after a brief illness. His ashes were place in a grave near his parents in Seighford Church. Charlie Howell was a member of the Society of Friends (another in the long line of Quaker millers). Mr. Howell left behind one brother William (Bill) Howell, an older brother George (who works with nephew Charles in the flour mill almost every day), and two sisters.

Charles Howell, colonial millstone dresser,
a watercolor painting by T.R. Hazen, 1993.

The original watercolor was painted after Charlie Howell's death.
It was inspired by the last time we dressed millstones together
at the Burwell-Morgan Mill, Millwood, Virginia, summer 1992.
Then it was donated to Philipsburg Manor, Sleepy Hollow, New York,
where he was loved by everyone as the miller for so many years.

If I had to sum up Charlie Howell in a few short sentences,
I simply would say the poem by A. C. Hoffman, The Miller:
The Miller

His shoes are never shiny,
Yet his pants' seat mostly is
And if you see a stiff white collar
It's not likely to be his:
Oh no in dress he is no killer- The Miller.
His job's not in the limelight
And you do not see his name
In the famous hall of fame
Yet in life's structure:
He's a pillar- The Miller.

Photo of Millers Ted Hazen and Charles Howell taken at Pierce Mill Sunday, June 14, 1987

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen