Site hosted by Build your free website today!

The Page Begins Here

Interpretation for Old Mills (part 1)

Please be patient this is the largest web page on my site. Thank you.

On a Field Trip to an Old Mill:
You can learn how grain is ground into flour, how the water powers the water wheel, gears, and millstones. The miller was a very hard worker. He needed to be strong, and smart in math. He had to work well with people. Grist Mills needed cats to catch the mice.

Interpretation for Old Mills
Effective Interpretive Programs to make the "same old grind" come alive again,
Theodore R. Hazen

Interpretation for Old Mills (text only; no images or links; print version; 198k)

Table of Contents

Interpretation for Old Mills
Effective Interpretive Programs to make the "same old grind" come alive again,
Theodore R. Hazen

Types of Interpretation:

Interpretation for old mills is much like balancing millstones, it comes in two forms static and dynamic. In interpretation then static interpretation of an old mill would be when the machinery is still, not operating, or not able to operate. Dynamic interpretation of an old mill would be when part of, or all of the machinery is in motion. This may include just turning a portion of the machinery to idle it, or the grinding of grain into flour or meal. Over the years I have seen a wide variety of interpretation in old mills, some very good, and some very bad. I find that interpretation of old mills has two drastically different effects upon the visitor when the mill is operating versus when the mill is not operating. You could be the best interpreter in the world, but when the machinery begins to operate there is nothing like it in the world. Even the best interpreter has to take a second seat to the turning machinery. All one can to is add to what is already happening. It may be like being a to witness creation, the raw grain going and seeing the final flour coming out, and being able to touch it between your fingers. Who wants to read about it or hear about it when you can see the real thing happening before your eyes. It is like watching bread dough grow into a loaf of warm baked bread before your eyes

Lets look at an example, you sitting in the audience part of a group of visitors watching an interpreter in an old motion picture theater. That interpreter after introducing themselves and who they represent, explains the history and importance of the theater. Then a visitor asked the question what happened here? For what ever reasons may be behind our science fiction example there are no longer any motion pictures in their world. All the interpreter can do is make the theater dark inside and explain what happened upon the huge white screen behind them. This is a similar effect that interpretation of an old mill has upon visitors when it cannot operate. If the interpreter could make the motion picture screen come alive with light and moving pictures all they could do is step aside and take a seat to what is happening upon the giant screen. An old mill when it is operation has motion, a bit of lights and shadows flickering inside of the building. What really draws the visitor into what is happening is the real sounds more alive that recorded sounds coming out of speakers. There is the sounds of the flowing water turning the water wheel, and the sounds of the gears meshing together as they turn the millstones. Then there is also the added factor of smell. There are many smells in an old mill which is much different than any other rural building. I will save taste and texture for later. What it comes down is a similar experience for the visitor part of the real interpretation of an old mill, he is a witness how the miller experiences operating a mill is by using your senses.

In today's world, I would guess almost every interpreter at any site has experienced it. A visitor walking through with a operating video camera glued to their eye. They won't stop, you can't say anything to them like even, "Do you have any questions?" (1) It is almost like the bootleg video they sell on many of our major city streets but this for what ever reason is bootleg vacations. The visitor goes away with experiences that they never stopped to enjoy or understand when it was really happening. There may be nothing an interpreter can do, if their batteries died they would simply go in search of more batteries.

Interior of grist mill with the old miller, Head Tide, Maine.

Since most people have never been a mill let alone seen one that is operating. You may ask yourself if they could go home and have learned only one thing what would that be? I always think of is an understanding of how the millstones work. They do not touch each other or mash, crush up the grain into flour like most people who walk in the door with this preconceived notion. Anther approach is to allow the visitors to experience the mill by using all of their senses. The one way to do this beyond the actual mill when it is operating. Since they cannot touch the turning machinery for safety reasons, they can have a better sense of the mill by being able to sense some thing of the machinery. You can use old wooden gear teeth without being covered with lubrication, millstone dressing tools, and being able to touch the millstones. I have even made an all-wooden mill pick for small children to hold and touch that does not have the weight and dangers of an actual metal tool. Some of the tools used in the operation of the mill such as scoops, paddles, bag closing devices, and so forth are also good for them to experience. You can show them objects or artifacts that are familiar or may be perhaps strange to them. A picture is worth a thousand words as the old saying goes. Then how many words are found in a three dimensional object worth. If your local health officer allows it setting aside some grain and ground flour for the visitors to be able to touch and feel. This of course would be thrown out at the end of the day.

One of the best experiences an interpreter in an old mill can learn from it to present his program to a blind individual or group of totally blind individuals. They can sit their at a distance and safety hear all of the sounds of the mill operate. But the major portion of your program has to involve using touch and texture of the actual mill parts. This may involve kernels of grain, a hand full of flour, touching a portion of the millstone and its furrows. Being able to hold a wooden gear tooth in their hands and other experiences even filling a sack of flour. You can do things like letting them grind up a few kernels of grain using the millstones in their mouth or between two smaller stones on a table. This is one of the best ways I think an interpreter can become better at one he does is to make a visitor who has lost one or more of their senses to understand what is happening and to go away with a better understanding. Then one might say the visitors have all of their senses would be a breeze, but it is far to easy one of two of them to get lost between the cracks. Did you reach out and touch everyone who wanted to learn and understand today, remember sometimes a lot of visitors are terribly shy and pass by without saying a word. You don't want to become an interpreter that when visitors see you coming they turn and walk in another direction. I have been seen this happening for real in some parks.

One of the best sources of information it use in the "contrast" and "compare" portions of your interpretive program I have found in the pages of an old milling journal called, "American Miller." The issues from the beginning half of the 1900's, each issue they ran a one page section similar to "Ripley's Believe it or Not." It was entitled Milling Highlights and Oddities." They had a number of line drawings with a sentence of two caption underneath. One example was, did you know that the tooth of a woolly mammoth is about the same size with grooves on the surface just like that of a millstone. Another example shows how explosive flour dust is, at one time some built an internal combustion engine that was fueled with nothing but flour. Over a number of decades they provided interesting facts about historical events and mill related technology. (2)

Some of the most interesting and compelling interpretation that I have seen was what I would referrer to as the interpretation of space. The interpreters setup their furniture within an archaeological grids of where a building was discovered. The visitor remains outside of the grid with perhaps the sense of being able to look not only through time but through walls of a building as well. The interpretation is actually within the real space of an historical building or event presenting their program.

I have been to one park that does first person interpretation. (3) The person in charge at the time told me that he became interested in interpretation and living history because of his interest in old mills. (4) They do what I referrer to as "soap opera" living history. They get together each morning before the park opens to the public, and plan out the days story line, for example, today a child has died. Then they all go out and present how that event would have effected the lives of their characters. (5) In mills like anything that has turning machinery people get injured, they loose either parts of their bodies or their lives, but that is not an event that I would consider presenting in living history in an old mill. I would think you might quickly loose your funding if you presented programs about death and tragedy. I think besides the main themes of an historical mill site, you would want to present mills and water power are still a practical and environmentally friendly alternative technology. Mills are still around because the technology is old, that does not mean it is obsolete or its products are bad product. If modern energy methods fail, or we run out, we may be just going back to these forms of power one day.

I was somewhat disappointed to read the lesson plans from Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, Saugus, Massachusetts, there was no mention of water power or water wheels. I know the Fitz Water Wheel Company was responsible for the original restoration of their water wheels when the site was first restored. At least at Lowell and at Harper's Ferry they discuss the topic of water power. My ideal National Park to have worked in would have been if they created a park out of a portion of the flour milling district of Minneapolis, Minnesota. You would have such great themes as water power, flour milling technology and the history and development of the milling district of Minneapolis.

To return to this last park, I am waiting for the day when they rebuild their mill. My understanding is that they had a millwright come to America from England. However, before he could erect a mill he died. So they had to order a mill kit from England. A full size mill built in England, taken apart, stuffed on board with more immigrants coming here. Once it arrives you follow the instruction and put slot "A" into hole marked "A." So on and so forth until you have a mill a complete mill. I think I just gave away a lot of their story lines. Since I learned about this park, back in England somewhere they found lost and hidden in an English garden a post mill. In some of the old drawings and maps you found post wind mills that were not drawn to scale but were about the size of a man. For a long time they though this was a problem in interpretation and perspective. The discovery of this windmill showed that they had build portable windmills that were not much larger than the size of a man that could be moved from place to place. They had scaled down sail arms, gears and a small diameter pair of millstones, and could actually grind grain into flour. They were somewhat like the later portable burr mills but were complete with their own ability to generate power. So perhaps this park in its historical period either bought a full size mill, or one of these smaller scale windmills from England. It is an interesting alternative after all, one of these portable windmills would better fit into a 17th century sailing ship.

There are two main types of interpretive programs in mills. The first one is a walking tour of the mill, and the second is station interpretation. A walking tour of the mill is when the miller, park guide, volunteer, or interpreter takes a group of visitors through the mill. (6) They would stop at various stations or places in and around the mill on a tour. Generally this is the bread and butter of school group interpretation, and perhaps the best way to take a group of visitors through a milling program. The interpreter in many cases would began his talk at station one. This station is usually the outside of the mill within view of the dam, and mill race, with the water wheel, and the mill in the background. Once the program begins it generally takes from one half an hour to forty-five minutes to complete.

Return to Table of Contents

The Walking Tour Method of Mill Interpretation:

The best way to present a program is to first write an interpretive outline or lesson plan, and then to write out the dialog for the program in long hand. Another method is to create it by using the storyboard method. Make the interpretive materials appropriate to the age and grade level of understanding and educational level. (7) Your program begins by identifying your group or organization that you are employed with. Then you establishing how you want to be referred to by the students, as Mr., Mrs., Miss., or by a first name, such as Ted the miller. The basic portion of this program outside of the mill would give a brief history of the mill. Don't fool yourself, the group is there not to learn every detail and event in the mill's history, but to see it operate so keep it simple and basic. An interpreter friend's wife stated in these terms: "They lived, they fought, and they died." Keep it simple. Those visitors with a greater interest will identify themselves after the program is over or by coming back and asking more questions. So if she is correct in her interpretation of who interpretation should operate, milling interpretation should be no more than: "They built, they ground, and it stopped."

An overview of the history of the mill in the mill's folder is generally enough for most visitors. If you start getting too detailed with dates and names you will begin to loose people. This is the time to include the main, and sub themes of the site. This would include information like, this mill was one of many mills along this mill stream. Give information like the number of mills over a period of time. The first mill was build in "such and such a date," and the last one was in operation until "such date." Other relevant information can be presented such as "why" were the mills built here, such as to make use of the water power in the stream, and perhaps this was near a port, or an export market, and close to the sources of grain. The patterns of wheat growing and grain milling as well as the milling technology may have changed over the years.

If the person giving the interpretation is the only person on site, and the control gate for the water wheel is nearby or accessible, this is a good time to open and close the gate. If there is another person on duty in the mill, like the miller, he can operate the water wheel from inside for the group. If the school kids are young enough you can first ask them the question, "How do you turn it on? I don't see a switch." Generally the kids are bright enough to say, "pull the handle." You need to make them understand that it is not like a light switch at home, by flicking the switch "off" and "on," it does not always work. In fact, it does not have a switch. You can explain it in this manner, "Water flows and fills the buckets on top of the water wheel. Once enough buckets are full, and that portion (the top) of the water wheel becomes heavier than the rest of the water wheel the wheel will turn or fall. As long as the water is flowing the wheel will continue to operate. The water wheel arms are like a series of levers as long as you (the weight of the water) pushes down upon them the wheel will turn. The more water, the more machinery can be operated, and then therefore, the more grain the miller could grind."

This can be a time to include such information like generally most of the time it works fine, but its operation is dependent upon the stream or mother nature. When the stream floods you can't operate the mill, or when the water levels in the stream are low you also can't operate the mill. You can compare this to eating candy, too much of a good thing will make you sick. If you never get any candy the more you long for. During the winter months the mill sometimes can't operate because of snow and ice buildup on the water wheel but most of the time it will operate with no problems. Environmental messages can be included such as the turning action of the water over the water wheel mixes oxygen into the water which actually improves aquatic life in the stream. One of the mills that I have worked in historically the fish swam up the over flow around the mill dam. The old millers and locals who lived in the area talked about it. This can be a time to talk about different types of water wheels, wind mill power and the operation of a tidal mill. Actually tidal power is more dependable because you operate using salt water and it does not freeze. Because you are operating from the sea and not a stream you don't have problems with season flooding and low water droughts. The only problem is that tide time changes and you operate the mill twice a day for about 5 or 6 hour periods each. You may be operating the mill then in the middle of the night because that is when the tides are working for you. You can sit down and make a tide chart. Then you can tell someone to come back on any given day and time (up to a year in advance) and the mill should be working. You can't do that with a wind or stream power mill. The only time it won't work is if the wind has blown hard enough and long enough it will prevent the tide from coming back but that rarely happens. That is a good time to include the question why then you don't find more tide mills around?

Before you take you group into the mill you must stop outside of the door and give the group a safety message. This is when you can stop at the door of the mill and explain why the mill may have Dutch doors and that the miller wanted to keep out stray dogs and kids from getting hurt inside of the mill. The top of the door can be opened to allow light and air to enter the mill but keep out unwanted guests. Some mills had a bell on an outside pole that was rung so the miller knew someone was there with a wagon load of grain. The customers used it, and the miller got used to coming to the door when the bell was rung. Other times some one could yell inside through the open door for the miller, but that is know a good idea you should knock first before you enter people's houses or places of work. The mill's cats could have constant access to the mill and the outside. Many mills had a cut in the corner of the door so the cat could move freely. Explain to them that there is turning machinery inside of the mill and it does not know or care if it is grind up grain or people. You can tailor the words to fit the age level and understanding of the group so you don't really need to talk about blood and gore.

If the person contact person of the tour is a park guide this is a good time to present the group to the miller who would take over the tour and present the operation of the mill from the millstones to the mill's basement where the gears are located, and where the grain may exit the millstones fall down a chute into a bin. If this is a tag team tour of the mill, the miller can present his portion of the program, and then give it back to the park guide for the final stage which may be a film or video presentation on another level or building of the mill site. Some mill sites the visitors and groups see the film or video before they enter the actual mill site grounds. When the program ends, make sure you thank the group for coming, and you can include who good of a group they were such as good listeners, etc. Invite them to come back on the weekend with their families and friends, etc. You can add things like saying to the teacher, "You can leave one or two of them with us. We are always looking for a good apprentice." The in turn usually ask, "How much do we get paid?" You can answer that we will clothe and feed you and give you a place to stay until we feel you can graduate and go work for yourself. That is a better deal that the school gives you." Then if the kids ask, "But how much do we get paid?" You can answer, "You can have all of the flour you can eat!"

My personal feelings about mill tours, I don't like them. I think they are an unnatural act. They are not historically accurate and it is not a way to present living history. (8) You become a third person costume interpreter. (9) Historically people would not be taken through the mill on a tour, and have its operation explained to them. The mill does not operate the mill by the miller touring through the mill. He would run the mill by working at one or two stations, this was usually the millstone and basement level of the mill. The miller's helper or apprentice would do the work on the upper floors of the mill by climbing narrow steps or ladders. It is a good way of effectively presenting back to back programs to school groups with a 5 or 10 minute break in between. It is a necessary evil for week day operation of the mill to school groups. On the weekends and when groups are not scheduled visitors can randomly move though the mill. Some mills only allow visitors to more though the building on mill tours. They do not allow the visitors to remain, sit, watch the operation of the mill for long periods, or ask a lot of questions. This would include such activities as sitting in a corner and drawing or setting up a tripod and taking pictures. Some mills have gone so far as to create walkways to keep the visitors within guardrail areas while moving though the mill. It becomes like a modern industrial plant tour after a while. The problem with many mills is that they only allow for the employment of one person, a miller. A mill should have two people for the main consideration of safety. The other person who is station at the mill can be the miller's helper, park guide, or outlet sales person. They should always know how to stop and start the machinery for safety concerns. For employee safety, and visitor liability there should always be two person at the mill to operate the mill and grind grain into flour. If there is not you are taking a big risk if someone were to get hurt. A million plus kids can go though the mill with no problems all it takes is just one to get hurt to spoil it for everyone.

The most rewarding part of being a miller- interpreter was receiving large envelopes in the main that contained a booklet made up from drawings that were inspired by that the impressed the kids the most about their recent school field trip. Sometimes it was the kids that acted the worst that you thought were not paying attention, and it was a complete waste of your time to present a program to them. Then out of the blue one day you would receive this wonderful testament to your efforts in the mail. Surprising things happen every day. It seemed like it was always one groups that you made notes in the margin of the school field trip book don't ever take kids from this grade and school ever again. Of course, it was only something that we would privately joke about but would not ever do.

Return to Table of Contents

The Stations Approach to Mill Interpretation:

The other form of mill interpretation is station interpretation. A person is station at each stop or place of interest in what could be termed a visitor self guided tour of the mill. This may be two people one located at the millstones and another in the mill's basement if that is where the ground material is coming out of the millstone chute into a meal bin. If the millstones are located on a platform above the gearing and behind a meal bin then you would only need one person. Station interpretation in a mill works well when you have many floors and machinery turning on each level. This is for interpretation reason and for visitor safety. During special events and festivals you have to give up the idea of mill tours and go to station interpretation for visitor safety and visitor flow. The system that I like is when the visitors are guided through the mill by tour guides who present the majority of the interpretation to the visitors. The visitors can watch the miller and his helpers operate the mill grind grain and package flour. Then before the visitors move onto the next station stop the visitors are allowed to ask questions of the miller or his helpers. Sometimes the miller and his helper can interact and present they first person interpretation amongst themselves with the visitors present. (10) This is sort of like the visitors are allowed to time travel and look in on what a happened in the mill during a certain time period but they cannot interact or they might change history. Self-introduced role play (11) is first person interpretation introduced (and or followed up) in third person by the same interpreter. (12) Role acting is a hybrid of first and third person interpretation in which interpreters adopt a historical personality by a first person, but respond beyond its bounds when prompted by out-of-period and personal questions.

Crabble Corn Mill - Schools Tour
The two miller-guides show a school group how the pattern of grooves on the millstones is re-cut after several weeks of wear. They explain how grain feeds into the millstones from the hopper (foreground), before starting up the waterwheel to demonstrate how flour is made.

Return to Table of Contents

First Person Interpretation:

Now to get back to the idea why I consider much of this an unnatural act. Historically people were not allow to walk through a mill and the miller would not normally explain the operation of the mill to strangers. The miller like the millwright and millstone dresser learned his trade through apprenticeship. They safeguarded their secrets and only reluctantly passed them on to their apprentices over a long period of years. Therefore traditionally anyone who would come to the mill, the miller would see them coming and stop the mill. Nothing would ever be apart such as the millstones uncovered and open for viewing. The visitor would not see the mill operating or be allowed to ask questions about its workings. The visitors or mill customers were told to leave your grain and come back at a set time, and they could pick up their finished product (minus the toll collected for payment of grinding). In the mean time they could use the area around the mill for fishing, swimming, picnicking or ice skating. Some millers and mill owners only allowed visitors to use the area around the mill for recreation if they were customers of the mill at that time otherwise they would be run off. Rakes Mill at Rakes Mill Pond above Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway was a good example of this. (13) Basically then as far as milling is concerned interpretation is an event or act taken place out of time but set into an historic place which would never of happened. I think then first person living history does not work in a mill environment because people have no historical reference to it. People waited their turn sitting on their wagon with all the other customers of the mill. A young child sometimes would have to sneak into the mill to ever get to see it operating otherwise their fathers would tell them to sit in the wagon.

Colonial Miller Mac McGrane
keeps his nose to the grindstone.

To do first person interpretation you need to the staff to present it effectively. (14) You need a third person interpreter outside of the mill to introduce everyone to what is going on inside of the mill. (15) I have had a difficult time to allow the budget to have more than one paid staff person let alone two individuals. You need someone in modern clothing to introduce what is happening inside of the mill or stop your program and explain what it is and that you are about to present it to them. (16)

The Robertson's Windmill, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
It is a reproduction of the picturesque landmark of early American industry
that stood in Williamsburg before 1723. A post windmill, it functioned
as a practical grist mill, operated by a master miller and his apprentice.

The wind miller at Colonial Williamsburg does not do first person interpretation of the windmill. His apprentices present all of the interpretation from the ground level and then allow you to climb the ladder to look into the mill. One reason the windmill was reconstructed not on a site of the original two windmills. It does not operate, it is in an area where there is not enough wind, and it is not in mechanical condition that would allow it to actually grind grain. Second Mr. Rockefeller decided that the windmill should be some thing that you interpret and does not operate. Meanwhile the other craftsman are practicing their trades but the miller and his apprentices have been mandated not to operate the mill. This has been a source of great frustration for the wind miller and his apprentices over the years that they can only interpret the windmill. And thirdly or finally, the wind miller spends his time making baskets and talking of other matters. The definition of the term "living history" means that you make history come alive how can you effectively go that if the mill can never come alive. Third person and first person interpretation makes use of costumed actor or guides, known as interpreters. (17)

Return to Table of Contents

The True Living History Approach to Mill Interpretation: Advantages and

Costume interpretation is basically what you have to present to visitors because in restored mills since you are not operate the mill in a way it did in an historical period. The one mill that I have seen that comes closest to true living history is the Upper Mills at Philipsburg Manor where the late Charles Howell was the miller for many years. (18) The new miller Pete Curtis is continuing in their tradition of grinding grain that is carried to the mill in burlap sacks, hoisted to the top floor of the mill by a sack hoist. Then the sacks are dumped loose into the mill's bins above the millstone level. Once it is ground and then the apprentices sift the flour it is placed either into cotton sacks or sealed in the traditional wooden flour barrels. Later when the visitors go home the sacks or barrels are opened, and someone puts the flour into the modern paper sacks that are sold in the gift shop. This usually happens in a clean basement room of the visitors center. A drawing on the wall of the Dayett Mill at Cooch's Bridge off the Old Baltimore Pike south of Interstate 95 and Newark, Delaware, is of a miller that resembles the late Charles Howell. (19) I remember that it is a drawing from "Early American Life" back in the early 1970's when they did an article on Philipsburg Manor when Charles Howell came from England to be their miller. The miller has a big smile with his arms at his waist, and wearing his apron has a round barrel-like shape. (20)

I need also to mention lubrication and cleaning up of the mill at the beginning, and end of the day. It depends upon the park, historical site how this is handled from site to site. In many cases the lubrication and maintenance of the machinery is done when the visitors are not wondering the mill. The mill should not wear the same clothing he wears while running the mill and making flour. He may have a pair of coveralls that he slips off and on. Also when is the mill is cleaned after each days operation or grinding. The doors are locked and the visitors go home and the modern vacuum cleaners come out. The Glade Creek Mill in Babcock State Park, near Cliff top, West Virginia, the miller ends his day and goes home. Then the park maintenance and cleaning staff come in and cleans the mill. You can't maintain modern health standards with historical cleaning equipment. A miller can use a traditional broom, brush or cobweb catcher to show visitors how they cleaned historically. Then to present a mill in an historical interpretive setting the mill would have dust and cobwebs everywhere. Grain and flour would be spilled on the floors and there would be no evidence of health standards in place. So to operate a mill in a true living history format you can't do that with modern health standards in place. (21) You have to make some compromises and work around things. So if the miller and his helper are also the mill's maintenance and cleaning staff for the mill you have to allow time in the day for those operations to occur. The first hour of the day is set aside for maintenance and lubrication, and setting up of demonstration items. The last hour or hour and half are set aside for cleaning and maintaining the health standards. The miller and his helpers may answer questions but no formal interpretive programs can occur unless one person can clean while the other stops what he is doing and deals with visitors.

The thing I find unpleasant the most about working in an old mill is closing by locking the doors, and staying inside to clean while visitors are still in the area around the mill. You can have the hours posted outside of the mill and a "closed" sign. It does not matter what you do, visitors will try to the door, pound on it, and look in the windows. They will just not let you alone and want your attention and time even tough the mill is closed for the day to the public. Visitors will want to buy flour, get directions, park information, and folders. At times it is hard not to have your interpretation effected by the mill's other operations. You have to establish guidelines and procedures and stick to them.

Return to Table of Contents

Other Forms and Variations of Mill Interpretation:

Interpretive programs at an old mill can take many forms besides tours and demonstrations, talks and walks can also become successful programs. For example, anything connected to the mill's operation or maintenance can be turned into a program. Millstone dressing is a program in and of itself. The process of uncovering the millstones, and lifting up the runner stone are the beginning part of this demonstration. If the event is done for a program, then you would basically explain the process, the tools used and how it was done. If dressing the millstones is an actual maintenance event for the mill it can become an ongoing demonstration that can last for several days. When dressing millstones for visitors you should still wear safety glasses and keep visitors at a safe distance so they do not get stone chips in their eyes. This is a good time to add in bits of information like most millers wore breads to protect them from the cold and from stone chips. Many restored mills that are open to the public would never think of or allow the dressing of millstones while visitors are in the mill or when it is open to the public. Often these mills may not have a millstone crane and lifting and upturning the runner stone is done the old fashioned dangerous way. This also means that the mill may never clean between the millstones after each days grinding. Some mills that have two pairs of millstones many have one together for grinding demonstrations and another always apart for show. This way the miller can explain the operation of the grinding process or millstone demonstration with the apart pair of millstones and grind with the other pair. From time to time the miller can switch back and forth with the use different pairs of millstones so he does not wear out one pair more than the other. For special events the miller may have both pairs of millstones together and grind with both millstones at one time. It is sort of like demonstrating a balancing act grind grain on two pairs of millstones at the same time. One pair of millstones could be grind corn while the other grind wheat.

Master Miller Ted Hazen Demonstrating One Step in the Miller's Touch.

I should mention grinding grains. If a mill only grinds one type of grain, and makes only one grain product such as corn meal, also if a mill was only build to grind only corn meal that is one thing to do historical demonstrations. It takes no great skill upon the miller's part of maintain, and operate a mill that just grinds corn meal. It takes much more skill upon a miller's part to operate a wheat mill and make flour. If the mill gets a lot of repeat visitors you may wish to consider grind more than just corn meal. This way on day that I was grinding corn, I would talk about the history and uses of corn. I would grind corn meal and also at times be producing grits. You could show the visitors the various stages, and products that come from each separation. Other days I would be grind wheat, buckwheat, rye or oats. On days that I was grinding rye and buckwheat the mill would be extra dusty because of those materials being ground that put more dust into the air. I could also talk about how buckwheat was not a cereal grain or a grass, but it is an herb. Buckwheat and corn do not have explosive dust like wheat, rye and oats. Some times I would grind corn on one pair of millstones and wheat or another small grain on the other pair of millstones, but then at the end of the day, I would have twice as much to clean up. It was easier to grind corn or wheat and then switch to buckwheat without cleaning up around the stones between each grain. I would have only one pair of millstones to clean up at the end of the day, and what was laying around the millstones under the cover would be mixed together. Rather than throw it out, I would hand sift this and bag it as pancake flour.

Mills are very expensive, they are expensive to build, restore, relocate, and to maintain. Some historical organizations discourage the public grinding of grain for visitors to see. They simply say that it cannot be done in a museum environment and with living history programs. Part of it may be that they think milling is a commercial operation, and it will take away from the interpretation aspect of the site. You can maintain modern health standards in an historical mill setting. If you look at most states health regulations that would apply to grist mills the laws are not that difficult to maintain their standards. In fact most states have very little regulations that apply to old mills. An operating mill produces a food product and not a ready to eat item. It is not like a restaurant were you are serving a finished food product to seated customers. As long as you are able to plug in a vacuum cleaner, and you have access to a slop sink you should be able to maintain health standards. If you follow my guidelines: "Recommended Health Practices for the Operation of Historic Grist Mills," found on another page of this web site, you should have no problems. Most states regulations for old grist mills fall under the regulations of their department of agriculture and not public health. Many states would not find it a problem to have a mill cat in the mill while you are grinding grain, it is a dog that they have problems with.

A Class of Milling Students at K.S.A.S. Mill, Manhattan, Kansas.

A roller milling system is the hardest to interpret to visitors, and to make them understand its operation. However, because of the nature of the operation of a roller mill, and the process of clean-up in a educational environment, if it can't be run 24 hours a day then it should be run dry with no grain or flour moving in the system. Notice the belt guards around the roller drive belts and pulleys. The fire extinguisher is hanging on a post, but in a demonstration area it should be more hidden out of the view of the public or covered.

Interpretation of old mills is mainly the interpretation of a technical process. So the main insight of interpretation for visitors is to make them see and understand something that they have never seen or is hidden from view. Most people have no idea who flour is made let alone have ever been in an operating mill. I think there is a fascination with old mills because it represents a more simpler technology than what we encounter in out every day lives. The milling of flour is basic because wheat is one of the basic staples of life. The milling of flour has always been one of our top 10 industries back to early America. Even today we are world leaders in the milling of flour. Milling is a trade rather than a craft. (22) A craft would be spinning wool on a spinning wheel, you can put it down and come back to it at a later date with no continued monetary outlay or investment. Pottery is a craft as long as you throw the raw green ware back into the slop bucket, and then rework and wedge the clay over again. Once you place it into a kiln and fire it takes on another form of a trade and industry. Milling is a trade and a business process because once you grind grain into flour you cannot it turn it back into grain again, like you could take apart once fired pottery and throw it on the potter's wheel over again. The more you operate a mill the better it will operate because it is getting more regular attention and maintenance. A mill develops problems when it is operated on an off and on basis. I don't know how mills can continue to operate once a month or only once a year for special events. A mill with a wooden water wheel, and wooden gears and teeth is effected by seasonal and climatic changes so it is almost like a living thing. A more modern burr mill or roller mill is metal based technology and bearings, like a metal Fitz Water Wheel which is more like operating a motor than a water wheel. If you have ever seen a larger Fitz Water Wheel operate like a 32 foot diameter wheel when you close your eyes it does not sound like a water wheel but an electric motor running.

Some programs or talks that I enjoyed doing involved a series of props and tools. One program involved the tools of the miller, or of the millstone dresser and millwright. A program can be made out of the tools it took to build and maintain the mill. Another program can involve wooden barrels. I had a number of historically correct wooden flour barrels that were made by the cooper at Colonial Williamsburg. I had one barrel so I could pull off the wooden ash hoop and show the interlocking notches on each end that would form the hoop. Part of the program was to talk about the difference between a "wet" and "dry" cooper, and what types of material went into each one. I had made a shaving horse so I could use it for machinery wedges, shingle making, and barrel making. A hands on program can involve simple things like demonstrating leather lacing of belts. You can have a number of lengths of belts with the holes already punched into them, and let visitors and kids learn to lace the belts. This is something that the young apprentice would learn at a young age. If school kids of that age are learning to lace and try their shoes, they should enjoy doing this on a larger scale. Another program involved a series of different hand sifters (with different meshes of screen) and containers with different products from each sifting. A standard program was to give each school kid an ear of corn and let then run it through a corn sheller. You can also talk about how long would it take to shell corn before you had corn shellers? You did it by hand so each kernel became precious to you and spillage became a problem. The problem with the corn shelling activity was keeping large amounts of eared corn around for corn shelling because it would quickly become buggy, and contaminate the rest of the grain in the mill for human demonstration grinding. I would often keep it in a separate building where fought the local squirrels from eating it first. The next stage or alternative to this program is to have a hand quern or table mounted hand powered grinding mill. Have already shelled corn (the stuff you buy in sacks that is already cleaned) and let each school kid they turn the hand grinder several turns. Then they move on to sifting what they ground over a large tub. Teachers and school kids love anything that is "hands-on." The problem is that the powers to-be and the health officers may not like the idea of letting visitors touch the grain or finished product. This grain that was ground and sifted in this manner would get tossed out or end up as duck food.

This program can have a variation and presented when regular visitors are coming through the mill when it is grinding. Pick out a child volunteer and put on a miller's cap and an apron, and let him put the flour or meal into a sack. You can also let the kid sift some flour by hand. It can be great fun for the parents and kids, and a bit of flour on the face and clothing is not going to upset anyone. Tell the parent that the kid that they are good at it, and that they could leave them in our care, and come back in seven years to pick them up when their apprenticeship is finished. If the health people have problems with visitors around the products lets the kids help in the clean up process give them a broom and a brush. They can't hurt anything and it just may make a bit more of a mess that you have to clean up with a vacuum cleaner later.

Master Miller Ted Hazen Demonstrating Bagging of Cloth Flour Sacks.

Another program that can be done involves determining if a site or location which is suitable to locate or build a mill. Generally this is done with older kids that have a bit more math skills. You measure off a distance along a stream. Then you guess the width of the stream and average depths across that line. Then you figure out the average area in cubic feet of that cross section. Then you find an object that can float like a piece of wood, and get a kid to use his watch to time the distance it travels in a set amount of time. Then you plug these basic figures into a formula, and you would know the horse power of the stream. Then you know if a millwright would bother building a mill there or not. You just need basic things like a watch with a second hand, paper and pencil, and a floating object to know if a mill could be built on any point in a body of moving water.

If you have an Oliver Evans mill almost everything in the mill can become a part of applied science program. There are the basic machines found all around the mill. The wedges, or the incline plane, pulleys, and levers. This can be a simple cheap program with props that involves wrapping a wedge shaped piece of paper around a pencil to show what the screw on the millstone crane is a a form of a wedge. The applied science program can have to drawings and handouts. If the budgets allows the basic machines are available from school supply centers that show these basic principles such as levers and gears, or they can be easily made out of wood. So you can have a number of table top models and the real thing (application) for them to find or see in the mill. Something I found displeasing about doing mill interpretation is when teachers would have students do a scavenger hunt in the mill without our prior knowledge. I don't know what was worse having them come in to find objects or coming in disturbing out regular interpretive programs to ask questions to for answers to complete a sheet of missing blanks. Some times I have quickly given the answers to one kids sheet and then told the others to go find the kid who has the completed sheet. I know it is not the correct thing to do but they will start climbing in the machinery if you are not paying attention.

Wheat failing and winnowing was an event or demonstration that happen at special times. It was harder to get wheat cut that was still on the shafts. I had made a number of wheat flails, and had a basket maker make a winnowing basket. Generally we did this demonstration outside of the mill on large pieces of white duck canvas. This way the mess was contained on something we could easily pick up. We could do a program from wheat to loaf because we had a small cook stove inside of the mill. Then we could set up demonstrations in different areas of the mill. This is sort of like the program from sheep to shawl. Visitors love programs that involved giving each visitor a small plate with a pancake or a piece of corn bread on it for them to eat. This type of activity seems to work better for rural areas but in urban city situations the health department and the park fathers have problems with visitors tasting things and sue the park claiming they got sick. It broke out hearts as much as when were were told we could not give it to visitors, and we ourselves could not eat it, and it all had to be thrown away.

I also made a rope making machine, not that rope was an activity that was necessarily done in a mill, but there was a rope walk in the area historically. Rope was used inside of the mill for sack hoist and early rope drives of machinery. Boy scouts loved the activity and it could be done inside or outside of the mill. When we did it inside of the mill we would allow each kid to make his or her own length of jump rope to take home. It was a good activity for repeat visitors that thought they saw everything they thought happened at the mill.

A easy program that did not take a lot of effort to present revolved around a film, slide program, video, or film strip. You could give a short talk and then show the audio visual program. After it was over you could ask if there was any questions and send them on their way. Showing them a film before or afterwards can reinforce their learning experience while at the mill. (23) Sometimes the groups that act the worst can surprise you that they actually got something out of the program. School kids often go back to school and do drawings about what they learned and then teachers will turn them into booklets and often sent them to you in the mail. Now they put them up on the internet for everyone to see.

Grist Mill Account book - 1809.
This account book for a grist mill in the town of East Haven (possibly Connecticut). The dates started in May of 1809 andended sometime in 1820. The entrys are sporadic. Besides grist mill accounts there were also entrys for food, furniture, weather, and planting. An interesting little book, hard to read in some places but a great piece of history.

Another program that can be basic to the mill involved the use of the miller's desk. Since the miller kept records of his grain grinding, flour sales and so forth, a program can involve the use of the miller's desk, and how the miller kept his records. This can involve such things as a chalk and slate board, a tally board for keeping track of how many sack of grain the miller has ground. The miller's daily log book of what happens in and around the mill, along with the mill ledgers and record keeping. Some millers even kept a diary. (24) Writing instruments and letting kids try their hand at writing with a quill pen can be part of the program. An thing can be messy with kids especially using ink but you can have several large smocks available for them slip on before hand.

A standard program that I would do it seemed to involve a larger portion of the year, the use of the wood stove in the miller's office. Most of the time I had all of the firewood and kindling split, and a fire going before visitors came into the mill. So visitors did not experience the mill filling up with smoke until the chimney heated enough inside so the thing would draw properly. Even when the stove was going, the smell of the wood stove and the cracking of the burning wood was something to talk about. Visitors loved it because they also gathered around it to get warm. Not that I did interpretive programs about building a wood fire, but it was something that I could safely do with school kids by letting each one of them carry in a piece of fire wood into the mill. I could gather the kids around the warm stove and be talking about something else but all the time feeding the fire. I could be talking about the miller's clothing and how when I went home at night, he would take off my pants, and sleep in same shirt he wore all day. The miller's clothing or costume involved the miller's beard that kept his face warm and protected it from stone chips in dressing the millstones. The miller's shirt and neck tie, his waste coat and apron are also things mentioned in stories and folklore. Even the miller's pants are different that what people wear today. You can ask questions like why did the miller wear an apron to protect his clothes from getting dirty or perhaps the apron was cleaner than this clothing? Why was the cap the miller wore a cap with out a brim? If he wore a cap with a brim he would hit it on the machinery as he climbed about it in his work. Why did the miller dress in white, and wear clothing similar to that of the baker. They work in related trades, but long a go the baker took the miller's costume for his own.

A basic theme related program would be about milling folklore and stories. (25) I usually would get a lot of visitors for those programs. I would do programs on different types of mills, everything from merchant mills, custom mills, plantations and estate mills, to mills of the tidewater, to mountain mills. I knew if I did too much about modern mills and who they operated it would put people to sleep. So then I just know I could not show an industrial film that would last for an hour on flour bolters worked, that would even put milling science students to sleep. Kid loved films with talking characters in them such as Wally Wheat. I must have had about a half dozen or more different films that I could show in conjunction with a program I was doing at the time. I know there must be some quote in a classic interpretation text book that must say that a film is no substitute for an interpreter. The problem with applying that standard to an old mill is that an old mill can't always operate for one reason or another. So you have to have an alternative to show them that has some sound and movement a the mill. When I worked with the National Park Service at Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park, we had come up with a hundred thousand dollars to produce a film of the mill. It would show the machinery in operation, all of it, not just what was regularly operated but all of the machinery from top to bottom. It would show the elevators, conveyers, grain cleaner, smutter, millstones, water wheel, gears, basement sifters, hopper-boy, bolters (both of them). (26) Basically anything in the mill that the grain or flour could move though would be shown and documented. I had seen an old black and white film of Peirce Mill on public television that looked like it was shot in the 1930's or 40's. I wrote a script, it was rewritten, and others in the park added their own two cents to it. They argued over who would narrate the film. The higher ups in the park they wanted someone seen in the film that was wearing a Park Ranger uniform. They also wanted some one narrating almost every frame, but I said that sometimes you just wanted to viewer to be able to watch and listen to the machinery, and not being talked to each moment of the experience. The basic idea was to have a film that could show the mill in operation to visitors when it was flooded and could not operate, broken down or frozen up during the winter months. It was dragged out back and forth until it just never came about. The money and the professional people went onto other projects that could get off the ground. Now that the mill is broken down for a number of years, and needs another major restoration such film would be a valuable documentation. It would be a great incentive for people and organizations to donate money to get it operating once again.

I should mention that evil word, "puppets." I used to tell people when I was younger that I wanted to grow up to become a puppet until I found out puppets don't go through puberty. One of the mills that I worked in before I came there used to do puppet programs for visitors, but by the time I came along the mill has been closed for several years and the puppets and puppet theater was gone. I got one local college at had a class in puppet making to agree to make puppets and create a puppet program for the mill as a class project. They were going to make at least a miller, perhaps the miller's wife, a farmer, a mill cat, a talking bag of flour, a talking loaf of bread, and may be a talking sheave of wheat. They would create a program with the narration that was already on a tape recording so that volunteers or staff members could put on a puppet, and just mouth the words to the tape recording. The idea was that I would use a portion of the hurst frame in the basement of the mill. I would stop the mill from operating and who ever worked the puppets could stand down in the gear pit and hold the puppets up over the top of the hurst frame and I could interact with the program. The powers to-be that ran the place would not sign off on the idea, but I know from experience that if you put the word out in the media about "puppets" you will get more kids that you can handle. A basic puppet program for a mill could be about nutrition and that wheat is the staff of life. I used to do a program that has a goose puppet sort of a version of mother goose but with a miller instead and the kids loved it. If you go to my web paged called, "Mill-Speak: "Sayings" from the Mill," you will have the basic information for my miller goose program. As for my milling stories and folklore that may appear in future web pages. (27)

I should mention the old saying, "You can't fool mother nature," and grandmothers. (28) I worked at Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park for 11 years that was operated by a fake overshot water wheel that was turned by city water and two electric pumps. In 1969 the second restoration abandoned operating the mill from the creek and using a breast shot water wheel and went to artificial means. This meant at that time the an annual city water bill was estimated it would be 35 thousand dollars a year to dump chlorinated city water into Rock Creek. Even grandmothers who came to the mill could tell that there was an obvious height difference between the overshot water wheel and the creek. Visitors could smell the chlorine in the water, and they often asked where it came from. It was in direct line with the public restrooms. It was easy to say the old school saying flush twice it is a long ways to the cafeteria or in this case just down hill to the 60 foot sluice box that magically came out of the hillside.

In the National Park Service the average that an interpreter works at a site or park is about 5 years. If they have worked there more than 5 years, the unwritten rule is that there may be something wrong with the interpreter that is why they have not moved on. Regardless if this is true or not, some people need to move on. I have seen interpreters that have been interpreting a site just too long, and when the visitors are gone they joking say, "They will believe anything I tell them no matter how ridiculous it is." I have always felt that what information you present to the public you, the interpreter should be able to go somewhere and point out that information in the source material. For years in my millstone dressing program I talked about the problems the millstone dresser or the miller had with the blacksmith when it came to tempering the mill picks used in dressing the millstones. My supervisor was always after me to show him where I found that bit of information. I know that the first blacksmithing books it gives formulas for quenching solutions for tempering mill picks. I also knew from my milling background that it was a problem dealing with blacksmiths. It was not until much later that I reread a book that Charlie Howell had lent me, "The American Miller, and Millwright's Assistant," by William Carter Hughes, 1894. I had made a photo copy of the entire book, and when I was typing sections of it for my web site I found that bit of information that I used in my millstone dressing programs. At the time I spent a lot of time searching, and searching for it because I knew I read it somewhere. My apologies to my former supervisor, but I kept telling him that I did not pull it out of the air but I read it somewhere.

Don't be afraid to tell a visitor, "I just don't know the answer to the question, but if you give me your name and number. I can look it up for you or get back to you with someone who would know the answer." Don't make up things in your interpretation to make yourself look good. If you don't know just say I don't know. There is no shame in not knowing the answer to a question. An interpreter can't be expected to have all of the answers. I learn new things every day and I don't know everything.

It is fine to take credit for something, a program, or building and maintaining something. I have know park rangers who claim credit for anything and everything. I knew a miller who worked in a mill that when anyone from the media would come to the mill with a camera or pencil and paper pad in hand. He would stand in front of everyone and take credit for everything regardless of if he knew what he was talking about or not. He talked himself into even being given awards for interpretation and for milling. I have know park rangers and interpreters who found old programs and ideas from 20 years, or more before that they have put their own names on and taken full credit for the idea, and have won awards for. It is better to present a team effort rather than an individual effort to the public. After all when you work for a park or organization you don't represent yourself. Even if it is something as basic as regular mill maintenance, someone has to sign off on the paper work so you have the materials to maintain the mill in operating condition. Somebody else has to see that you would make a good employee to hire you in the first place. You may have put together the program but someone had to find the funding to hire you in the first place. You may first have to present the program or outline for review before presenting it to the public. Then another individual had to present the information to the media so you would have visitors to present the program to. So on and so for with an endless list of team effort on every ones part, even down to the maintenance staff who provides clean bathrooms and visual quality about the park are part of the team effort. Don't kid yourself, there are some people that you would never see if they could not use the restroom first.

Return to Table of Contents

The Problems of Restoration in Old Mill Interpretation:

Not all mills are created equal. Some mills and mill buildings have been restored, others have been rehabilitated, others are a total reconstruction, and some have only been stabilized. The same is true for mill interpretation and the information that the interpreter or miller finds when they come to the mill. The Mill at Philipsburg Manor is a total reconstruction or recreation, nothing of it is original, and that would include the artifacts inside of the mill. The Colvin Run Mill claims to be a restoration but it is really a recreation. Only three of the four stone walls are original, and the machinery that was in the mill when it was restored was removed. It is someone's idea or interpretation of what it could have been installed in the mill when it was constructed. The Colvin Run Mill's biggest problems it was restored to the level of church craftsmanship but mills were never built with that degree of refinement.

Another problem with restoration is that for many years it was in style to restore a building back to the date when it was first built. Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park is a victim of this practice they removed the water turbine and power train system of the water turbine and returned the mill to its appearance of when it was first constructed. At that time it was common place to find turbine powered mills but it was beginning to become a rare thing to find a mill built in the early 1800's still with its original appearance and machinery. From time to time these mills would be featured in the professional milling journals of the day. This may be fine but in the case of the Colvin Run Mill they lost the metal Fitz Water Wheel, the roller milling system and any evidence of what may have been in the mill originally. That is what happens when you gut a building to a hollow shell and start over from scratch. The Wye Mill on Maryland's eastern shore is a good example. It was first built in 1671, and there was a saw mill next to the mill building originally. Over the years the mill has seen a lot of changes happening in this small colonial mill, but there may be not a stick of the original 1671 mill left in the structure today. If in any of its restorations someone would have decided to return the mill to its original appearance you would have lost a lot of history and the interpretation of that history. Then of course you have the changes in technology that is all still there for the interpreter or the miller to explain next to each other in the same mill. If you return a mill to the day it was built they you can logically talk about the changes in milling technology that occurred beyond your restored time period.

I knew for may years the late Barton McGuire, or E. Barton McGuire. "E" stood for Emily but she always said that she never felt like an Emily. She was responsible for the restoration of the Water Mill circa 1644 at Watermill, Long Island, New York, where she was the miller for 15 years. When she moved to Long Island with her husband, Bradford, the local woman's group asked her to join. Barton said that she would join on one condition, that we take this old mill, and turn it back into a mill again. The mill had been cleaned out and converted into a colonial teahouse. There she used the "Little Red Hen" approach to mill restoration, she begged, browed and conned everyone into helping her restore the mill. Then until her sudden death, she worked for Preservation Maryland to restore the Wye Mill, State Route 404, Wye Mills, Maryland. It was something to see when a man walked into the mill asking, "Where is the miller?" Barton's fists would close and she would get this strange look on her face as she said, "You are looking at the miller!" (29) I have known several lady millers over the years. The most famous is Ed Mabry's (of Mabry Mill 1910 grist mill located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, near the Meadows of Dan, Virginia) second wife Mintoria Lizzie DeHart. (30) Ed never addressed her by her name but nicknamed her "Boss." For her time she was surprisingly undomestic, and could be seen pumping the bellows in his blacksmith shop or working in the grist mill. She was better at running the mill than he was. Perhaps with her size she could better toss around the sacks of grain, may be she had a better business sense that he did and took less for the customers, or with her nickname and size she intimidated the customers better than Uncle Ed. (31)

I was in the Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood, Virginia, before it was originally restored back in the mid-1960's, and that mill had four pairs of millstones with the corn cob crusher in the middle, and a wooden Fitz style water wheel behind the mill. Union Mills had two water wheels each operating an equal sets of millstones but it was restored only with one water wheel and three pairs of millstones. The Colvin Run Mill, Burwell-Morgan Mill, and Union Mills claim to be Oliver Evans Mills but they are missing vital components above the main (millstone) milling floor. The Copper Mill has it four pairs of millstones but only one water wheel was installed in the restoration. I can understand that a stream may no longer have the water to operate what was there historically but it all should be put back in restoration with the option that one half or the other could be operated. The water wheel at the John P. Cable Mill and Peirce Mills have gotten smaller over the years. At the Cable Mill it originally had two pairs of millstones which one was removed in its restoration. These restored mills the idea was that only one pair of millstones would be ever operated. Peirce Mill originally had four pairs of millstones, it has gone to three pairs and who knows its sad to think about, but in the future it may go to two pairs. One of the problems with restored mills is that they know that they would not ever be operated like their did during an historical time period, so they install a water wheel that can only operate one pair of millstones rather than two, three or four pairs that was or should be in the mill historically. At Peirce Mill in the 1970's their interpretation of the mill and the miller's costume was that of the 1890's during the period that the mill last commercially operated and broke down. The problem was that the mill was restored in the 1930's by the Fitz Water Wheel Company to look like it did when it was first constructed in the 1820's that may have had some of the Oliver Evans machinery from the earlier mill 1790 installed into it. (32)

In not every mill the interpreter finds a library of information and resources about the mill's history and operation. The problem with mills is that when they stop operating things disappear, machinery is sold and removed, and people and family members walk away with things. The daily log books, mill ledgers and other important bits of information that are important to its operation and interpretation disappear. Sometimes an interpreter is only given a folder about the mill (with right or wrong information) and thrown out to interpret the mill. No two mills were ever built alike or laid out in the same manor. They are as different as people's finger prints. The big problem with mill restoration is that it is not a perfect science because no two mills were exactly alike and too much is taken for granted. Then there is the problem of who makes the final decision for what is to be done, generally they know the least about what mills are all about. So a lot of mill interpretation and mill experiences is someone's modern view of what that mill could have been about. When the Fitz Water Wheel Company reconstructed the Beckman Mill at Philipsburg Manor the people there wore Dutch clothing. Now that a new mill has been recreated their they wear what could be best called colonial clothing. When Charles Howell worked there they had an English miller with English holiday celebrations throughout the year. With the new miller has come a focus on the African American experience working for their Dutch masters. (33) The Colvin Run Mill that was built in 1810 when it was restored in the early 1970's for many years the miller and the people who worked there wore colonial clothing. It looked great and I know some people were still wearing their short pants and three cornered hats in 1810 and later. Clothing did not disappear then the colonial period ended. People wore what they had for many years, and they handed it down from one person to another. Often they gave clothing to relatives in their wills. A great coat was a common will item. Then at the Colvin Run Mill after some time they decided not to wear a costume just their street clothing. I once attended a mill conference in which another miller was there from a mill where he was treated as a seasonal employee with no benefits and a minimum wage job. The individual in charge of this foundation that operated the mill often told the miller that the main reason the mill was there in the first place was because the house, and house tours to little old ladies was the most important reason for their existence. The conference laster for three days and no one I knew claimed to see or meet this miller. The Mabry Mill which is the most photographed mill in the United States the miller's main job is not interpretation but to sell paper sacks of flour that is commercially made in two other mills. So I guess when it comes down to it the mill interpretation it is only as good as the person doing it, and it is dictated by the people paying the pay checks.

A lot of mills, it seems has no formal interpretation in evidence. Visitors just walk through the mill. I have been to several mills in a state park systems that is run proudly by the efforts of volunteers, and I have been there many times, and no one contacts you directly to ask you even if you have any questions. Perhaps operated by volunteers only means locking and unlocking the door and turning on the water wheel to idle the machinery. Some mill's interpretation is poor at best. I had to walk away because sometimes the interpreter presents miss information, and you can't tell them any different. Some mill's interpretation is only done by a park ranger (National Park Service or a state system) only at certain times or when they are available. Other than that you just walk through on your own. I guess I have been to more mills and asked questions of the mill owner or the people who work there. This is basically how I first began learning about mills.

The Jolly Miller- Brian the Miller in the United Kingdom.
He demonstrates how flour is made to a local group of school children. Brian uses a Bentall Mill driven by a Fordson Major engine. They then bake bread using the flour in the class room. He travels up to 70 miles driving the Major with the mill on a trailer bringing the interpretation and the burr mill to the school children.

Then there are the mills where no one is there. You have to form your own interpretation. Play act as Sherlock Holmes and deduce the history of the mill on your own. It is sort of like presenting and interpretive talk in an interpretive class without have the mill there as a backup or having the graphics that you desperately need to explain something. I have done this many times and I wish millstones were lighter and much more easier to move around that they are.

The mill interpretation that I find difficult is where you are separated by a wall or barrier, it is almost like listening to a tape recorded activated button, you can't get close, there is glass, a screen, or you can't ask any questions. Not to mention there is too many people in the way who just won't move aside. These sites don't really seem like they are in the business of interpretation as much as moving people through. The interpreter stands there and might as well be speaking into a camera lens because there is no connection with the group of visitors. I always try and make eye contact with one or two people when I present a program and try and draw people into that program.

Ivins L. Smith, III, started out in life to be a dairy farmer but has been running a historic mill in northern New Jersey, for many years. Ivins has been doing mill interpretation the longest at the same location, the Cooper Mill, near Chester, New Jersey. Richard Gnatowski, whose first love is working in museum environments, has been the miller at the Grist Mill at the Wayside Inn for also a number of years and he also does a great job of it. I know one or two people who work solely in office environments who can do good mill interpretation when they are dragged out to talk about it in classrooms situations at limited times. I have met and know others who work in mills, but I have not been there to their mill to know if what they do mill interpretation or just run and operate a mill producing flour. I won't say where I have seen the worst mill interpretation. All I will say is that it was in several mills located in the same county. That was some years ago and hopefully things have changed or it was just a bad day when I visited for the interpreter. I think that some of the best mill interpretation that I have done the only prop that I used was a handful of flour.

Return to Table of Contents

Advice to Old Mill Interpreters:

Then their is the issue of having in approbate items out of their time for the public to see. This can be simple thinks like eye classes that are not period approbate, to having paper flour sacks that came into existence after 1910. Along with non approbate paper flour sacks can come wire tie closing devices and the wire twisters. A good miller should at least know how to tie a miller's knock on the neck of a flour sack even if the sacks sold to the public are closed differently. That can be an important part of your program and something you could let visitors try is tying a miller's knot. When I worked in one of the commercial mills in Pennsylvania, and any individual or school group walked in on us and they asked the magic question, "Tell us how it works?" The mill owner and the miller who was teaching me would look at me with the expression like, your the college boy or you are suppose to be learning this stuff. (34) So interpretation would instantly become part of my job description. I instinctively knew it was just first or main floor interpretation because we were not a restored mill open to the public. Our stairs and the lighting was such that I could not take the average person who asked beyond the safety of the main floor normally in my on the spot interpretation.

An Important part of Site Development is Interpretive Planning.
The following is an example from the Boston Mill Society (Albany, Oregon), Concept planning web page: "Costumed guides with appropriate training will lead visitors through the museum in a controlled setting with narration interspersed with questions and answers to enhance the transfer of information. These elements will provide a multi-cultural, interactive learning experience which can be modified to suit specific groups taking the tour." However, at this point nothing should be written in stone. Courtesy of the Boston Mill Society. Credit for the image to SERA Architects, Courtesy Linn County Board of Commissioners.

I could sit here and type up all of my years and go through the boxes of interpretive outlines, narratives and programs, typing them up for you to read. Then afterwards I could say learn and read them. Is that what mill interpretation is all about? The problem is also that I could sit down and write a book just about mill interpretation. I have tried in this article to hit up a number of ideas and topics but I know I may have missed something. If I were to write a book about mill interpretation, then each thing or area of importance would have its own chapter, like understanding millstones, millstone quarrying, grinding with millstones, and millstone dressing. Personally I hate to memorize things words for word, and to put other peoples words into my mouth. I also hate giving an interpretive program that is written out and memorized word for word. My mind just has a hard time working like that. Not everyone learns and repeats information in the same manner. Don't leave the mill's interpretation to chance. I had a number of basic programs that I could present to visitors, but I would try and read the visitors interest level to judge which program to present. Several reasons that I would develop new programs was to keep it fresh and for repeat visitors who would say that I heard it all before. Don't present an interpretive program like a tape recorder is playing out the words in your head so that the program can be stopped or altered until the tape runs out. (35) I know the subject inside and out, and in my sleep, and with my eyes closed. (36) It may be like that old saying, "Only good artists make good art teachers, but no good artist should teach." The best mill interpreters that I have know are people who know how a mill operates first and can successful work and make their living solely as a miller. Some people interpretation comes naturally to them, others it is a struggle. I have seen too much misinformation put into milling books by people who just don't know any better, or try and find the correct information. I have seem too many mills restored wrong rather than right. So do your best, don't be afraid to say I don't know, but you can ask so and so, or give me your name and number and I will research that for you. Then it finally comes down to if the visitor may not remember your words that you said? The sad thing is that I have known interpreters who loose sleep and get ulcers over worrying about people remembering what they said in their programs. The visitor many only go away and carry with them for years the experience of being in the mill and the machinery operating. I guess as long as the miller does his job the best that they can, and maintains the mill the way it should be. Your face and what you may say may be lost in the memory in a short time. They are going to remember the gears and wheels turning, the smells and the sounds of the water, the machinery and the smells of the grain being ground.

I have been told from the powers to-be that I should answer the telephone within three rings no matter where I was or what I was doing at the time. Some interpreters would tell you they don't interrupt their own interpretive program once it has started for no one or anything, come back when I am finished. A good miller may be sound asleep, or have a mill full of a hundred of more visitors doing interpretation with the mill operating and grind flour and meal while they are bagging flour. But all the time the sounds of the machinery is in the back of their head, and the least bit of a sound of something wrong or out of place, and they instantly know it. Starting and stopping the mill for various reasons to repair and fix it can become part of your instant interpretation as to what is going on at the time. You can't say that you are going to start you car and if the engine makes noise you will look at it after you reach your destination. Your motor may be shot for all times if you work on that plan of operation. Create a program about fixing and repairing the mill that is as much of living history in a mill as when it operates.

When I worked at Peirce Mill for 11 years my position was that of a mill operator, I just became an interpreter by default. I was the best one who could explain what was happening because I know how it worked the best. So may be only good millers make good mill interpreters. Who knows, I have know millers as well as artist who won't tell you what or why they are doing something. It is just not part of their nature to explain things or give information to others. The problem with millers is that they are generally free thinkers and hate being told what to do. It is just a part of the nature of the job that makes them what they are. Where does a good interpreter fit into that mix? One of the common questions I was always asked was if I was like the miller in Canterbury Tales? Anyone who has read Canterbury Tales knows what a bad miller is about. (37) When it comes down to it, the best mill interpretation is done by the mill itself. The only help it need was from me to keep it in running order. I could not have explained it in better words than what the mill itself uses to delight the senses.

All presentations dealing with history and operation must meet criteria for honesty as well as accuracy. Specifically the following:

1. The presentations or demonstrations are not described or advertised as portraying "the past" but as limited illustrations of some scattered elements of previous activity, skills or crafts.

2. The facts, examples, and anecdotes are not selected or used out of context to make a particular point or to communicate personal or contemporary social and political beliefs.

3. The reactions of historic people to past ideas and events are described in the context of past ideas and perceptions. We do not assume or suggest that historic people reacted to or felt about certain situations the way that we would unless there is strong evidence to support that pattern.

4.Costumes, equipment, speech patterns, etc., are specifically described to the public as being the most accurate reproductions we are able to obtain, rather than as "just like they had."

5. The individual experiences, events, or ideas being presented are chosen and expressed in such a way as to portray the full contributions or "personalities" of the ethnic groups, cultures, or people whose history is being commemorated.

6. Finally not every park or site needs living history for effective interpretation. (38)

Historic places and old mills have powerful stories to tell, but they cannot speak for
themselves. Since Freeman Tilden mentions the the Peirce Mill grinding corn meal along Rock Creek, I always have like to think that in "Interpreting Our Heritage," he is mainly talking about old mills. (39) Freeman Tilden who defined interpretation as "an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information." (40) For Freeman Tilden, the goal of interpretation is "provocation." Good interpretation raises questions and encourages visitors to seek for themselves the information they need to understand what they are seeing. He emphasizes that understanding leads to appreciation, which, in turn, leads to Mills are historic resources possess meanings and have significance. Many visitors who come to a mill may have a connection to mills in their past life experiences, and are remembering something of value for themselves and their children and grandchildren. For the miller and the old mill, interpretation, then, facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitor and the meanings of the resource. (41) If I were to write a definition of the word interpretation is would include something to the effect that the aim of interpretation is to create a new way of seeing or understanding the familiar and unknown. To me that is what interpretation is all about. (42)

Return to Table of Contents

Note: Please scroll down through the footnotes in the pages below there are a number of different illustrations.

Interpretation for Old Mills (part 1)
Supplement to the Interpretation of Old Mills (part 2)
Addition to the Interpretation of Old Mills (part 3)
Addendum One: Footnotes and Selected Readings on Living History Interpretation (part 4)
Addendum Two: Selected Readings on Living History Interpretation (part 5)

Return to Home Page

Copyright 2001 by T. R. Hazen