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Restoration of a 1644 Grist Mill, Water Mill, Long Island, New York,
(A Mixed Media Restoration without Funds)

Restoration of a 1644 Grist Mill,
Water Mill, Long Island, New York,
(A Mixed Media Restoration without Funds)*
Emily Barton McGuire

The Water Mill at Water Mill is no ordinary water mill. It is a monument to volunteer technology and the dedication of a community. Last operated as a grist mill in 1880. by the time that the Ladies Auxiliary decided to restore the mill in 1973 there was no tangible evidence of previous milling operations except the remains of a tub wheel in a muddy cellar. In an area know for its windmills it seemed "only right" to restore one of the oldest surviving water mills in New York State. That the restoration was done by volunteer labor and very little money and that the mill is now grinding on a daily basis is "raison d'stre."


In 1644, near the first English settlement in the State of New York, Southampton, colonists built a water mill for grinding of corn. Two miles from Southampton and between the hamlets of Hayground, Bridgehampton and East Hampton the mill became the focal point for chauvinist census recorders with "men, East of the mill" and "men, West of the mill." The Immediate area around the mill became the village of Water Mill.

The articles of agreement January 7, 1644 (Charlie Howell's birthday was January 7th) between the town of Southampton and Edward Howell (first miller) were as follows:

"Sayd Edward Howell doth promise to build for himselfe to supply the necessities of the Towne, a sufficient mill at Mecoxe and to receive in return for himself and his heirs forever, forty acres of land." and the promise that the......... "town of Southampton does laye ye millstones at the point where y millwright shall appoynt and shall build the dam." This grist mill was built on the North side of the road and on the East bank of the stream, quite near the mill pond. (The pond had a circumference of a little over two miles.) The water from Seven Ponds North and West of Water Mill fed the mill pond. The mill pond fed the mill and also fed a lower mill pond which emptied into Mecox Bay. (The Bay was about six square miles in area.) The opening of the Bay into the Atlantic Ocean governed the height of the water at the tail race of the mill. In 1644 it is thought that the mill was operated by an overshot water wheel. Its successful operation depended upon two conditions (which still exist): first, Mecox Bay must be kept at a low level. If it got too full the magistrate gave notice that every man from sixteen to sixty years of age was obliged to assist in digging out the "sea-poose" (an Indian word meaning "little river") which was a ditch through the sand from the Bay to the Ocean. (Still dug today, but by a crane and bulldozer.) The other condition was to keep the water in the mill pond at a high level. To ensure this level, on March 3, 1651, a ruling added: :It is ordered that when the miller calleth on three days warning, the town shall gratishly afford him twenty men to go to lett in the water from Seven Ponds into the mill pond." At an early date the settlers of East Hampton were granted the privilege of brings their grain to the water mill, if they in turn would assist in digging out the "sea-poose" and help with the "letting of water to the mill pond."

The stones used in the mill were native stone quarried from the glacial moraine. In the late 17th century and during most of the 18th century French burr stones were imported as well as quarried stone from Vermont and Connecticut.

In 1653 Howell sold the mill to William Ludiam. Ludiam received permission from the town to "lower the mill at Seven Ponds." The building was dragged on skids and moved 1,000 down the stream (mill race) where it has stood ever since.

The Ludiam family ran the mill almost one hundred years. In 1748, young William Ludiam sold "one half of my bolting mill to Elias Petty, a weaver, price 65 pounds." Petty used part of the mill for spinning yarn, weaving and fulling cloth.

In the early 19th century the mill came into the possession of Jason Hedges and John White who manufactured paper. They reduced clean linen and cotton rages to a pulp which was then run over a screen or sieve to remove a good share of the water, spread on a smooth block, brought to the proper thickness and left until dry enough to handle. The drying block used in this process was of cast iron 685mm x 1.02m (27" x 40") and 60mm (23/8") thick and because of its weight is still by the mill as an exhibit.

In 1825 "one half" of the mill and the mill pond were bought by John Benedict of Danbury, Connecticut. "The equal undivided half part of the pond and stream of water at the place called Water Mill, together with the carding machine, spinning jennies, and billy, the mill and all of the buildings attached to the said stream of water." In 1833 he bought the other half of the mill, resumed grinding grain as well as continuing weaving operations and settled on a tub wheel as the most efficient source of power. (The tub wheel can be seen today.) The Benedict family ran the mill until the 20th century but stopped grinding grain in 1880. Since that time the mill has served the community as a chill room for ice storage, an ice cream factory, naval architect's office and as an outlet shop for articles made by the blind.

In order to preserve the mill a group of Water Mill Ladies incorporated under the laws of New York State as "The Ladies Auxiliary of Water Mill, Inc." They purchased the then machinery-gutted mill from the Benedict family in 1942 for two thousand dollars. They raised monies by bake sales and rummage sales and maintained the building as a rental property to the State Commission for the Blind and to a commercial restaurant. In 1969 at the urging of a tool collector who gave them the nucleus of a fine tool collection, they opened the building as a museum and thus paved the way for restoration as a grist mill. An archaeological dig in the spring of 1970 "discovered" the 1825 tub wheel, sluice gate, pennstock and flume under some 600mm (2 feet) of silt and mud. Encouraged to fully restore the mill the Ladies went full stream ahead. They dug out the cellar, removing 600mm (2 feet) of earth and replacing it with four inches of sand. They laid a brick floor and drains. Next they knocked a hole in the West wall and pushed in a large timber 9.75mm (32 feet) long by 406mm (16 inches) square (Pine from North Carolina) into which they mortised existing floor beams; thus the main support of the building was secured. The operation of the building as a tool museum proceeded. Craft demonstrations and classes flourished........tourists overwhelmed the volunteer hostesses.......the mill as a museum was on the map!

But why not an actual grinding grist mill? In 1973 with a technical assistance grant from the New York State Council n the Arts the Ladies "conned" Master Miller, Charles Howell, to help them plan the mixed media construction or restoration. From that point on a volunteer force build a 3.65mm (12 feet) undershot water wheel. Welded steel, built piers, poured concrete, built a face gear, lantern pinion, a completely separate stone floor, and kept up with day-today repairs and maintenance. ON June 26, 1976, at 12 0'clock noon the "reactivated Water Mill Colonial Militia" fired a volley of musket shot and their cannon, the sluice gates opened, and the mill was grinding again. The whole community turned out for the event. (It has been estimated that 470 people have put in 1,400,00 hours of work per year to the restoration of the mill.)


The actual restoration began in 1973 when a cabinetmaker-tool collector was talked into building a water wheel. It was determined that a 3.65mm (12 feet) undershot water wheel 1.2m (4 feet) wide somewhat like the Philipsburg Manor Restoration in Tarrytown, New York, would be the best type and that it could be done by volunteer help.


A local pile-driving firm was hired to sink six 3.5m (18 feet) pilings to be used as footings for a concrete slab 1.82m (6 feet) x 2.43m (8 feet) and 660mm (26 inches) thick. With a shifty, sandy and muddy bottom it was deemed necessary to provide maximum support for three piers to hold the water wheel and iron shaft. The piers were build with block and covered with Belgian cobblestone from an old driveway. One piers was placed inside the building, one on the outer wall and the main pier 1.82m (6 feet) from the building. While the masonry was being done and while the white oak was seasoning the procuring of wood for the shrouds and buckets was taking place.

Water Wheel

Two cypress water storage tanks from local farms were dismantled and the sixteen foot lengths cut into five foot modules. The wheel's circle was scribed and then cut and the piece planed to take away the water tank inner curve. Each piece was soaked in a wood preservative (Deep Treat). The soaking method was quite primitive. A sheet of plastic was spread between two of the oak arms, ends were blocked and this tub-like depression was filled with preservative. To be sure that the wood was full saturated each piece was carefully "painted" with a brush also, before dipping.

A 5.5m (18 feet) mild steel shaft 100mm (4 inches) round was placed on three pairs of bearings made of lignum vitae and white oak. (Two bearings on each pier.) Four bushes (hubs) of 760mm (30 inches) diameter circles of 19mm (3/4 inches) steel plate loose, plus two 300mm (12 inches) steel plates of l38mm (1 1/4 inches) welded to the shaft, were added making a combined thickness of 2 inches plate around the shaft. Eight arms radiating from the hubs were made of white oak 1.82m (6 feet) long 125mm (5 inches) x 60 mm (2 1/2 inches) thick were fitted between the fixed thick steel plate and loose thinner plate and secured with two bolts passing through both plates and through each arm.

The shrouds (rims) were 380mm (15 inches) in depth and made of two rings of eight pieces of 20 mm (3/4 inches) cypress timber. The two rings are so arranged that the points do not come together. (See photograph #1.) The sole (drum boards) and the buckets are 44mm (1 3/4 inches) cypress. The buckets are held in place by two 15mm (5/8 inches) iron rods and also the compression of the shrouds. These iron rods go through the shrouds and have washers and nuts on the outside. They can be tightened or loosened as the wheel expands or contracts. The bucket sits on top of the rod, well supported and helping to strengthen the wheel and tying the shrouds together. There are 32 buckets with what we call "break away action." If a large object, such as a piece of log, gets through the sluice way screen or if the bay is too full at the tail race and the wheel is "back-watering," these loose buckets are thrown back to the center of the wheel and eventually drop out into the tail race. A bit of tightening of the rods and the replacement of the bucket with a few good whacks keeps the mill grinding. (See photograph #2.)

The wheel was assembled in place by two men and two women working as a team. They put the 2 1/2 ton well-planned wheel together in two days. An apron was made under the wheel by placing a board 20mm (3/4 inches) deeper than the buckets and nailing it to the full periphery of the wheel; then as the wheel revolved concrete was poured from the fore bay and this formed a correct arc or circle for the apron. (There is very little wasted water.)

Water Supply

As in colonial days the flow of water from the mill pond to the ocean is still governed by the height of water in the Mecox Bay - tail race area. Levels have changed a bit over the years but the Seven Ponds keep supplying the mill with enough water to grind slowly. The Southampton Highway Department very kindly put in a new 30 inch culvert under the road directly to the wheel. (The old having been filled in when the mill stopped operating in 1880 and the concrete replacement put in 40 feet from the mill in 1920.) Now with the new "mill race" - culvert and alternative flood gate system has evolved, the concrete culvert lets out water from the mill pond when the mill is not grinding and keeps the mill pond from flooding neighboring farms. (See photograph #3.)

Face Gear

The face gear is 2.13m (7 feet) in diameter, made of 100mm (4 inches) thick pieces of white oak. It has two rings of four cants, crossed at the joints (for overlap). Four arms are welded to the shaft by two 51mm (20 inches) iron plates 20mm (3/4 inches) thick. The 56 cogs mesh to 12 rings (staves or rungs) of a lantern pinion and give a gear ration of three to fourteen. The discs of the pinion are banded by 50mm (2 inches) sweated iron bands. (See photograph of face gear #6.)


The bridgetree is a 3.04m (10 foot) fixed beam 355mm x 355mm (14 inches x 14 inches). Leveling is accomplished by a short iron lever underneath the footstep bearing of the stone spindle, adjustable in the tram pot by a vertical piece of iron so that it lifts and lowers the bearing. The adjustment is effected by a screw rod and hand wheel. (Note: This is a very non-traditional method of installing a bridgetree.)


The husk (stone table) is completely independent of the building. (A typical American practice.) This prevents vibration of the mill machinery affecting the main walls of the ancient building. (See photograph #5 and cross section drawing.)

Millstones, Hoppers, Casting and Crane

Through the efforts of Stephen Kindig we were able to obtain the vital parts of mill machinery. A working mill, run by a lady miller, was to be dismantled to make way for a water supply dam for the city of Reading, Pennsylvania. So, from the Pleasant Valley Roller Mills we bought two pairs of millstones complete with all the fittings (One pair of stones are native Berkshire County stone and the other pair are French burr stones.) The hoppers and casings, damsels and spindles, tentering rods and bearings and the stones were picked up by a local farmer on a "potato run." The crane with bails and two centrifugal flour bolters followed.

Dressing and Grinding

In May of 1976 after teaching the new miller (Emily Barton McGuire) and blacksmith the art of stone dressing, Charles Howell finished dressing the French burr stones. The stones were put in place, the sluice gates opened and for the first time in 96 years the mill was grinding. 7,00 pounds of locally grown corn, wheat and rye were ground while 8,000 summer tourists and 2,500 school children watched.

The restoration of the water mill at Water Mill was not strickly professional millwright priactice. Coinsidering the fact that the whole job was done by volunteer labor and mixed technology of construction methods, materials and avaiable craftsman, the mill has emerged as an excellent engineering operation. That is as it should be...........after all it is the only water mill in the world that had a town name for it.......Water Mill.


E. Barton McGuire (She never felt like an "Emily.") operated the mill for a number of years until the countryside of Long Island, New York began to disappear. So she and her husband Bradford, moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore where she became the miller at the Wye Mills (circa 1671) and began another mill restoration. That restoration was completed with the efforts of Preservation Maryland, James Kricker's Rondout Woodworking, and the late Master Millwright Charles Howell. Millers and millwrights Barton McGuire, Charles Howell, Ted Hazen, and volunteer Richard Abbott from Peirce Mill, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., dressed the millstones. This was the last mill restoration of the lady miller and tool collector Barton McGuire, she passed away suddenly shortly afterwards.


1. Shaft, hubs, oak arms and shrouds being assembled in June 1975.
2. Final welding of completed water wheel.
3. Culvert to flume being placed under the road.
4. East side of the mill during flume construction.
5. Grinding area completed June 1976.
6. Face gear construction details.


Photo #1.

Photo #2.

Photo #3.

Photo #4.

Photo #5.

Photo #6.

* From a bound paper, no publisher, no date.

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

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Copyright 2002 by T. R. Hazen