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The Miller's Office, the most important item in mill interpretation

The Miller's Office at the Masot Roller Mill, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The Miller's Office, the most important item in mill interpretation
Theodore R. Hazen

Generally in most mills have no heat in work areas of the mill. This is because of the problems with fire and dust explosions. Basement fireplaces that are found in some corners of mills were only used to heat branding irons. The miller's office became warm harbor for the miller when it is cold. When I worked in mills in northwestern Pa., during the winter when it was usually 10 degrees colder inside of the mill than outside. This meant if it was 10 below then it would be 20 below inside of the mill. The windows of the miller's office became frosted up during the winter and we could not see out for a long time. In many mills the windows in the rest of the mill would become dust and cobweb covered. During the winter when the machinery gets warmed up it does become a bit warmer inside of the mill.

One of the mills that I worked in in northwestern Pennsylvania, when I worked there it had a gas stove. I would guess that before the gas stove it had a wood stove. The other mill had a coal furnace in the basement and steam or hot water radiator pipes that led up to the mill's office. We started the fire with corn cobs. At any given time we generally could easily bag 10 to 25 bags of corn cobs that flew out of the corn sheller. The corn cobs were not wasted. You could grind them into hog feed but no more than 2% per hundred pounds. We used them as fire starters. They were easy to light and would leave little or no ash to remove. When the fire got going we tossed in coal from another corner pile in the basement.

Usually in a mill when someone comes in the first place they look for the miller was in the miller's office. If the miller was not in his office then he must be some place else in the mill. The miller's office was often the center of the community. Some communities located their post office in the mill. Jackson's Mill out side of Breezewood had a post office in the mill.

One of my favorite miller's office is in the Roddy-Waggoner's Mill, near Loysville, Perry County, Pennsylvania, built in 1811. On one wall they built in bunk beds for the miller and his helper when they would work late into night. They could spend the rest of the night sleeping in the mill and be their bright and early in the morning. The Mascot Rollers Mills (also called Resseler's Mill), Newport & Stumpton Roads at Mill Creek, Ronks vicinity, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has one of the most complete, original, and untouched miller's offices one could ever find.

Another common feature of some miller's offices is a glass pain sliding or swing open window. This was so the miller can look out to see and hear what is going on in the mill. Many times this window can slide to one side to open to let in the sounds of what is going on in the mill. The head miller can also use to window to interact with his miller helpers or farmers who come to the mill. Mills are run by sound, smell, sight, and vibration. A mill that has a window in the office is Gulden's Mill on Maiden Creek, in Blanden, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Some miller's offices have a Dutch doors to keeps kids out like the other doors of the mill. Most miller's offices are made out of tongue and grove beaded boards.

The miller would generally eats in the miller's office. The miller used his warm stove to warm food or to make a hot drink. This is where he keeps his records but he may have a small desk attached to a wall in his main work station area of the mill. The traditional desk of the miller is a stand up desk because he usually does not have the time to sit down. You might find a stand up desk that has had its legs cut shorter to make it a sit down desk or a sit down desk was brought into the mill. Later you sometimes find rolltop desks in some mills but they usually went home with the miller or someone else when the mill closed. The miller would have a bookshelf to keep technical books and milling related items, such as trade catalogs and journals. The books on the shelves would become covered with dust and layers of cobwebs hung from the ceiling. We always had a calender hung on the wall. The miller's if he did not keep his mill picks near the millstones would often keep them in a box in the miller's office. In many mills elsewhere the miller would often have a work bench. Here he would fix a broken belt, straighten elevator cups or do other work like replacing a torn sifter screen. In the miller's office he would keep basic supplies to run the mill, like containers of grease, mouse and rat traps, rat poison, important tools. One of the mills that I worked in had its work area in the basement but that may flood so we always kept our tools upstairs in the miller's office. The miller's cat may have a toy hanging from a string or pencil sharpener attached to the wall. . Here the miller cat often would have its cat bowels of food and water. If they were located in the mill they might get knocked over, covered with dust or become in the way. When the miller knew the cats was catching and eating a lot of mice he would give the cat milk that would help with the toxins they would absorb from eating mice. The mill cats would go outside or have a littler box elsewhere in the mill. This is where a single pencil sharpener may be attached to a wall. The miller often hung fly tape to catch flies. We had an old 22 caliber piston in one of the desk drawers that we used to go shot rats in the mills lower basement during lunch time. The mill owner usually kept a bottle or two in one of the drawers to give to salesman or other important people but none of us who worked in the mill ever drank from the bottle. We had a coffee pot on a small separate table but the pot belly stove would have been used originally. In earlier mills they would have a box shaped stove was there before the pot belly stoves came into popular usage.

Besides farmers asking advice on grain and crops the miller's office became a source of news and information. The miller usually had a good story or joke to tell. Many a miller knew ghost stories. The mill was for a long time not the place to go at night because of the demons associated with water. The miller's office became like the general store with the image of men siting around playing checkers. The miller's office was generally a smaller area than found in a general store, but people and farmers often went to the mill more than they did the general store. This is why many early post offices were found in mills (besides also in general stores) and this is where the farm could ask the miller questions only the miller knew answers for about crops, formulas for different types of mortar and concrete, and other information. Into this past century many miller's offices in mills were expanded into farm stores as the many mills developed a feed business along with the flour business.

The Plains Mill along the Shenandoah River between Timberville and New Market is a mill powered by a Fitz Water Wheel, and it has grain silos outside of the mill. The miller got so distraught with his business one day and his life in general that at the end of a normal's day he locked himself in the miller's office and took out a gun he had been hiding and blew out his brains. Needless to say on one wanted to run the mill after that happened. The mill still sits there after forty or fifty years waiting for someone to come along and buy it. The Red Lion Mill on the Eastern Shore of Maryland the miller got so tired of dealing with the business and his customers at the end of one day he lit a match to the mill, locked the door walking across the road. Then he sat on his front porch of his house that faced the mill holding his shotgun to keep the firemen from putting out the flames as it burned down the mill.

Some miller's offices were above the old basement corner fireplace and they added into the chimney for the office heat. In other mills the first floor miller's office had a chimney had was not sitting on a solid foundation only on a wooden platform. They suffer in later years from decay and begin to sink and collapse. In restored mills the chimney sometimes is grand fathered into the law because of its age and may or may not need a modern chimney liners to meet present fire codes. In some restored mills the miller's office chimney may or may not function as a real chimney today. A mill having a restored miller's office is just as important as any living history program going on at the mill. The smell of the wood fire is just as important as any other smell found in a mill. Often next to the stove was a wood box or a coal bin. The Barnitz Mill has those two interesting built in benches with lids that reveal two storage areas underneath for tools or other important items.

The miller's office was usually in one corner of the first floor of the mill. By looking at the outside of the mill you could tell which corner it was located by where the chimney was located on the roof. Some mills as the business grew the millers office was eliminated for more usable space with in the mill became needed. And an attached room or office was built onto the mill building. This type of office is found in Graves Mill in Lynchburg and in Wade's Mill outside of Raphine both in Virginia. Some mills had a separate building that was the miller's office. The John P. Cable Mill in Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains had a separate miller's office in another building that was torn down then the park was created. Here was the heat for the miller separate from the small custom grist mill so that there would not be a danger of fire or explosion. The customers would come to the mill first and then go take their grain to the mill. The Beverly-Chapman Mill in Thoroughfare Gap, Virginia. The mill was a seven story limestone building (that was built in 1858 that replaced an earlier 1742 mill just up stream) with a separate later miller's office that was also the post office for Thoroughfare Gap, Virginia. The mill must have had an office inside of it because it had a chimney that when upward through the stone wall going around a round window underneath the gable of the roof and coming out on the peak. Some miller's offices are small only 10 by 10 foot rooms, while some are larger with a customer counter and several desks, book shelves and file cabinets. The Bunker Hill Mill in Bunker Hill, West Virginia is an example of a larger miller's office and a similar larger office is found in the Isaac Ludwig Mill in Grand Rapids, Ohio is a fine example of a Victorian miller's office. The mill has an old fashioned crank ring telephone and a railing with a swing gate that separates the customer area from the miller's office area.

Some times attached to the miller's office outside wall or another wall in the mill was a chalk board so the miller could make changes to prices for different items. It was also very common to find the miller years ago applied one of the mill's stencil barrel head designs to the wood wall of the miller's office. Occasionally you would have bag designs glued to the wall as well. Some mills would have a clock but the clocks would suffer from problems with dust and just may not last that long. The miller would patch mice holes with the round ends of tin cans or cut the cans apart and make patches with them to cover old abandoned chute holes in the mill. The rest room or out house was simply an outhouse shaped building attached to an outside wall usually located over the water, or a small toilet box attached to the floor over the tail race in a lower area of the mill. The furniture found in the miller's office often revealed how well the mills business was doing. Some mill's offices are found fine Victorian furniture that would show how well the mill was doing during a certain period. The Pickwick Mill in Winona, Minnesota, has huge Victorian furniture that was added to the mill during a prosperous period in its operation of this six story limestone building.

In many of the windmills like the smock or tower windmills found on Cape Cod, Long Island, or the tidewater area, the internal space found within the mill did not allow for the space to have a miller's office. The Spokott Windmill, Lloyds, outside of Cambridge, in Dorchester County, Maryland, it is a reconstructed English style post mill and it has an original miller's cabin that was moved from another windmill site in the area. The miller's cabin also served as the office for the mill. Some windmills had their office found in an attached space that was added into an addition. The Fischer Windmill. Elmhurst, Illinois, is an example of this type of windmill with additional wing spaced added to the first floor underneath the area or gallery in which the wind sails would rotate.

Many mills that have been in business for many years become overfilled with paper records. The older records often get boxed up and stored in outbuildings on the mill property. The miller's office was not the place in the mill that the bundles of unused flour sacks and flour bags would be stored. Bundles of flour bags were stored in the flour room or in an area of the mill that was cool and dry.

The Burwell-Morgan Mill built in 1785, Millwood, Virginia, has a wall safe within the miller's office. The wall safe is simply a square recess within the mill's wall with a swinging door. It does not lock or latch shut but it was made for the miller to keep his record books in when not in use. The miller was usually at the mill and was so dependable that when the locals would leave home for the day they would stop by the mill and leave their money and valuables in the miller's safe. It became know by the early local people of Millwood as the town bank, or the bank of Millwood. The Burwell-Morgan Mill was an Oliver Evans Merchant Mill and just down stream was a second mill, a custom mill for the locals to have their flour ground.

In the restored Upper Mills at Philipsburg Manor, Sleepy Hollow, New York, is a reconstruction of a 1684 mill. Here the miller would have perhaps used an area in the Philipse or Philipsburg Manor house. This mill was a combination mill, it was partly a merchant mill and it also served as an estate or plantation mill. The miller would have been an employee of the lord of the manor and perhaps used space in the more secure manor house.

The 1684 Linchester Mill, a.k.a. Langrell's Mill, Murphy's Mill, Upper Hunting Creek Mill, in Linchester outside of Preston, Caroline County, Maryland, the mill continued to be a commercially operating mill until the early 1970's. The mill has a much later attached miller's office and originally may have only a miller's desk attached to the wall or a free standing desk in an area of the first floor. The Wye Mill, in Wye Mills, Talbot County, Maryland, has an enclosed first floor miller's office, but because of the changes in the mill over the years it may be impossible to know where the office area was originally. The mill is so old and small that they no longer use the stove and chimney of the miller's office.

I worked in a number of mills, then later I worked at Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., for 11 years. The first mill was built in 1747, a second one replaced it in 1790, and I worked in the four story stone Oliver Evans mill built in 1820. The miller's office they took it out sometime after 1900 when the mill building was converted into a colonial teahouse. The miller's office was put back in the 1930's mill restoration. However, because the general appearance of poor housekeeping by the old miller at that time Raymond Watt, the government officials in the National Park Service complaining to the miller a number of times about its condition. When the miller retired in 1958, rather than cleaning up the miller's office, they removed the miller's office entirely. This made the mill look strange with a pot belly stove in one corner of the mill. A stove would not be exposed to the same space with the dangers of dust explosion. Flour dust is more explosive than gunpowder and 35 times more explosive than coal dust. Then they installed a National Park Service modern office on the second floor where the large room bins would have been located. The mill also under went the typical thing that happens to many other National Park Service colonial buildings, they paint the interior walls white and paint what they want you to look at brown. They covered up all the beautiful naturally colored wood and stone walls of the mill which is not good for the surfaces underneath. Hopefully a when the mill undergoes a major restoration for the third time the miller's office will come back and the paint will go away. The miller's office had an Dutch door like many of the other doors on the mill. It also had a corner cut off the door to allow the miller's cat to go in and out of the office and the same cut was also found on the bottom of one of the outside Dutch doors. It had a ledge near the chimney to stack firewood or to lay something hot removed from the stove.

In many restored mills the miller's office (even though it is used as an office area) it is still part of the restored exhibit or living history space of the mill. Many miller's offices like the Colvin Run Mill, Great Falls, Fairfax County, Virginia or the Aldie Mill, Aldie, Loudun County, Virginia contain many old artifacts that would have perhaps have been in the miller's office originally. The park offices are found elsewhere on the grounds of the site. The McConnell's Mill, in McConnell's Mill State Park, near Pottersville, Pennsylvania, is an 1872 mill which is one of the few mills that retains its original configuration. There are only nine in the United States that retain their original appearance. At the McConnell's Mill, the miller's office is used as a ranger station office and not accessible to the public as an exhibit area. If you go there the mill is at the bottom of a 400 or 500 foot deep gouge and their is limited space at the bottom to build other buildings for office space.

In many restored mills it becomes so expensive to rebuild the water system of the mill (the mill dam and race way), water wheel, gears and millstones, little else beyond the miller's office gets restored in the rest of the mill. The Union Mills outside of Westminster, Maryland and the Burwell-Morgan Mill, in Millwood, Virginia are examples of a long list of many mills that just ran out of money and time to finish restoring the rest of the mill building. Many mills have been restored with multiple usage space and the space that has been restored to represent the mill originally does not appear like it did originally. Examples of these type of mills are the Red Mill, Hunterdon Historical Museum, Clinton, Hunterdon County, New Jersey and the Graue Mill and Museum, Oak Brook, Illinois. The Nathan Cooper Mill, Washington Turnpike (Route 24), Chester, Morris County Parks, New Jersey, like the Union Mills in Maryland, originally had two water wheels but their restorations took in consideration changes in the water table and only one water wheel was installed. The Cooper Mill seems to have a lot of unused space within the Miller's office. The Dutch door on the miller's office can become of great use in restored mills because it allows the public to look in but not to actually step foot within that space for one reason or another.

The miller's offices is usually or almost always on the mill's first floor, on the same level as the millstones. The meal bins may be in the basement but the office is on the first floor out of the flood plain. The miller needs to be near the millstones to add more grain or else bad thing might happen to the mill. The gears would over speed because of no resistance between the stones which might tear the gears apart. The millstones would over heat and may break apart because of no grain and the natural distribution of heat loss effect is lost because the stones are running so close together with no grain between them. If the stones are out of balance they would touch sending a shower of sparks that might blow up the mill. The Stillwater Mill in Stillwater, New Jersey, is a good example of this, when you stand at the door of the miller's office you are looking directly at the millstones.

The following is a list of books that may have some information:

The book by Carol Priamo, Harry B. Weiss, D.W. Garber, Felicity L. Leung, and perhaps by Marion Nicoll Rawson should have the most usefull information. The book "The Mill," is mainly a coffee table book good as a picture reference. If you could find a copy of "Eno, Volume 7 Special Issue,1978. Papers from the seminar on water mills & windmills held in Durham, N.C. July 1978, in the Bicentennial year of West Point on the Eno River, with The International Milinological Society (T.I.M.S.), Smithsonian Institution, Duke University and the Hillsborough Historical Society," there are a great number of good articles in there including one of the Mascot Roller Mill that shows a photo of the miller's office. The problem is that most libraries have little or no books about mills.

"Little Old Mills," by Marion Nicoll Rawson, E. D. Dutten and Co., Inc., New York, 1935, reprinted by Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970.

"Mills of Canada," by Carol Priamo,Toronto, Canada, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976.

"Grist and Flour Mills in Ontario: From Millstones to Rollers, 1780's-1880's," by Felicity L. Leung, National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Department of Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada, Ministry of Public Works and Government Services Canada, Ottawa, 1976, reprint SPOOM (the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills), 1997.

"The Early Grist and Flouring Mills of New Jersey," by Harry B. Weiss, and Robert J. Sim, New Jersey Agricultural Society, Trenton, New Jersey, 1956.

"Waterwheels and Millstones, A History of Ohio Gristmills and Milling," by D.W. Garber, The Ohio Historical Society, Historic Ohio Buildings Series Number 2, 1970.

"The Mill," by William Fox, Bill Brooks, and Janice Tyrwhitt, Boston, Mass., The New York Graphic Society, 1976.

"Mill: The History & Future of Naturally Powered Buildings," by Larkin, David, photographs by Paul Rocheleau, Universe Publishing, New York, 2000.

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Copyright 2001 by T. R. Hazen