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There'll Always be Water Wheels,
by Neil M. Clark, December 3, 1955.

There'll Always be Water Wheels
by Neil M. Clark
December 3, 1955.

Even in the atom age water wheels still provide cheap power for many farmers and small manufacturers. Here are some of the ingenious ways they are put to use today.

This Rowley, Massachusetts, mill race, was built in 1643. The steel water wheel here provides the A. Clayton Parker family with power for their home and business.

Some folks like the atom. It is modern and stylish. John S. Fitz likes the raindrop, which is old and somewhat outmoded. Both are forces of nature, both are tiny, and both, Fitz agrees, pack a tremendous wallop - the atom when it burst, the raindrop when it falls. The raindrop's wallop, he thinks, is easier to understand and cope with. So, others can build cyclotrons. He will go on building water wheels.

That's what his family has been doing for three generations. Samuel Fitz, his grandfather, started the Fitz Water Wheel Company at Hanover, Pennsylvania, in 1840, when water wheels were used everywhere to power American industry. John Fitz, his father, developed the steel water wheel, bringing it to high efficiency. John S. Fitz, the third in the succession, carried the business on when most water-wheel companies were folding. It is one of the few firms left in the United States making the old-style, non-turbine type of water wheels, and instead of dragging its heels in the wake of "progress," the company is doing very nicely.

It is amazing to learn through his guidance how many water wheels are still turning in the year 1955; how many new ones are being brought; how many old ones are being kept in working condition to furnish cheap, reliable power for a great variety of purposes.

"Dozens of mills," Fitz said recently, "are using water wheels on small water-power sites to do a business of a million or more a year. Many of them earn better profits than some of their competitors who are wired-in power."

Fitz sits in a high-backed swivel chair in the cluttered office in a building next to the water-wheel factory. Operations in the factory are of the precision type. Fitz himself, at seventy-three, is precise, dry, starchy. He doesn't carry an extra ounce of fat on his bones. He never pounds his desk. But he makes clean his profound conviction that small water powers and water wheels still have an important place in the nation's economy and will long have. He sees them holding their own and in some places coming back. "If," he told me, "you want to see what small batches of raindrops are doing for hundreds of farmers, and could do for thousands, with little cost or care, visit the Pennsylvania Germans."

I took the tip. Beyond the second creek south of White Horse, Fitz and I turned into a farm yard. The name on the mailbox was Stolzfus. The ground was soggy. Stephen Stolzfus nodded a shy welcome. "You'll need rubbers," he warned.

Stephen was wearing the flat black hat of the Amish man. He was about thirty. Big barns, large white house, well-manured fields were testimony to thrifty generations preceding him and continuing, and the water wheel was evidence of thrift plus determination to use worth-while tool regardless of fashion or sales talk.

The creek was tiny enough in places for a boy to jump across. Yet a good-sized pond had been collected behind a three-foot-high dam, and water from it was turning two water wheels. The far one was a neighbor's, the near one Stephen's and his father's.

Stephen's wheel, made of steel, smooth-running and noiseless, was forty-two inches in diameter, with a fifteen-inch face, and was mounted in an open-top concrete structure just big enough to allow its running room. It was undershot - that is, the water hit it near the bottom instead of going over the top. Water poured with force from behind the dam, filling the buckets, and the weight caused the wheel to turn merrily. A crank and rod connected the shaft to a large triangular frame hinged at one corner. This rose and fell with the wheel's motion, and pulled a "telegraph wire" back and forth. The wire crossed fields to the house, 1,000 feet away.

"Come along," said Stephen; "we'll see it do work."

On the kitchen porch he raised a trap door, revealing a forty-foot well. The back and forth motion of the wire was converted by simple gears into up and down power and applied to a pump. The later was sucking up a small stream of icy water, emptying it into the four-inch deep pan of the "cold box." Jars of foodstuffs stood in the water. "It keeps them as cold as a refrigerator," Stephen's wife said.

Overflow was piped to the barn. There it cooled milk in the milking shed; then went on to fill a stock watering tank.

"A good system," Stephen said with pride. "We don't turn it off sometimes for a month."

"There is much upkeep?"

"Hardly any. A drop of oil once a month. Our wheel has been here since the early 'forties. Neighbors have hand theirs for fifty years."

Half a dozen of these miniature wheels were seen within a mile of Stephen's house. Hundreds are used.

The Wayside Grist Mill, powered by a water wheel, is a reproduction built by the late Henry Ford (John Blake Campbell, and the Fitz Water Wheel Company) in South Sudbury, Massachusetts. Visitors may watch corn meal being ground for the nearby Wayside Inn, made famous by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Small water powers and water wheels that used them are as much a part of American history as the pony Express or the covered wagon. "The Industrial Revolution," John Fitz pointed out, "changed manufacturing from hand to machine work. It was powered mostly by water wheels." These wheels ground the pioneer's corn and wheat, sawed logs into boards, crushed apples into cider, made the country's first iron and the first mill-wrought fabrics, ground snuff, rolled hemp, made paper - the list of things done is a long gone. Along the Brandywine a century and a half ago, men name du Pont set up water-driven mills to grind gunpowder ingredients - and a modern industrial giant was born.

Eli Terry, the Connecticut clock maker, boldly pioneered the use of water power to cut teeth in clock wheels - previously done tediously by hand - and set the pattern for the modern clock and watch industry. Cities grew up on water-power sites. An ancestor of John H. Patterson's ground grain brought in ox carts to his water-powered mill on the Miami River, in Ohio. A century later, peppery "John H." was creating the National Cash Register Company on almost the same spot, and Dayton was growing up around him into a city of 250,000.

Small water in those days were used intensively. Sometimes a creek was dammed a dozen times within a mile, and the water was used again and again. A traveler of 1840 reported that eleven mills of various kinds were going full blast within the limits of little Piqua, Ohio, all powered by water from the canal and river. A Massachusetts miller cursed with insufficient water at certain seasons built three identical mills within a hundred yards of each other on the same stream, and during low water periods used the highest mill Mondays and Tuesdays, the middle one Wednesdays and Thursdays, the lowest Fridays and Saturdays. By Monday, enough water had accumulated for the highest mill, and the cycle was repeated.

The power picture changed with the coming of efficient steam engines, internal combustion engines and electricity; and now, of course, there is talk of atomic and solar power engines. "People thinking in billions," Fitz points out, "find it hard to value small waters. Only the mightiest, wildest rivers, such as the Columbia, Colorado, Snake, Tennessee or Niagara, they suppose are worth harnessing."

But something important, he thinks, is lost by overlooking the little streams and the new developments that are making their use feasible again. He said, "A steel overshoot wheel" - the type that takes the water at the top and is better for a good head of water - "properly designed and installed, is far different from the wooden water wheels which were the only ones our grandfathers had. Such a wheel can operate with upward of ninety percent efficiency. We have built wheels forty feet in diameter. You'd think it would take tremendous strength to turn such a wheel. Actually, we consider them faulty unless a child can turn them by hand."

There have also be some extraordinary water-wheel developments. During the war, Fitz's company made 120 water wheels for the British Army.

What would a modern army want with water wheels? The British, Fitz says, parachuted them from planes to points behind enemy lines or into liberated zones. They were as tiny as they could be made and still do the work expected of them - in fact, they measured barely four inches across. Each wheel, included an attached electric generator, weighted twelve and one half pounds. It was call an impulse wheel and the perfect little water wheel.

"The first thing people do in a bombed out town," Fitz pointed out, "is restore the water supply. They have to, or die. Advance scouts usually found water in the mains of a ruined town or speedily got it there. These little impulse wheels can do things with a low flow. They are attached by a length of hose to any faucet. The water turns the wheel, the wheel operates the generator, producing electric current. We have tested the wheels at forty pounds' pressure, and they make 1800 revolutions per minute, producing enough electricity to keep three or four bulbs burning brightly.

"We weren't told how the British used theirs. The job was hush-hush. We supposed they charged storage batteries for walkie-talkie communication or things like that.

"Universities also use these impulse wheels. Their are usually larger. They use them in course on hydraulics. We have recently shipped wheels to the universities of Louisiana and California, to the Naval Academy, and to the engineering college of Dacca University, in East Pakistan."

He explained what happened recently in Marietta, a Pennsylvania town of about 2,400 located on the banks of the Susquehanna River. A water shortage was brought on by the town's natural growth plus the location there of the Marietta Transportation Corps Depot. The town's water came from fifty-tow never failing springs on the far side of the river, located in up and down country almost inaccessible except by jeep. The springs lie somewhat higher than the town, so that the water flows by gravity through pipes on the bottom of the river. In order to increase the supply, two wells were drilled near the springs, but on a slightly lower level. The wells produced much of the wanted additional water. But a problem was posed.

The springs flowed; the wells didn't. How to get the water out of the wells and into the town reservoir without keeping a pump tender at that lonely spot night and day? Two Fitz water wheels came to Marietta's rescue. Spring water, bubbling towards the town reservoir, powers the water wheels. The wheels, in turn, operate pumps which transfer the newly tapped water supply from underground wells to the reservoir. The operation is automatic and nearly trouble free. H. B. Lenhert, Jr., superintendent of the Marietta Gravity Water Company, admits that somebody goes over once in a while to oil what needs oiling. Quite a few communities, Fitz says, use big water-power installations to pump city water supplies.

There are still enough of the traditional types of water wheels in use and needing occasional repairs or renewal, and enough people who are learning to use them for the first time, to keep the Fitz plant busy. some users are hobbyist who have estates and gardens and like to keep the old alive just because it is old and, they think, picturesque; but, in the main, the wheels are used because they furnish power cheaply and at low upkeep. For a look at a workaday enterprise that had been going for long time, Fitz suggest a visit to Codorus Creek.

This stream meanders in sweetly rolling Pennsylvania countryside not far from Gettysburg's famous battlefield. In 1790, when Washington was President, a thrifty Mennonite named John Hershey built a stout stone gristmill on the West Branch of Codorus. It was not big time, but was a substantial mill of the kind needed by a prospering community. Hershey built for comfort, with two fireplaces, one upstairs and one down. People coming to have grain ground made the mill a gathering place. Wives and daughters chatted and knitted inside by the open fires if it was cold, while the buhr stones turned by the water wheel ground their winter's flour for wheaten bread and their corn meal for johnnycakes, mush or Indian puddings.

That's the way it was used to be, John Hershey, the builder, died in 1796. His son, also named John, succeeded him. This John had a daughter named Nancy. A thrifty young man named Peter. Menges lived on the adjoining farm. Peter looked at the miller's daughter and thought her the girl for him. Nancy thought so, too, and they were married. When John the younger died at age sixty, his son-in-law bought the property and became the miller, and the Hershey mill became Menges Mills.

Time brought change, storm, war. Armies came and went in that vicinity. The Menges cattle were driven for safety to Columbia, thirty miles away, crossing the Susquehanna on the old covered bridge shortly before it was burned. Though all changes, sons, grandsons and great grandsons of Petter and Nancy kept and ran the mills. So they still do, 165 years after the mill was built. Rev. David A. Menges and his younger brother, Robert, who run the mill now, showed their visitor exactly how they manufacture their flour, which is well thought of in that part of Pennsylvania and over the line in Maryland. They take pains to supply products as customers want them. Corn meal, they say, is not the same for Pennsylvania and Marylanders. The former want the corn roasted before milling, so that it tastes slightly toasted; and it must be rich yellow corn. Marylanders, only a whistle stop away, don't call that corn meal. For them, no roasting, and the corn must be white.

The water of Codorus flow under the mill building. Two water wheels under the main floor are visible through trap doors or by a trip downstairs. The water is controlled by gates, and the miller can operate one wheel, both or neither. For wheat, steel roller grinders are used. For corn, the Menges boys use the upper and nether millstones of Biblical parable and their grandfather's time. They dress the stones themselves, an ancient art. Blacksmith Erwin Zartman, in nearby Spring Grove, sharpens and tempers the quickly dulled dressing tools.

The Menges mill has never gone in for food fad business, which keeps some old water mills going nowadays. Their products are standard stuff for kitchens producing some of the world's finest breads, cakes and pies. If you can do with a spot of spatter bread, they say it's hard to beat this recipe:

1 pint of corn meal.
1 pint of milk.
1 pint of boiling water.
2 eggs.
1 tablespoon of melted butter.
2 teaspoons of salt.

Add the salt to the corn meal and scald with the boiling water. Stir until smooth. Add the milk, melted butte and eggs. Stir well and bake in a very hot oven in a greased baking dish for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve in the same dish.

Spring Grove, Pennsylvania: A special corn meal ground on a water-wheel powered mills stone is key ingredient in these Pennsylvania Dutch Johnny cakes made by Mrs. Elmer Scambaugh.

No census is taken of mills of the Menges type, but many of them, unpretentiously profitable, are doing business in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, New England, Ohio, Michigan and some other states. Some, Fitz points out, have stand-by electric power, but they use water when they have water because it is cheaper.

Some of the most enthusiastic users of water wheels live in places where water power is about the only means of making modern living possible. Harry Morris, of Liberia, is one of these. Morris bought a water wheel from Fitz in 1950. He lives forty miles from Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and three miles from the village of Kakata, on his 1,460 acre rubber plantation. A small tributary of the River Du turns the wheel. Replying by mail to questions I sent him, Morris listed the appliances for which his water wheel produces power - icebox, toaster, waffle iron, sewing machine, hair drier, vacuum cleaner, radio, high-fi set, tape recorder. "The freezer he wrote, "just clicked off."

The power plant's "working force," he said, is a native boy who attends school in the morning and looks into the powerhouse each afternoon to see that things are running. Morris said he called the attention of Liberian President William V. S. Tubman to the possibility of installing a similar wheel at the latter's country home in the Bhong Mountains.

"The Catholic fathers of Saniquellie," he added, "at the tip of Liberia in the remote interior below the Nhimba Mountains, operate an undershot water wheel built by the fathers."

Nobody is saying, certainly not John Fitz, that power from small waters will even regain the proud position it once held in American industry. But a nudge for its increased use again is arising from the odd fact that water wheels are taking on considerable stature as museum pieces.

Henry Ford gave this move quite a boost. He believed in small waters for small power needs and also considered it smart, when possible. To decentralize industrial operations. At a plant making values and value stems at Northville, Michigan, he reestablished a water power which proved valuable for stand-by power, and furnished electricity for lights, cleaning and other night jobs. Ford liked museums; he thought they were the ideal way to teach history. At Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan, his gift to "history writing," new style, visitors see grain ground the old way at Loranger Gristmill. A number of places are preserving or restoring water wheel mill for museum purposes.

The outstanding water mill restoration is at Saugus, Massachusetts. Here the American Iron and Steel Institute, cooperating with the First Iron Works Association, of Saugus, has done a job comparable to that at Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia. Soon after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Massachusetts, the destruction of the European iron industry in the Thirty Year's War made it necessary for England to seek new sources of iron in the New World. The first iron works on this side was set up under the leadership of John Winthrop, the younger, about twelve miles north of Boston, at the point where the Saugus River meets the tidewater. It operated form 1646, to about 1675, and for its time, was efficient.

When operations ceased, the plant disappeared from sight. People forgot it had ever been there. A paved street ran over the spot where ox carts used to bring ore for dumping g into the blast. About the only thing visible was the old slag pile, which was an eyesore. Restoration involved extensive excavation by archaeologists. Several hundred tons of artifacts were dug up, including parts of one of the original water wheels. A visitor today sees the plant as nearly as possible as it was three centuries ago. There are seven great water wheels of different types and sizes. They, of course, made of wood, as were all of the originals. Upon occasion, they still operate the mill.

Another important restoration in under way in Delaware. From 1802 onward, water from the Brandywine was the power source for grinding the basic ingredients of black powder: saltpeter, charcoal and sulpher. The Eleutherian Mill-Hagley Foundation was endowed in 1952 by the du Pont Company to undertake an authentic restoration. "We intend," says an official "to replace machinery in enough structures to display the steps in early powder making and will power the mills with water wheels as they once were."

The pride and joy of Ernest Ballard, 84, is this rare, water-powered up and down sawmill he erected at his home in Derry, New Hampshire.

Here and there, private individuals get into the museum act. Several decades ago Ernest K. Ballard used to ride the logs being sawed into boards on the neighbors' water-powered, up and down sawmill. He never forget the fun he had. He went into the market gardening at Lexington, Massachusetts, when he was fifteen, and stuck with it till he was past sixty. Then he began looking for a place to retire to, where he could build an up and down sawmill.

He found the ideal spot in Island Pond Road in Derry, New Hampshire, where there had once been a sawmill. Ballard traveled far and near, getting facts, materials and equipment. Today he has one of the few up and down sawmills, with a water wheel and a saw resembling a logger's cross-cut saw, that can still saw logs by water power. At eighty-four he is hard of hearing and none too spry, but he will almost dance a jig if somebody asks to see a log sawed.

As long as water runs downhill, John Fitz thinks, people will use the power of its fall. He has nothing against atoms. But he finds raindrops simpler.

John S. Fitz is one of the few remaining manufactures of the old-style water wheels. On his desk in his Hanover, Pennsylvania, factory are models of some of his firm's products.


This page is presented by Theodore R. Hazen & Pond Lily Mill Restorations

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