Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Gristmills: The Loss of an Industry


The opening scenes in the movie, Gone with the Wind, included an idyllic landscape of a stone gristmill with water cascading over an overshot mill wheel, and people scurrying around laughing and singing as they did their daily chores. As at Tara, the gristmill was one of the most important buildings on the farms and plantations all over the country. Eastern Virginia’s topography of rolling hills and numerous streams made it inviting for the construction of gristmills due in part to the ease of constructing a dam and creating millponds. The creation of these mills was an important part of the commerce and development of the area. At one time, there were over 100 operating mills in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula localities. Some were small mills that only ground enough flour and corn for the owner and his family, and some were large mills that processed a variety of flours, cornmeal, and animal feeds. They also had the capacity and were large enough to assist smaller farmers grinding their grains. The usual fee for this service was one-sixth of the finished product.
Since there were few towns and country stores where people could meet and talk, the mill was a gathering place where gossip, politics and finances could be discussed as farmers waited for their grain to be milled. Children who had accompanied their parents played around the pond or fished, and wives would look at the assortment of brightly colored cloth bags which the grain was packaged in so they might make an apron or a child’s dress. The only other places for people to meet were churches, weddings and funerals.
The early mills were built from materials found in the area such as large beams from native pine, oak and field stones. Bricks usually manufactured on the site on the farm provided a sound foundation. Above the foundation, some mills continued with the brick or stone construction, but many more were built of wood. In Westmoreland County, there were at least 30 mills scattered about. Now, with few exceptions, only an occasional millpond, a deteriorating millrace/wheel or visible ruins of foundations mark the remnants of a once thriving enterprise.
The only complete remaining water powered gristmill is at Stratford Hall. Being on Robert E. Lee’s family estate, this mill has been extensively restored and operates one Saturday a month beginning in the spring and ending around the first week of November. A 9 acre millpond feeds Lee’s mill. This pond has two headgates that when opened allow water to pass through the millrace to the millstones in the mill. At Stratford, the water flows through these headgates, underground through the pond’s dam into the flume, a wooden trough that carries the water to the control gate located directly above the mill wheel. The miller can adjust the flow of water over the wheel by a lever inside the mill. By starting and stopping the flow as needed, he can control the operational speed of the mill. Current millwright ‘Chip” Jones said with both of the headgates open, he can produce about 15 horsepower to the grindstones.
Inside the mill, there are two sets of millstones, each consisting of a bed stone and a runner stone. Power from the water running over the mill wheel is transferred to the mechanics inside the mill by the “king” shaft which is attached to gears turning the runner stone. The moving runner stone on the top was powered by water over the mill wheel and a system of gears. The bed stone on the bottom is stationary and firmly attached to the floor by heavy timbers. Grains are held in storage containers on the floor above the stones. Corn, barley, oats, wheat and other grains are gravity fed into the hopper, which in turn slowly feeds into the center of the runner stone. As the grain is ground, it works its way across the basestone and is passed down the exit spout to waiting containers. From there it is packed into waiting barrels or bagged for family use. Setting these stones in those days was quite a job. They had to be balanced and straight to run true.
In Lancaster County, a timeless sentinel sits barely off Rt.3 as you approach Kilmarnock. Lancaster Roller Mills, has survived time, weather, floods and fires. However, more sinister forces such as theft and vandalism have had a far more debilitating effect on the mill. According to the history of Lancaster County, there has been a dam and millpond on this site since 1666. In that year, the owner, John Robinson, built a gristmill. Upon completion in 1670, the mill was sold to John Carter, and it remained in the Carter family until 1839 when upon the death of Rebecca Carter, daughter of Charles Carter, it was sold out of the family.
There have been numerous changes in the mill and milling process since then. Lancaster Roller Mill has gone from grinding corn and wheat flour on a French monolithic grindstone to milling flour on rolling steel wheels. Due to low water in the 60s, an electric motor was installed which extended the operation of the hammermill until 1972.
Preservationist and current owner Kendall Acors has made it his passion to try and keep the mill from further decay. It seems he is there daily, shoveling this, patching that, and cleaning up something. “Never ending job,” smiles Acors. He bought the mill in 1998 with the intent of restoring the Great Mill as it was known locally. Sixteen years later the effort still is a work in progress as some expected local funding did not materialize.
Operating basically the same as other area mills, Lancaster Roller Mills operated by using an overshot mill wheel and the Oliver Evans Automated Milling System. Evans patented his system, and his patent number 003 was signed by George Washington, President of the United States, who just happened to be one of Evans’ early customers. This system was state of the art well into the early 1900s. Lancaster Mill installed a turbine in the 1880s replacing the overshot wheel. This was located on the millrace and increased the power to the grinding wheels and the roller mill by increasing the revolutions of the king shaft thus producing more power.
Inside the mill there are dozens of bucket belts which move the grain to the storage bins. Depending how the customer wanted his product ground, there were different ways grain was routed through the mill. Corn, which was not as finely processed as flour, went from the storage bins to the rolling screens and then into the hopper feeding the millstones.
Unfortunately, the future of Lancaster Roller Mills remains uncertain. Acors is still valiantly trying to keep the status quo at the Great Mill, but as he smiles he stated, “You fix one thing, and another brakes. I am committed to continue and try to keep the mill from falling in upon itself as most of the remaining mills in Lancaster have.” While it is still there, people should coordinate with Acors and visit the mill. It is a piece of history that could easily be lost.
Finally, we get to Essex County and the Essex Mill. Located along the side Essex Mill Road, across from a large pond, the old mill remains defiant to time. The construction of the foundation was of brick and cement. The basement housed the king shaft and gears that were attached to the overshot mill wheel. Above that were two more stories of a clapboard construction under a metal roof. There have been other mills along Mill Creek. In the early days, this mill was called Covington’s Mill. James Webb built the existing mill in 1808. Interestingly enough, Webb was a shrewd entrepreneur and built a baking house associated with the mill. Using his ready supply of baking materials, he supplied biscuits and bread to the ships at the docks in Hobbs Hole, later Tappahannock.
 Flood and fire have destroyed Essex Mill numerous times over the last 200 years, but it was always rebuilt. Mike Parker, Sr. remembers as a child going to the mill and seeing longtime millwright Eddie Howard covered in flour dust. “We always thought he looked like a ghost,” laughed Parker. Howard worked in the mill for 45 years, the only job he ever had. He retired reluctantly when the mill ceased operation in 1973.
Many local children fished in the summer and ice-skated on the pond in the winter. Parker indicated trips to the mill were the highlights of his adolescent years.
As time passed, to keep up with technology, Essex Mill installed a turbine in the millrace where the overshot wheel had been. A gas engine was installed as an emergency backup. When the water supply got low, the engine could also pump water from the pond to supply the mill.
The current owner, Mrs. Jackie Harvey, said she loves the mill and wishes 
she could get someone to buy it and fix it up. Having ventured into the mill, the writer and Mr. Parker found the mill to be surprisingly sound. There was no give in the floor and the basement was dry. Broken windows and some holes in 
the weatherboard seem to be the major issues. The cover for the turbine and 
millrace had collapsed. However, it 
does not seem to effect the integrity of 
the building.
These are but a few of the old mills left in this area. There is not space to note all the “ghost mill” sites scattered around hidden by time. Remembering them spurs fond memories. Time and technology have overtaken the mills of the Northern Neck and Essex County. While driving the byways of the area, you may see an occasional foundation on the bank of a pond, an almost overgrown and covered millrace, or a place where a dam still holds the waters of the millpond. Many roads are named for the mills that used to be on them. Sadly, this industry has almost disappeared, and all that remains are the skeletons of a forgotten era.