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Architectural Analysis of Peirce Mill and Argyle Mill.
Two Mills a Half a Mile apart, and Built by the same Millwright Isaac Pearce.

Pearce, Pierce, Peirce and Shoemaker's Mill, with miller's house across Pierce Mill Road.
Photo taken by Mr. Pollen Jewett, Nyack, New York, taken about 1900.

Architectural Analysis of Peirce Mill and Argyle Mill.
Two Mills a Half a Mile apart,
and Built by the same Millwright Isaac Pearce.
Theodore R. Hazen

Argyle Mills, the wheat flour mill on the right, and the bone mill in ruins on the left.

Blagden's and Argyle Mills: These mills were on the west bank of Rock Creek a few hundred yards north of where Rock Creek and the Broad Branch tributary meet. About half way between where Broad Branch enters Rock Creek, and where the Boulder Bridge (circa 1902) is located. The date of their construction is unknown (circa 1790-1800), but the mills were in operation early in the 19th century. One of the mills produced wheat flour and the other produced rag paper, and then later fertilizer from bone. The mills ceased operations in 1889. The mill was last owned by Thomas Blagden, a lumber merchant from Georgetown. This mill was built by millwright Isaac Pearce for Argyle, Pigman and Crow. Pigman and Crow who owned a D.C. Federal Mill at Chain Bridge, originally owned Lyon's or Federal Mill also on Rock Creek, and then later a mill in Montgomery County.

Upstream side of Blagden Mill. 

One half of the Argyle Mills, the Argyle Flour Mill, or the Thomas Blagden Mill as pictured in 1860, photographed by T. R. Peale. The other half was originally a paper mill structure at this time it had been converted to a bone mill. The same machinery which could tare rags into fibers could also tare bones into smaller particles. Note: The center section being of wood so perhaps new machinery could be installed in the mill. The mill continued to operate until 1889 when its dam was washed out. 

Its sister mill at this time was out of operation because its dam was washed out. Peirce Mill or the Shoemaker Mill did not start operating again until the 1870's when a new dam was constructed, and the mill was operated by a James Leffel Water Turbine, and a second saw mill was constructed. The Shoemaker Mill may have retained its millstones, but its other machinery more than likely was changed. A wooden vertical water wheel revolves at 9 to 10 revolutions per minute.  The wooden gears and cogs the gear ratios go up to get the machinery operating at the required speed. With a water turbine the turbine either goes too fast or at the desired speed to operate machinery. So generally the gear ratios are geared downward or power down. So the mill in its last life would have had metal line shafts and hangers. In 1897 Shoemaker's Mill broke down. From the photo of the turbine excavated in the 1936 restoration you can clearly see that the vertical runner shaft is tilted to the side meaning that the bottom bearing failed, and therefore made it impossible to turn the runner inside of the turbine case. So as the White Brother's miller's ledger stated, "the main shaft broke" of the water turbine. The water turbine should have operated for at least 100 years before needing regular maintenance and servicing, but instead it failed after 21 years.

Shoemaker's Mill, with lighting rods and shutters on some windows.

Pearce, Pierce, Peirce and Shoemaker's Mill: These mills were located on the west bank of Rock Creek about a mile north of the National Zoo. Pierce Mill is the only survivor of all the mills that operated on Rock Creek. The main reason for this was alternative use, it was converted into a teahouse while the other mills were torn down to make way for roads. The current mill was built by a millwright and Quaker from Pennsylvania, Isaac Pierce, in 1820.. There were two prior mills, Reed's Mill (1747), and Deakin's Mill (1790). Deakin's Mill was a two story wooden structure with two pairs of millstones, and the Oliver Evans system of automated flour milling. This is where Isaac Pearce only makes sense in taring down the second mill built on the site, that of William Deakin's Oliver Evans equipped mill, was the the death of Oliver Evans in 1919. Mr. Pearce must have realized that he could not build a larger stone flour mill without out paying a second user fee to Oliver Evans and perhaps his estate. During this period of 1820 to 1860, merchant milling waited for the important technological developments in farming, transportation, and grain storage to catch up with the mill revolution that Evans' began in the 1780's.

Historical Significance: The two last millers at Shoemaker's Mill, was Alcibiades P., and Charles White who are decedents of James White who built the first mill on Rock Creek. White's Mill was located on a tract of land next to Rock Creek, between Military Road and north of Blagden's Mill, was granted under the name of White's Mill Seat in 1634. Jonathan Shoemaker the miller at John Quincy Adams' Columbian Mill, was originally Thomas Jefferson's miller at the Shadwell Mill. Jonathan Shoemaker was close personal friends with Dolly Madison, and she used to take a buckboard to the mill and visit him. Isaac Pearce's two brothers were Samuel and Joshua Peirce who in 1780 started Peirce Arboretum, which became Piece Park in the nineteenth century, and in 1906 it became Longwood Gardens.

Both mill buildings are basically 40 by 50 feet. The Blagden's and Argyle Mills was laid out on a east-west axis on a map with its water wheel being located on the west side of the building. The Pearce, Pierce, Peirce and Shoemaker's Mill was laid out on a north-south axis on a map with its water wheel being located on the north side of the building. The ideal location or placement of the water wheel in both mills would have been on the south side of the building. The reason for this was having the water wheel located where it would receive the most sun during its winter path across the sky to keep ice melted from the water wheel during the winter months.

Peirce Mills water wheel being assembled by the Fitz Water Wheel Company workers, one of the three men in the photo is Richard Walker, Donald C. Wisensale's assistant.

The water wheel was actually fabricated in one of the buildings at the Fitz Plant in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where the second water wheel for Peirce Mill was construction in 1840, and like this one hauled to the mill and assembled. Original millwright Isaac Pearce was 84 years old at the time, and close to the last year of his life, and there for not able to construct a second water wheel for the mill.  Flour milling commenced again on December 1, 1936 and remained operable until December 1958, when the miller Raymond Watt retired. The mill's operation was discontinued because of the lack of skilled millwrights, millers, and millstone dressers, and the reduced water levels of Rock Creek. The water wheel for the second restoration of the mill was fabricated in Harper's Ferry, and them hauled to the mill where it was assembled on the new water wheel shaft. The original water wheel of Pearce Mill had a roof above it to protect it from snow and ice in the winter months just like Lyons Mill's two water wheels also had protective roofs above them.

Peirce Mill was restored by the Fitz Water Wheel Company in the 1930's.

The Argyle Flour Mill had a 11 foot fall with an overshot water wheel. Old photos of the Argyle Paper Mill or the later Blagden Bone Mill show this mill having a pitch-back water wheel. The Pearce Mill had a 7 to 9 foot fall, with a breast shot water wheel. If the 1830 painting of Pearce Mill is correct, then the original water wheel was 14 to 18 feet in diameter. It is unknown the type of water wheel the Pearce Saw Mill circa 1810, and the later Shoemaker Saw Mill had since no photos of either structure have surfaced. The Argyle Mills had a mill race of about a quarter mile in length while the Pearce Mills had a mill race of about 350 feet in length. Both mills appear to have had a water wheel that was two sections wide.

Basically machinery that would have been used to tare up used rags could have also been used to crush bones in the beginning process of making bone meal that was used for fertilizer. The two operations of grinding wheat flour and making bone meal have to be in separate buildings. The reason for this is that bones come from dead farm animals in which the flesh is putrefying, and so to keep the maggots out of the flour the operations have to be in separate buildings. Decedents of the Pearce and Shoemaker families have said when the wind was right, you could smell the bone mill down at the Shoemaker Mill.

When grain or grist mills are combined with other milling operations the most common is the pairing of a grain and saw mills. Back in the middle ages people got away from eating brown flour because dishonest millers might adulterate the flour with saw dust. So millers would be highly suspect if located in combination with an operation whose byproduct was saw dust. Adam's or Columbian Mill was built in combination with a plaster mill which was not a problem since the plaster was more a valuable product or commodity than the flour.

Both mills were built for agricultural and commercial activity that increased over the years in this region until it declined. The beauty of both mill buildings vernacular is derived from the craftsmanship inherent in its practical design and construction of local native blue granite field stone. It is too bad that the date stone from Argyle Mill, "I. B. P." along with the actual date of construction was perhaps lost when the mill was torn down for the building of Beach Drive in the 1890's.

Both mills had a living space for the miller nearby, and both mills had another milling operation besides the flour mill. The Peirce Mill and Argyle Mill were the third largest mill structures along Rock Creek. Lyon's or Federal Mill being the largest merchants mill, and Adam's or Columbian Mill being the second largest. Above Argyle Mills were the mills that served the local community, the custom or grist mills, beginning with Peter's Mill, and going northward into Montgomery County.

Both mills were virtually identical except in the placement of the windows. The two mill buildings were constructed that followed pragmatic lines. The Argyle Mill had its windows were placed where light was needed and omitted where grain and storage areas needed continuous wells and protection from light. Then built a number of years later but following perhaps the same plan, Isaac Peirce in building his Peirce Mill became more concerned for symmetrical exterior patterns of windows that allowed light and air to enter from all sides of the building. Both mills were the same dimensions in size, and both mills had a mill race where the two mills could be operated independently of each other.

One of the most striking differences between the two mills (besides the placement of the doors and windows) was that the Argyle Mill has two wooden gable ends, while Peirce Mill has one of wood and the other of stone. This may have effected the placement of the date stone of the Argyle Mill, or it may not have had a date stone at all. In a 1900 photograph of Peirce Mill, it shows two dormers on the east roof of the mill that were not shown in an 1830 painting of Peirce Mill. None of the photographs of the Argyle Mill shows any dormers on the roof.

In the later years of the Argyle Mill or Blagden's Mill (after it stopped operating) the millstones were removed. More than likely they went to be used in another mill, which was the common custom. The closest operating mill at that time would have been the Peirce Mill. So perhaps both mills live on together in the Peirce Mill. It is recorded that the center millstones in Peirce Mill was purchased for the mill in 1880 from Georgetown. So more than likely, they came from the nearby Blagden's Mill, and perhaps the agent or millwright's office was located in Georgetown.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the "state of the art" mill would have been very different than one found in the (lets say) fifteenth century. Today, as in years past, Peirce Mill (and Argyle Mill if it was still standing) would have served as testimony to the revolution in the milling industry that took place during this time period not buy their builder Isaac Peirce, but because of the American inventor Oliver Evans (1755-1819) and his book, "The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide," first published in 1795. By 1790, this section of Maryland that would become the federal city in 1800, all existing mills and new mills were already being equipped with the Oliver Evans automated system of flour milling. The invention of labor saving devices impacted the construction of both of these mills, and the Deakin's Mill as well.

Both the Argyle Mill and the Peirce Mill were sister mills. The quarry for Peirce Mill, is located along Broad Branch Road, and the quarry for the Argyle Mill, is located along Argyle or Blagden Mill Road on the east side of Rock Creek where the road went up and out of the valley. For a number of years, Isaac Peirce tried to purchase the Argyle Mill, but could not, this is why perhaps he tried later to build a better looking mill.

The restored attic of Peirce Mill
with elevators, hopper-boy, sack hoist, tempering bin, rolling screen, and smutter.

Program's Source: Interpretive programs by Theodore R. Hazen, Master Miller (mill operator), Millwright, Curator of Molinology, Site Supervisor, and Lead Interpreter, Pierce Mill, Rock Creek Park, National Park Service, National Capital Region, The Department of the Interior, 1984-1995, "Milling along Rock Creek."

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Copyright 2003 by T. R. Hazen