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The Mills of Early America

June 2024
4min read

An artist recalls the picturesque devices that helped a young nation get ready for the age of machinery

While the antiquarian still coos over many a useless relic of the past, the American miller and his mill have often been forgotten. Like the farmer and the barn builder, his name is seldom recorded; but his place in the fabric of our history is distinct.


While the antiquarian still coos over many a useless relic of the past, the American miller and his mill have often been forgotten. Like the farmer and the barn builder, his name is seldom recorded; but his place in the fabric of our history is distinct.

The miller was America’s first industrial inventor. He was builder, banker, businessman and host to the countryside. When highways were no wider than today’s bridle paths, the first good roads were built to the mills. Where there was a mill site, there was a nucleus for a town. America had so many Millvilles, Milltowns, Milfords and other towns named after original mills, that the Post Office Department sponsored the changing of many such names to stop the confusion.

There are still abandoned millponds, forgotten mill roads and millstreams that wind through the “old sections” of cities. But the structure with its machinery, once the hub of the village, is usually lost in the oblivion of a vanished landscape.

Over a hundred years ago, roads were used for travel, but almost never for commercial transportation. Even to transport a simple wagonload of wood could cost more than the value of the load; to move salt from Long Island to Danbury, Connecticut, by horse, cost eight times its worth. In Philadelphia, coal shipped from Newcastle, England, cost less than coal hauled over the road from nearby Richmond, Virginia. Every small village had to depend upon itself for almost every necessity, and the mills were the answer. It would have a sawmill and a gristmill: there would also be mills for making cider, salt, flax, plaster, linseed oil, tobacco, barrel staves, axes, bone meal, mustard, and on down to smaller mills that turned out simple necessities of everyday life. In the hamlet of New Preston, Connecticut, there is still a water-powered sawmill. Its saws are actuated by a new turbine which operates underwater and therefore does not ice up the way its original water wheels did. The small stretch of waterway that feeds its turbine is no longer than you can walk in a minute or two, yet there were once about thirty mills on it, almost as many mills as there were residences.


People of today might think of the old-time miller as just another merchant. But if they could step inside an early water-wheeled mill and watch it at work, the miller might be added to their list of American greats. The ponderous wheels and massive gears spring to life with a surge of power that makes the mill house shudder, and which explains why early mills had hand-hewn beams of such tremendous proportions.

“Killed in his mill” was a frequent epitaph of two hundred years ago. The careless miller’s life was a short one, and whether he was lifted aloft and thrown from a windmill, whacked in the head by a spar or caught by his hand or clothing in the gigantic gears and ground up, his everyday work had to be as exacting and careful as that of an airplane pilot.

Millstones have a lore and language of their own. The runner stone turned above the fixed nether stone, and according to the dress of the run (pair), different consistencies of meal were ground. Because of the resemblance to plowed land, the millstone dresses, or pattern of cut grooves, were called the furrows, while the uncut area was called the land. The interesting patterns of millstone dresses are becoming lost records, yet many a Pennsylvania barn’s hex sign and farm wife’s patchwork quilt has been inspired by some favorite millstone design.

The first mills were hand-turned mortar and pestle arrangements. The first water-powered mill had no wheel; it consisted of a pounding mortar that was lifted upward by the weight of water running into a box on one end of a beam. When the box filled, it lowered and tipped itself, actuating the beam up and down ceaselessly and pounding a stone pestle into a hollowed tree mortar. Travelers could tell when they were nearing a village by the steady beat of these “plumping mills.”

We think of the windmill as being entirely Dutch, yet travelers from Holland were impressed by the windmills of New York. “As we sailed into the harbor,” wrote one Hollander, “the horizon was pierced by scores of windmills, taller than any we have seen elsewhere.” Sailing ships set their sails according to the position of windmills and Long Island ferries advertised “daily services except when the windmills on the opposite shore have taken in their sails.”


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.

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