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The History of Flour Milling in Early America

The History of Flour Milling In Early America
Theodore R. Hazen

Find Answers to Questions on this and other pages........

Question: Were the early mills of America like the traditional English Country Mill, similar to the Pakenham Mill in the drawing above?

Question: Did the tradational English Country Mill develop as the same time, both the English and early American mills from the medieval mill?

Question: Did American mills become more suffocated than English and European mills?

Question: Did American mills change and develop differently that English and European mills?

The Basic Information:

Grist mills constructed in the early 1600's to grind corn and wheat to make flour for the early English settlers of coastal areas. Two words in this sentience reveal was the mill was constructed to do. These words are: corn and flour. To English speaking people of the 1600's and 1700's a corn mill means a mill that grinds corn and makes flour. Corn is the English generic word for grain. More specifically meaning a mill that grinds wheat, rye, oats, and or barley into flour and meal. The common American word "corn" meaning maize the English and Puritan settlers would have called it maize and not used the word corn. In America the English use of the word corn did not change until the War of 1812, when the people of the United States wanted to separate themselves from England.

Wheat was grown in New England primarily along coastal areas. The rocky soil and climate of New England never made New England a large wheat growing center. Wheat was a more important crop in the areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Early milling centers of America was New York (first by the Dutch and then later because of Rochester and the Erie Canal), Wilmington (along the Brandywine River), Baltimore (along the Patapsco River), Georgetown (along the C & O Canal), Richmond (on the James River and the Kanawha Canal). Then after the Civil War the wheat growing areas sifted to the Midwest. The Mennonites brought hard wheat from the Ukraine and the milling methods changed, places like Minneapolis (the largest ever in the world) became milling centers.

Many early water wheels were enclosed inside of the building or under roof for protection from winter's snow and ice. The above photo is of the Lee Mill, Stratford Hall, Virginia. The Fitz Water Wheel Company claimed that this was their best and most accurate mill restoration. A roof is over the water wheel in the classic illustration Winter at the Old Grist Mill, a Currier & Ives print. Is this more nostalgic than reality and how much does nostalgia become a factor in mill restoration?

New Englanders traditionally preferred rye over wheat and a common New England dish was 'Rye' & 'Injin,' meaning corn bread with rye flour instead of wheat flour. The problem unknown at the time was the hallucinations fungus (LSD) ergot commonly found in rye, and not effected by the milling, sifting and baking process. The New England food Johnny Cakes originally was called journey cakes. Over time the word journey cake was bastardized into Johnny cake. Buckwheat is not a grain, grass or member of the wheat family is actually an herb. It was brought to New Amsterdam in 1626 by Dutch and German settlers. Buckwheat spread down from New York, into Pennsylvania, western Maryland, West Virginia and into Michigan. In the North and New England the type of corn used for milling is yellow field corn, while in the South white field corn is used. When corn is milled into corn meal the bran is sifted out to make bolted corn meal. Coarser corn meal contains the bran and is called unbolted corn meal. In the South the middlings is used as a cereal and is called grits.

Soft wheat or English wheat was grown and milled. Wheat was sifted or bolted into white flour. In sifting the bran and middlings (cereal) is removed. The middlings also was called ships stuff or red dog, was used for ships biscuit. Red dog was named after a New England Native American who was named Red Dog. He made a deal with a New England miller in trade for all of the middlings the miller could supply his tribe. Bran was tossed into streams considered worthless. whole wheat has the bran sifted out and came into existence in the mid-1800's with the popularity of Sylvester Graham's Graham Flour. Around the time the Pilgrims were building Plymouth Plantation a patent was issued in Great Britain for the making of woven wire cloth. A century later a Scotsman named John Milne invented a sifting reel that rotated instead of being shaken. So after about 1730 most mills of any size operated their flour sifting machinery by water power rather than being hand sifted. So the reconstructed mill probably and a flour sifter (bolter) on the second floor of the mill that was water powered.

Eling Tide Mill, Totten, Southampton, England.

Question: When did American Mills stop looking like European mills?

Perhaps it was not until Oliver Evans developed his improvements did American mills change.....

There time in America when we wanted to get away from all things English. We had just fought to wars with England and water to separate ourselves and our language from the English. The term "corn" which the English use as a generic word grain only came to mean maze not by English definition (a corn mill) a mill that grinds wheat, rye, or barley. We stopped using the English millstones in American Mills and preferred using the French millstones because they made better white flour. Our milling industry was converted to sport the Napoleonic wars. We were happy to ships American products to other markets other than England. We got away from using what would be termed English designs such as clasp arms on water wheels and used the American standard of compass arms. Sure some mills were build in American in the 1700's using clasp arm construction in water wheels and gears. But this was American and we did not have to maintain the king pin tradition of keep the same water wheel shaft for generations and only replacing the housing around it. We had more availability to lumber and timber than they did in England. So the designs of water wheels and milling machinery changed in the 1800's.

Enck's Mill along Yellow Breeches Creek in Dickinson Township, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, has the same basic lay out as the Eling Tide Mill. Enck's Mill has two equal mill sections with the mill stream that ran under the middle of the building that turned two breast shot water wheels each driving two sets of grinding stones.

Types of Mills:

There are two types of mills or milling operations. Custom mills grind grains individually for farmers and other individuals. The miller is paid for his services of milling by collecting a toll. A toll is a portion of the grain brought to the mill for grinding. Local laws and custom set the allowable amounts for corn and wheat. The usual toll was one eighth for corn and one-sixth for wheat. Because milling was also a craft learned through apprenticeship no one was allowed in the mill when it was operating or when the miller was measuring out his toll. A dishonest miller could collect more than his allowable limit. In the middle ages people got away from brown flour because a dishonest miller could adulterate brown flour with saw dust. White flour is nothing new and goes back thousands of years. Custom mills is most often referred to as grist mill. These mills operate seasonally with the harvest. The miller is often the person who owns the mill. He often has another occupation practiced when the grist mill is not operating. The machinery of the mill is simple, often only one pair of millstones, but sometimes two pairs of millstones are found in the mill. In a custom mill generally there is no cleaning or sifting machinery, and the miller sifts the flour or meal by hand. Modern health standards have put these types of mill out of existence, because they don't clean the mill machinery between different individuals batches of grain. The health inspectors believe that contamination can lead to sickness, disease and death.

The other type of mill is a merchant mill. A merchant mill Is a commercial milling operation. The miller or millers is generally not the person or persons who own the mill or constructed it. This mill grinds grain and produces flour for profit and for export. This mill does not grind grains individually for farmers and other individuals. It grinds wheat and produces white flour packaged into barrels, rather than a custom mill that would grind sacks of grain. Flour barrels have wooden ash hoops rather than a metal hoop of a wet cooper. A merchant mill puts a label or stamp on the barrel head of each flour of flour. Until the end of the 1700's the barrels were stamped with a heated branding iron. This is much like a cattle branding iron. Irons would say for example: "SF 196." This means "superfine" white flour. The number "196" is the weight in pounds that the barrel contained. By law each barrel of flour must contain 14 stone or 196 pounds. A mills output was measured in numbers of barrels it produced in a 24 hour period. Branding irons were used for main years before they used paint and stencils. Branding irons were heated in a fireplace of often found in the basement of the mill. A fireplace in the corner and a window, this probably was the corner where the miller's office was located. A merchant mill purchases its grain from grain dealers and farmers. This mill is larger and its machinery more complex. A merchant mill generally would contain three pairs of millstones or more. The largest water powered mill ever to have existed in Minneapolis contains 42 pairs of millstones. I had a friend who's grandfather was a foreman in a steam powered mill in England that had 52 pairs of millstones. Merchant mills grew in importance and numbers after the improvements made by Oliver Evans in 1782-83.

Counter-Gearing inside the basement of the Stratford Mill

Oliver Evans wrote the first practical book or text book for millers and millwrights. Evans wrote "The Young Mill-Wright & Miller's Guide," first published in 1795 and reprinted through 15 editions until 1860. It became the millers and millwrights bible and today is a valuable reference work. The wars in Europe fed the growing numbers of merchant mill in America exporting flour. The Napoleonic Wars more than doubled the price of a barrel of flour. A sure sign of a merchant mill is the type of millstones it used. A merchant mill used French millstones imported from France. The French millstone is the best grind stone material ever found for grind wheat and producing white flour. French millstones are made of a freshwater quartz quarried principally around La Ferte sous Jouarre near the town of Chalons in the Marne valley of Northern France. The United States became the largest importer of French millstones. There were more here than in France or anywhere else in the world. The increasing importance of merchant mills and the two wars fought with England cut off the importation of English millstones.

Millers were recant to accept change. Milling and the process of milling had not changed for centuries. It was not until Oliver Evans made his improvements in a mill on Red Clay Creek in Delaware. A mill in the early or middle 1700's looked like a mill in the 1600's, 1500's, 1400's, or 1300's. The milling process was very labor intensive, and a mill could not increase its output unless it increased its labor, installed more duplicate machinery. In the English colonies there was even less incentive for change, the patient laws in English required that to obtain a patient to protect your invention, you had to be an English citizen living In England. Grain and flour was stored on the floors and the whole system was a mess. Most of the people involved in the milling business: mill owners, millwrights and millers were Quakers. The Quakers were the one who invented the system or incentive for making profit. So it was the Quakers who were primarily in the merchant flour trade. They were long chastised for it, but for centuries it was not you just due. When you made and sold something, you could only ask for what it cost to make it, never any extra. It was not your entitlement as a craftsman or individual.

Question: Do you know were the largest collection of pre-Oliver Evans mills in America is located?

These mills were constructed before Oliver Evans inventions and did not see any milling changes until the end of the 19th century when roller mills and metal water wheels were added to the traditional pre-Oliver Evans mills. Several years ago I made an extensive tour of the grist mills of Perry County, Pennsylvania. My companion was the late Charles Howell (1926-1993). We used as a guide a small booklet on the mills of Perry County (a similar booklet is available on covered bridges), and the classic county history book: "Perry County Grist Mills, 1762-1978," by the late Eugene E. Eby, The Triangle Press Inc., Penbrook, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1978. Mr. Howell like myself was a master miller, millwright, milling consultant, and millstone dresser. Together we both have spent our lives working in both commercial and public flour and grist mills. Charlie and I had read both of these publications cover to cover, over and over again. It was not evident from our reading but after we both had begun to see a number of 1700's mills that were still standing in the county (at that time), we came to an interesting conclusion. The mills that we saw that were constructed in the 1700's before the improvements of Oliver Evans, they still had their characteristics of a pre-Oliver Evans mill with the millstones feeding to meal boxes, lighter staffs to tenter the millstones, and a sack hoist. These mills were constructed, operated and never saw the improvements brought about by Oliver Evans. The mills missed a stage in the development of flour milling and remained the same until the introduction of the roller milling process and the desire by the American household for Minneapolis style flour.

The Early Mills:

What did these early mills look like? The mills has a loft or garner as it was known in England. In American garners were storage bins for grain, sometimes located under the eaves in the attic or along walls on lower floors. The loft was the best place to store grain, flour and meal because it was the driest part of the Mill. It was out of the lower floors that would be flooded by the mill stream. It was also more difficult for rats and mice to get at the grains the ladders would be pulled up at night and the trap doors closed. There would be as many as three cats kept there to keep vermin at bay. The problem was the summer heat and insects. It was however, it a time when rodents were considered much more of a problem than insects. A good example of this type of mill is the Brant mill, near Rector, Pennsylvania. A good example of an adapted old mill can still be seen it the Mascot Roller Mill, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It is still evident in the maze of bins and and interior layout that was adapted to fit a turbine powered roller mill when the water wheel and millstones were removed. Another example is Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park. The mills original basement steps was in the center of the building were the millstones are located. The mill never had steps to the second and third floors. When the mill stopped functioning in 1897, shortly thereafter around 1900, the building was converted into a public tea house. The Peirce mill also had trap doors with ladders that could be removed at night.

Interior of the Philipsburg Manor Mill

In the pre-Evans mill, millers and his boys would carry freshly ground flour sacks up ladder like stairways to the top floor or attic of the mill. This was the days of the "sack and back" operation. All of the work was carried about the mill using sack on ones back. Sometimes it was hoisted up using ropes and buckets or sacks, and dumped on the floor where it was spread with a rake to cool and dry it. The miller's helper in this process was called the "hopper-boy." Also in the mill the miller had his "sack-boy," whose job it was move sacks about the mills, add empty sacks to chutes when ones filled up.

In early American millers used the old American or flat grinding system of milling. The fast turning millstones were set close together and placed a lot of pressure on the grain. They needed to be well dressed to do their job. The object was to produce as much flour as possible through one pass through the stones. Grind once, sift once was the rule. The meal would leave the stones hot and damp; the duller the stones, the hotter would be the flour. The bran was broken into fine particles, and the middlings turned into warm clumps which would clog the bolting cloths if not cooled before bolting. Hence the need for a device (or person) like the "hopper-boy," whose job it was to "hop-to-it."

The flour might remain on the floor for many hours, or days, filling the loft with flour while waiting for the moisture to evaporate so it would not sour later. Egg laying insects loved it! After the flour was dried and cooled, it was bolted, where again it would be deposited in hoppers or bins to age and whiten. Evans invention of the hopper-boy cooled and raked the freshly ground flour mechanically: saving labor, time, and space; and, it did a better, more complete job.

A Tub Mill
This mill like many early mills were along early trails. There were very few metal parts.
Most of the mill was constructed from wood. When they stopped being used, the millstones
were taken elsewhere and very little would remain to tell of their existence.

Mills of early American were small often one or two stories, but there was little need for tall structures (that came later with the Oliver Evans mill). Mills of this time period of early American contained the mill machine, consisting of the water wheel, gears and millstones. The millstones were often separated on a platform or a level separate from the first floor. The miller spent all of his time in the mill's basement were he suffered from problems of cold, dampness, dirt, fungus, mold, mildew, and poor light. This is why the "millers's thumb" was developed so the miller could judge the quality of the flour by using his hands and fingers without the benefit of much light to see by. The miller would only travel to the millstone level to fill the millstone hopper or dress the millstones. The millers or boys helpers did the rest. layers old old flour and meal covered the floors, corners, and cobwebs throughout the mill.

The grain gets to the millstone by being taken by a the sack hoist to the top of the mill. When it is needed to be ground it then is poured through a chute down to the millstone hopper which dribbles it into the eye of the stone. The damsel is attached to the runner stone and spins around with it at about 125 r.p.m. The effect of this is to vibrate the shoe causing the corn to run down the slope. As the grain travels out from the center of the stone to the edge, it is ground up into meal. The meal collects in the wooden vat which surrounds the stones and falls through a small hole in the floor down a meal spout to the ground floor. Sometimes the miller would sift the flour or meal by hand using a hand sifter or the miller would collect the meal in a sack or tub and sends it up to the top of the mill again on the sack hoist. After a time it would be poured down another chute into the boulting (later term bolting) machines which sieve the bran out of the meal, leaving the flour to fall into the flour bin. The bran or offals would be tossed out often by pouring it into the mill stream. A millers horse could always be easily identified because it would have rickets because it had too much bran in his diet.

Often the mills most complicated piece of machinery other than the millstones would be a windlass barrel hoist. A type of hoist that a rope is wind up around a barrel used to lift sacks, barrels, tubs on the inside of the mill (through trap doors) or on the outside of the front of the mill vertically up past a series of Dutch doors on each floor of the mills. Candles were used for lighting either sitting on barrels or on candle holders forged by the blacksmith with long spikes on the end that would either stick into barrel heads or beams.

One old expression is: "Don't put out the miller's eye." The particular phrase has no reference to the eye of the miller. However people in Michigan have taken it to mean that only a good miller would have one eye, that he would keep his noise so close to the grindstone that he would poke out one eye in dressing the millstones. The original phrase has no reference to the eye of the miller, but probably to that part of the machinery of the mill known as the mill eye or eye of the millstones. If by the inattention of the miller, the grain flows too freely from the hopper through the shoe and fills the eye or the aperture of the revolving millstone and brings the machinery to a stand still. Another use is to "put out the miller's eye," in other words for the miller or one of his helpers to dump a large amount of grain to fill the mill's eye and choke the millstones and machinery down to a sudden stop. To put out the miller's eye with good whiskey (rather than grain) they would drown before they could ever put out the miller's eye. The folks of Michigan have taken the old expression "keep your noise to the grindstone." It means if you keep your noise literally always pointed towards the grindstone, your ears are also in that direction. The expression means pay attention to you work, by using your senses of sound, sight and touch to operate the mill.

The phrase "dusty miller" is meant the last child born in a family and should be really "dusty milder." "It's mildering" means that it is pouring rain. The Irish never say 'pouring with rain." Milder is a milling term that means the quantity of grain ground at any one time. So milder means a great amount, a flow, quantity, a deluge. The "melder, " flour or meal fell into a great wooden tub, then the miller's helper would have raised the tub to a flour bin or loft area. St. Mullins or anglicized to the name of St. Mulling. An Irish monk who lived from 614-696, and is remembered as to having succeeded in milling (a mixture of non-grain stuff such as apples, nuts and other particles, fibers, perhaps belly bottom fuzz, etc.) into rye flour after a disastrous harvest. He is the famous miller who maybe the source word for "Molinology." His mill race and remains of his mill can still be seen. He is supposed to be the earliest person who was named a "miller." So is the study of milling meaning "Molinology" come from the study of St. Mulling. The Dutch word for milling is "molin."

Dutch and German mills constructed in America tend to use German millstones. These millstones are quarried at Nieder Menting in the Mayen district of the Rhineland, and was used by the Romans who went through a great deal of effort to haul stones to their mills from the Rhine River. The stones are known as "Cullin" stone, a corruption of Koln, the German name for the city called Cologne in English. The millstones are made of a bluish-gray lava and they tend to use a sickle millstone dress pattern on the grinding surface. The English settlers in the New World favored millstones from their motherland. So English mills and millers use stones cut from quarries in the Peak District of southwest Yorkshire and the northeastern perimeter of Derbyshire. This millstone material is known as Millstone Grit. The British millers refer to these millstones as "Peak" or "Gray" stones. Grist mills constructed by the English were more than likely had a pair of English millstones and looked much like a traditional English Country mill.

A pair of French Millstones

The first ships carried settlers to American. The millstones that the mills they constructed in the New World came from Europe. These mills sprang up as wind mills, and tidal mills and when they moved inland enough constructed stream powered mills, along the streams of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and the Carolinas. Millstones were quarried in American at Mount Tom in Connecticut; Westerly, Rhode Island; High Falls, Ulster County, New York; New Hampshire; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Maryland; Ohio; and Rowan County, North Carolina. The better millstones were imported from Europe.

A throw back to feudal Europe in early America was the plantation mill. Mills in Europe were owned by the lord or Abbott. By law a peasant had to take his grain to the ruler's mill, he had no recourse of going elsewhere if the miller was stealing from him. Here in America mills on plantations or estates ground mill for people living on the plantation. This also included indentured servants. A later form of this arose in the South with the share croppers. Plantations often ground coarser grains for people living on the plantation and also ground finer white flour for export. These mills often had two pairs of millstones, one millstone the plantations needs, and the other French for grind white flour. So in away this milling operation was both custom and merchant milling. George Washington had such a mill at Mount Vernon on Dogue Creek. In America an 'honest miller' who took an honest toll was something to spread the word about. Millers always had a reputation for being mean and money-grabbing. In Geoffrey Chaucer's miller in the Canterbury Tales was the classic caricature of a fat crude and rough willing and able to defraud his customers with his "miller's thumb" of gold. Much of the suspicion was due to the nature of what they did. When people took their grain to the mill to be ground they only had the miller's word for it that what they received in meal at the end of the process was theirs and theirs alone. While Oliver Evans improvements were being installed in American mills, in England still the rat-catcher also worked in mills catching rats, while in America cats took on that responsibility. In American culture you had to have a greater sense of occupation than in England.

Question: Was it the same as in England and elsewhere that in early America (because of the apprentice system) when the miller saw someone coming to the mill he shut the mill off? People did not see their grain being ground, because the miller did not want to reveal any of his secrets?

The millstone surface is dressed with their furrows that grind the like a scissors cutting action. Millstones are dressed or grooved for the type of grain ground. A large kernel like corn the grooves are deeper than smaller kernels like wheat, buckwheat, rye, oats, and barley that have shallower furrows. Some mills have one pair of millstones for grinding corn and another pair for grinding flour and other grains. Millers in the North and New England states often grind all grains on one pair of millstones. The millstones are dressed or grooved with an in between dress. In the South it is common for a mill to have two pairs of millstones. It is the custom in the South that if the locals discover the miller is using the same pair of millstones to grind both corn and wheat, they will stop using the mill and go elsewhere.

Question: Why did metal (iron) appear in use in America for gears and water wheel parts 100 years after they did in England?

Question: Why did England want to keep the Industrial Revolution from happening in America and its other colonies?

Construction and Operation:

This location was chosen because of the available water power. It was built over a waterway that moved a large wooden wheel, which in turn, rotated a large stone upstairs in the mill. Wheat or corn that was grown locally was placed between the stones and ground into fine meal or flour. Many of the first mills constructed in America were wind and tidal powered mills. At first it was hard to get intelligent people to come to America like millwrights. Often early settlers forced to order complete wind mills from England that were disassembled and packed into a ship in a kit form. I have never heard of a water mill being ordered from England in this manor.

Construction of an traditional post mill, drawing by John Vince.

Building a mill took weeks or even months of labor. No machinery or standardized parts were available, only human strength and ingenuity. Except for a few (metal) parts the blacksmith might forge, everything had to be made from wood and stone........ The millwright was called in for the job. The millwright found a good site. Foundation walls were erected. Logs were cut and fashioned into beams, boards, and shingles. Pillars were constructed to support the water wheel shaft. Mill millwright located a white oak tree for the water wheel shaft. Only the millwright had the knowledge of what woods were best used for different parts. The water wheel, gears, and bearings made. Some times stone or wood was used for bearings. Stones bearings were lubricated with either water or tallow. Wooden bearings were lubricated with tallow. A dam, mill race and or a sluice box was constructed. Finally the mill was ready to be set into operation. The first grain was ground and the mill was tested. No one dared ask the millwright about his work, he went about it in silence, few people were lucky to watch him work, he safe guarded his knowledge. No one dared ask him questions, what he was doing or why, because it is a well know fact that a millwrights spit can kill a toad.

Some mills also included a blacksmith shop. As customers would come to the mill to have their grains ground into flour and meal. The blacksmith worked on their wagons and shoed their horses and mules. The Blacksmith was always needed by the millstone dresser to draw out and temper mill picks or mill bills. The blacksmith kept his secrets of how he tempered the mill picks and the millstone dresser would always disagree with the blacksmiths work. It was not until later, in the late 19th century were the blacksmith's formulas for tempering mill picks published in blacksmith manuals. The blacksmith worked with the miller and millstone dresser to repair metal bands on millstones. Later many millers learned to dress millstones, learning only the basic knowledge how to do it and make the millstones grind, but without the skills once only done by master millstone dressers. It is the idea, anyone can do it, you put marks on the millstone and it will grind, but only the master millstone dresser knew the complete knowledge of how the millstones actually grind and what happens between the millstones. The miller who dresses his own millstones for the most part, could care less of the bran is removed in the proper shape and flake size. He just wants to grind grain for his customers.

Despite mechanization, work was provided for scores of individuals including millers, millwrights, coopers, blacksmiths and shallopmen. This blacksmith' advertisement appeared in the Delaware Gazette, March 20, 1790. (Historical Society of Delaware) THE MILLER"S FRIEND- THOMAS REYNOLDS

Thomas Reynolds, Respectfully returns his thanks to the public for their former favors and informs them that he carries on the Smiths' Business, at Brandywine Mills, In a more extensive manner than formerly. He continues to make and repair Screws for raising millstones, packing flour, and tobacco, for timber wheels, and fullers, and Printer's presses.

Brands and stamps in copper, iron, and steel, cut in the neatest manner. Orders from any part of the continent will be thankfully received, and carefully attended to. March 18, 1790.

From "Brandywine: An Early Flour-Milling Center," by Peter C.Welsh, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 1960.

The blacksmith first fabricated metal parts for the millwright, and later worked with the millwright again or miller to repair mill machinery. The blacksmith worked on mills when water wheels, gears, shafts were primarily made of wood, with metal parts fashioned by the blacksmith. Later, when the millwright no longer completely fashioned everything with in the mill, the blacksmiths work became less important. Metal replaced water wheel shafts, gears and bearings. Originally the millstones adjustment of tentering device the lighter staff and bottle weight were made by the millwright. Then the blacksmith made metal tentering rods and wrenches. The blacksmith could not fashioned the proof staff used by the millstone dresser. These were made in foundries. They were used to check a straight edge or paint staff, used to check the dishing of the millstones. The blacksmith rebabbitted metal bearings if the miller did not learn how to do it. The technology of making mill parts of metal took over the work of the millwright and blacksmith, when metal parts could be fashioned and cast beyond the abilities of their handy work.

Drawing of mill plan front view from "The Experienced Millwright,"
by Andrew Gray, Archibald Constable, Edinburgh, 1804.

Originally all of the machinery located in a mill was operated by wooden gears, including millstones, bolters (flour sifters). Then rope drive was used, and later leather belts were used. White leather was first used for elevator belts to hold elevator cups, later to be replaced by canvas belting. Elevator cups were either made of wood, or fashioned out of tin by the tin smith. The miller learned to lace leather belts with leather lacing. In the beginning of the 20th century metal belt lacing came into use. Wooden pulleys became made of metal, and more and more machinery became belt driven within the mill, even the millstones them selves. Later then metal replaced water wheels, gears, bearings, shafts and even the millstones with the introduction of the roller mill. The millwrights no longer required the skills of the blacksmith. His metal work was done by a machinist in a machine shop. When the millstone dresser or the miller no longer dressed the millstones, the machinist became the one who regrooved the break rollers in the break roller mills, once every several years.

Drawing of mill plan side view from "The Experienced Millwright,"
by Andrew Gray, Archibald Constable, Edinburgh, 1804.

A large millstone means a millstone with a diameter of 5 or 6 feet. This millstones if given proper amount of water and with sharp furrows could grind up to 500 pounds of flour and meal per hour. In the 1800's the average diameter of a millstones was 48 inches. The large diameter water wheel that turned the millstone upstairs. Millstones are operated in pairs and in writing or speaking of a mill the number of pairs means how many set of millstone the mill has. The lower millstone is called the 'bed' stone. This millstone is a stationary millstone that a turning spindle comes through its center and turns the upper millstone (the one mentioned in the statement above). This millstone is called the 'runner' stone. A millstone 5 or 6 feet in diameter would weight between 3400 to 4800 pounds. The millstones never touch and the space between the stones regulate how coarse or fine the grain is being ground. A mill built in the 1600's would more than likely not have a millstone crane for lifting and turning over the upper runner stone for millstone dressing. The reconstructed mill that was "significantly different than its original construction," more than likely had a millstone crane. Millstone cranes came into existence in the 1700's. Before that it was a very dangerous operation to lift and turn over a large heavy millstone using man power. Many a story has been told of a millstone that got away and fell through a floor crushing the gearing below, and possibly killing or injuring someone. In this time period millstones that hurt or killed someone, was considered unlucky and a perfectly good millstone was retired out of the mill. It often became a door step so the unsuspecting would step on it and carry the bad luck or evil away with them.

The millstone would be sitting on a platform as in a typical pre-Oliver Evans mill The breast wheel was sitting in a wheel pit. The gates would be closed the water level would rise and then turn the double bucket breast shot water wheel. water would exit down the tail race. The water wheel would have been built from seasoned white oak. Oak, apple wood, hickory would have made the wooden cogs on the gear wheels. The cogs would be boiled in linseed oil to protect the wood and to harden the wood structure. The water wheel was protected from the elements by a protective shed with the attached roof to the main mill structure. From northern Virginia, up into Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states, may water wheels were enclosed within the mill structure to protect them from ice and freeze damage. Often the water wheels were placed in part of the mill basement, or a protective roof, partial or complete shed enclosed the water wheel. This also protects the water wheel in the summer months when not operating and drying out on the outward side and remaining water logged on the lower side. This caused the wooden water wheel to become unbalanced creating problems for the water wheel, connecting machinery and its operation. This may take away from the romantic notion that all water wheels were clearly visible to be seen, but they were not.

Mills changed as technology changes they also change from one miller to another, as operators change. Wooden water wheels last 10 to 20 and possibly 30 years if they are taken care of. The wooden housing of wooden teeth gears are changed less often. Millstones are replaced every 20 years or so. French millstones will last a man's lifetime or 100 years or more if they are taken care of. Mills to burn well, the dust from wheat flour, rye, barley and oats is more explosive than gunpowder and 35 times more explosive than coal dust. The flour, dust, dirt and cobwebs feed a fire once it has started.

In a mill of Oliver Evans's day, American millers used the old American or flat grinding system of milling. The fast turning millstones were set close together and placed a lot of pressure on the grain. They needed to be well dressed to do their job. The object was to produce as much flour as possible through one pass through the stones. Grind once, sift once was the rule. The meal would leave the stones hot and damp; the duller the stones, the hotter would be the flour. The bran was broken into fine particles, and the middlings turned into warm clumps which would clog the bolting cloths if not cooled before bolting. Hence the need for a device (or person) like the "hopper-boy," meaning "hop to it."

In the pre-Evans mill, millers or boys would carry freshly ground flour sacks up ladder like stairways to the top floor or attic of the mill. Sometimes it was hoisted up using ropes and buckets or sacks, and dumped on the floor where it was spread with a rake to cool and dry it. The miller's helper in this process was called the hopper-boy. The flour might remain on the floor for many hours, filling the loft with flour while waiting for the moisture to evaporate so it would not sour later. Egg laying insects loved it! After the flour was dried and cooled, it was bolted, where again it would be deposited in hoppers or bins to age and whiten. Evans invention cooled and raked the freshly ground flour mechanically: saving labor, time, and space; and, it did a better, more complete job.

The saw mill was built after the gristmill's initial construction would have been an up and down saw mill. A straight blade (like a pit saw) was set in a frame and moved up and down by means of a crank from below. The converted logs into boards and improved the appearance and construction of the homes nearby. When a saw mill was operating in a small community the local homes often would have used the slab wood produced by the mill and the inter boards sold elsewhere. Slab wood is the outer first cut that one side is curved and still many contain the bark. At time the community would be referred to as 'slab town.' The addition of slab wood to primitive structures would be a great improvement. Grist mills were often combined with another operations such as a saw mill, plaster mill, bone mill, etc.

A Breast Shot Water Wheel

A Double Wide Wooden Breast Shot Water Wheel
constructed by the Fitz Water Wheel Company circa 1935-1936
at the Isaac Peirce Mill, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.

The large diameter water wheel that operated the mill would have been a "breast shot" water wheel. In the "Report of Commissioners of Dams and Reservoirs," it states that the dam has a water of seven feet in depth at the dam. The type of water wheel that a mill has is determined by the "fall" and the amount of water in that part of the stream. There are three types of water wheels. The overshot water wheels are used with a "head" or fall of over 10 feet. Breast shot water wheels are used at falls of between 6 to 10 feet, and undershot are used in falls of under 6 feet.

The craft of milling and millwrighting came here from Europe. The most common water wheels used in Europe at this time was the breast and under shot water wheels. Mill sites in Europe were known and reused over time for centuries. There was no guess work involved. Many of European mills were powered by undershot water wheels form broad rivers or boat (floating) mills. What they learned in Europe they came to America and constructed. So if a millwright only knew how to construct undershot water wheels that is what they built here. Even if the undershot was operated from a 40 foot fall where an overshot would be more suited. The most common water wheel used in American industry until 1830 was the breast shot water wheels. In the 1840's the French developed the water turbines from the American adaption of the tub wheel. Water turbines were first introduced into America around Lowell and the textile industry. The water requirements for both the breast shot water wheel and the turbine are similar so turbines were installed were once breast shot would have been used. After the American Civil War turbines and overshot water wheels became the most common water wheels used in most mills. Overshot water wheels did not become popular or vogue to construct until afterwards.

The types of vertical water wheels and their variations are: The overshot water wheel type including the overshot and pitch back water wheels. The breast shot water wheel type including the high, mid, and low breast water wheels. The undershot water wheel type including the undershot and flutter type. The types of horizontal water wheels include: The Greek wheel or Norse wheel, the tub wheel, baker wheel and the turbine.


The original gearing of early grist mill's would have had two-step gearing operating the single pair of millstones and a sack hoist. The two-step gearing system of interlocking gears is designed to permit several pairs of millstones to be driven from a single water wheel. The water wheel shaft would have a greater face gear that would engage a pinion gear. The pinion gear would have slip cogs that could be removable to allow the millstones to be disengaged and not operate. When the saw mill was added another form of two-step gearing was added known as counter-gearing to operate the saw mill. In this form the master or greater face gear would engage a lantern wallower, the wallower shaft turns a lesser or little face wheel. The wallower is mounted on a sliding bearing. A lever is used to disengage and engage the lantern wallower and thus disconnect the drive to the saw mill from its source. The original mill would not have had counter-gearing, or spur gear drive systems. These gear trains alone would have only been installed to operate two or more pairs of millstones. Even though some have recently referred to counter-gearing as English gearing, this does not mean it was in all English mills. No two mills are like in the water set-up, gearing arrangements, machinery, etc. The English used all of the different types of water wheels and gear train systems.

Counter-Gearing inside the basement of the Stratford Mill

The water wheel at an early grist mill would have been a low to mid breast wheel, 12 to 14 feet in diameter by 6 to 8 feet wide. It would take 3,000 to 5,000 gallons per minute to operate the mill. Most of the moving parts were made of wood. The few metal parts would be gudgeons. Metal bands around the ends of the shaft holding the gudgeons in place. Gudgeons are metal journals mounted in the end of the various shafts to run in bearings. The woods used to construct the mill would be seasoned woods such as white oak.

Early American Colonial Mill, Upper Mills at Philipsburg Manor.
The English Master Miller the late Charles Howell talking to a visitor.
A breast shot water wheel that operates two pairs of millstones and a sack hoist.

Note: The text from a Report of Hunt's Grist Mill, Old Rehoboth, Massachusetts, April 1998, and the Newsletter Anvil's Song, Virginia Explore Park, Summer 1998, both by Theodore R. Hazen.

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Copyright 1999 by T. R. Hazen