- Historic Sites
The Mills of Early America
An artist recalls the picturesque devices that helped a young nation get ready for the age of machinery
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
The Dutch erected windmills in Manhattan in 1640 and the idea spread to Long Island, where the mills pumped sea water into large vats for the manufacture of salt. Although wind-powered mills were designed for riverless areas, they had an advantage over water-wheeled mills in that they did not freeze. During the great cold winters of early New England days, the water wheels were often frozen solid for months.
Except for a few restored or ornamental examples, time has run out on the American windmill. But the water-wheeled mill still turns in many a hidden glen throughout the country, grinding meal and doing other chores, just as if progress had never come through the land. City folks drive long distances to see these mills and to pay fancy prices for stone-ground corn meal, but few realize they are purchasing more than quaintness. The country people know that the best corn bread only comes from a water-powered burrstone mill, where the meal has absorbed the dampness of the mill site and has not been scorched by fastmoving machinery. When the meal is fresh from the slow-turning stones, “as warm as from the underside of a settin’ hen,” it makes bread the country way.
Nearly all the early water wheels were variations of three basic designs: the overshot wheel, the undershot wheel and the breast wheel. The overshot wheel was fed from above, and the weight of falling water gave it the most efficiency. The undershot wheel was moved by the velocity and mass of a moving stream; the breast wheel was fed from the middle section, often by tidewater. There were bucket wheels and tub wheels and countless inventions of the American mind, but these three designs, hewn from native timber, have become Americana despite earlier overseas models. From their pattern has evolved the industrial machinery that electricity now actuates and even in the jet airplane engine you may find early mill theories put to use.
When steam power took over, the mill had reached its Rube Goldberg age, and even the smallest farm owned treadmill machines where oxen and horses and even dogs churned butter, sawed logs and ground out linseed oil for barn paint. Even the spit in the fireplace was turned by a dog or a tame squirrel in a treadmill cage. Wherever animals, wind or water could make chores simpler, the American mind enjoyed the spectacle.