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The Gristmills of the Spring Creek Watershed

The early economy of central Pennsylvania was closely tied to harnessing flowing water to power mills and forges. Gristmills, the focus of this report, use millstones to grind grain into flour that fed the people settling the Spring Creek Watershed. Even though the early industries, including flour milling, were very important to Centre County's inhabitants, little information about them remains. Perhaps these mills were taken for granted as they were replaced by more modern technology, and passed by with hardly a second glance. Or people were too busy trying to make a living to think about saving family or business records and documents and other information. Whatever the reason, there is very little information left to describe these water-powered grist mills, and what does remain is scattered about in many forms.  Other industries were important to Centre County; describing the history of those is left to another person or time. Those interested in this type of industrial history are encouraged to use this work as a starting point for further research and study, because history is never really completely documented. There is always another bit of information that can be found which will change some interpretation of history.

 

 The science of water power was in its early stages at the time Centre County was first settled in the late 1700s and early 1800s (Linn 1883, reproduction 1981). Oliver Evans, an inventor from Philadelphia, had just written a book (The Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide 1795) outlining how to build a mill, and he had included a number of labor saving devices that would allow one person to run the entire operation. He also was starting to study just what made a mill more efficient by applying the early stages of engineering to this work. Prior to Evans’ work, most mills were built based on a millright’s experience and what the millwright thought was the most efficient milling process. There were no blueprints, so each mill was unique and reflected the personality and education of the builder.

                                 Figure 1: Dam and Headrace

 

Water was harnessed in several ways to power these mills.  First, a dam was built across a stream and the water diverted through a race to a flume and then to a forebay (See Figure 1.)  The race typically was a dug channel leading from a creek or river to the mill, it may or may not have been lined with wood or stone and could be short or a mile or more in length. There may or may not have been a mill pond. The forebay, a box with a gate the miller could open to let water flow to the water wheel, allowed the miller to control the flow rate and thus the speed of the machinery inside the mill was controlled. Early mills used a wooden water wheel that had boards known as bucket boards that caught the water; the weight of the water turned the wheel. These water wheels could be over-shot, breast-shot, or under-shot (See Figure 2). More recently built or renovated mills used metal water wheels.

 

 

Water was harnessed in several ways to power these mills.  First, a dam was built across a stream and the water diverted through a race to a flume and then to a forebay (See Figure 1.)  The race typically was a dug channel leading from a creek or river to the mill, it may or may not have been lined with wood or stone and could be short or a mile or more in length. There may or may not have been a mill pond. The forebay, a box with a gate the miller could open to let water flow to the water wheel, allowed the miller to control the flow rate and thus the speed of the machinery inside the mill was controlled. Early mills used a wooden water wheel that had boards known as bucket boards that caught the water; the weight of the water turned the wheel. These water wheels could be over-shot, breast-shot, or under-shot (See Figure 2). More recently built or renovated mills used metal water wheels.

 Figure 2

 

An over-shot water wheel was the most efficient but required a large fall or drop in elevation of the water to obtain the required power and speed. The water flowing out from under the gate in the forebay strikes the bucket boards at the top of the water wheel and the weight of the water caught in the buckets turns the wheel. When the buckets reach the bottom, the water falls out and the empty bucket goes up the back side of the wheel to the top to start the process all over again. Over-shot water wheels vary in diameter from 8 feet to as much as 40 feet, and their width also varies, from one foot to 20 feet or more.

 

If there was not enough height to use an overshot wheel, a breast-shot wheel was employed whereby the water strikes the wheel near its axis. This is less efficient and therefore requires a greater flow of water.  Breast-shot wheels are not suited for smaller streams but they can be used where there is a larger flow of water but little drop.

 

If there was even less height or fall, then an under-shot wheel was used. In this system the water flows into the wheel at the bottom and strikes the bucket boards at the lowest point on the wheel. This is the least efficient and thus requires even more flow than the breast-shot wheel.

 

 

One other type of mill power system that deserves mention is the tub wheel (See Figure 3). This was a vertical axis device  the water flowed out of a trough into a tub with rotating paddles or blades. The water hitting the blades turned the power shaft. This type of mill power system may have been used in the earliest mills.

 

Figure 3 (left): Tub mill. Used in the earliest mills. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 1840, the turbine, which was built like a fan in the flow of the water, came into use. The water flowing past the blades makes them turn and produces power. There was a lot of controversy as to which was more efficient and many mills changed to turbines and some changed back. The Fitz Water Wheel Company in Hanover, Pennsylvania, built metal water wheels and claimed they were much more efficient than a turbine. At the same time a company in Ohio, Lueffel, built turbines and claimed they were more efficient than water wheels. Here again, it depended on the millwright or miller as to which ads were believed. Work was just starting on ways to measure the efficiencies of these devices.

 

Figure 4 (right):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early mills, grain was ground between two large stones. The top stone was called the runner stone since it was the one that turned. The bottom stone, the bed stone, did not turn. The top stone and the bed stone, together, are called a ‘run’ of stone.The top stone was supported by a vertical shaft that could be raised and lowered to change the distance between the stones and thus control the fineness of the flour. The stone was balanced on the tip of this shaft by a horseshoe shaped metal bar called the rynd. Grain was fed through a hole in the top stone from a hopper placed above the top stone; the rate of flow of the grain was controlled by the incline of a chute called the shoe. The grain was encouraged to wiggle down the chute by the tapping of a device, called a “damsel”, attached to the shaft turning the top stone. Once the grain was in the hole in the top stone, grooves chiseled into the faces of the two stones, combined with centrifugal force, moved the grain toward the outer edge of the stones, while the surface of the stones ground the grain to flour. At the perimeter of the stone the flour was swept around to a hole in the floor and fell into a chute and down to the collection point.

 

In the late 1800s, another process was developed where the grain was ground between a series of metal rollers. It was discovered that the oil in the grain, mostly in the germ, would cause the grain to stick to the rollers, thus rendering them useless. This lead to the process of removing the germ, and most of the food value. When the nutritional value of the germ was recognized, the germ was treated separately and added back into the flour. This process became popular as it was easier to get a fine flour valued for the delicate pastries it could produce, and it was easier to achieve a more consistent product with less work. Still later, steam, internal combustion engines and electric motors took over the work and water-powered mills became a thing of the past.

 

There were many ways to run a mill business, but basically there were two types, merchant mills and custom mills. A merchant mill was one where the miller bought a farmer’s grain and ground it into flour which the miller sold. In a custom mill, the miller took the farmer’s grain, ground it into flour and gave the flour back to the farmer. For the fee, the miller extracted a toll which was a small amount of flour that was measured in a toll box. The miller could use the toll for personal use or sell it to others.

 

Economically, gristmills were among the most important businesses in the region. In 1810 an assessment of industries in Centre County (A Series of Tables of the Several Branches of American Manufacturers, 1810) had the following listings of the number and value of the establishments:

 

  • 31-Wheat Mills valued at $226,560

  • 24-Distilleries valued at $22,795

  • 44-Blacksmith shops valued at $14,000

  • 45-Sawmills valued at $12,400.

 

About 100 years later, gristmills were still in operation, although their numbers had dwindled.  In 1912, the following businesses in the watershed were listed in a Northwestern Miller list (This was a yearly listing of all the grist and flour mills that advertised in the Northwestern Miller Magazine.):

 

The decline in the number of active gristmills in the Spring Creek Watershed reflects the shift from water-power to other forms of power generation, the movement of labor toward paid employment in manufacturing and away from farming, and the growing availability of food in local stores.

 

 

The Spring Creek watershed, at one time, was home to 19 gristmills, most of which were water-powered.  Only four of these mills still stand, in whole or in part. Some of the mill buildings that remain have been remodeled to serve other purposes.  The remainder of this report describes the gristmills of the Spring Creek Watershed in Centre County. The following mill descriptions are organized by the geographic location of the mills beginning with those farthest from Spring Creek, and listed by the smaller creeks that feed into Spring Creek.  In total, nineteen mills are shown on Map 1. The tributaries of Spring Creek are organized alphabetically in the text, with gristmills on each tributary listed beginning with those the farthest distance along the tributary from Spring Creek. The number of gristmills along each tributary is listed in parentheses following the name of the waterway.  A short description of each mill follows the listing of the tributaries and gristmills along each. In some cases, little is known about the mill or its operation. The tributaries feeding into Spring Creek are Big Hollow (1), Cedar Run (1), Logan Branch (5) and Slab Cabin (3). Nine additional gristmills were built along Spring Creek in Centre County.

 

 

Map 1: Map of mills in the Spring Creek Watershed 

 

BIG HOLLOW (1 mill)

 

Corl’s Mill.  Built in the early 1900s, this steam powered mill was located on West College Avenue west of Corl Street. It was operated by Harry Gill and later by John C. Corl. The property was sold to Eastern States Co-op in 1945. This mill no longer exists.

CEDAR RUN (1 mill)

 

Cedar Creek Mill.  The first mill on Cedar Run was built by John Irvin, a stone mason by trade. He was assessed with a mill in Potter Township in 1808. He still owned it in 1836 when Harris Township was established. Irvin died at Linden Hall in 1843. In 1850 the mill was purchased by the Meyer family and in the 1870's and 1880's was operated by the Meyer brothers, Jacob and Henry. Some of the millers through this period were George Meyer and his son A. Edward Meyer. Jacob Myers is listed as a miller in the 1860 Census for Harris Township. After Jacob's death in 1882 and Henry's in 1888, the Meyer's estate sold the property to A. E. Meyer. In the late 1890's, J. Hale Ross purchased the mill. In 1901 the mill burned shortly after the installation of the roller milling process. Ross rebuilt the mill and continued to operate it until 1928. In 1910, John Reifsnyder was the miller there. The last wheel was installed in 1919. It was made of steel and was 3 feet in diameter and 8 feet wide. The mill was torn down in 1939.

LOGAN BRANCH (5 mills)

 

Haag's Mill, Pleasant Gap.  This mill was located on Logan Branch near the intersection of Route 144 and Harrison Road in Pleasant Gap. The first available records show that it was operated by Gottlieb Haag, who also owned and operated the Bellefonte Hotel. This was a steam powered mill. It was advertised for sale in the Democratic Watchman in 1888. Haag sold it in 1901 to his adopted son, John C. Mulfinger, who operated the mill until his retirement in 1920. It was the site of a knitting mill between 1910 and 1920 and served as a school for a while, as well. It is still standing and now houses apartments. The date the mill was constructed is not known.

 

Logan Mill.  Martin Mease built a gristmill on Logan's branch in 1829. It passed to Christian Dale. There is still some evidence of the foundation of this mill on the fish hatchery grounds northwest of Pleasant Gap. The 1860 census for Benner Township lists a Washington Gairy as a miller. By the process of elimination, I think he was a miller at Logan Mill.

 

Humes Mill. In 1854 or 1856 Hamilton Humes & Son completed their mill, a stone flouring mill on Logan Branch upstream from Mann's Axe factory. It was later operated by E. C. Humes. The mill at first contained four runs of stones but later had only three. It was engaged exclusively in custom work. In the 1860 census for Spring Township, Henry Sampson is listed as a miller with Martin Botorff as a miller in the same household, probably as an apprentice. The mill was purchased in 1917 by W. S. White who still owned it in 1922 when it burned. It was never rebuilt after the fire.

 

C. Y. Wagner Mill. The large white cinderblock building standing along Route 144 between Bellefonte and Axemann was built in 1920 by C. Y. Wagner. He operated it as a flour mill until shortly before his death in 1963. This mill, near Logan Branch, was never water powered and still stands today.

 

Phoenix Flouring Mill. The first mill on this site near Bellefonte at the intersection of routes 144 and 26, was a two story stone mill built by James Harris in 1807. It burned on March 3, 1851. The ruins lay idle until 1861 when W. A. Reynolds bought and rebuilt the mill. The new mill used some of the old structure but was enlarged to four stories and fitted with five runs of stones.

 

The turbines from Phoenix Flouring Mill were used to pump water for the borough of Bellefonte. When the mill was torn down, the turbines were buried in the rubble. Since the borough was still using the Gamble Mill to pump water, someone realized that the turbines in the Phoenix Mill could be used as spares for the ones in the Gamble Mill, so they were dug out of the debris and preserved.

 

There is still some evidence of the dam, but the mill site has been filled in and is now occupied by service stations.

SLAB CABIN RUN (3 mills)

 

Shiffers Mill. The 1836 assessment for Harris Township lists Daniel Shiffer as owning a gristmill.  I believe this mill was located in Shingletown on Roaring Run, a tributary to Slab Cabin Run. It burned down in 1844 and was never rebuilt. It is not mentioned after this date.

 

Pine Grove Mills.  In 1791, Thomas Ferguson bought the John Webster warrant containing 321 acres from Samuel Wallis for 300 pounds. Around 1800, Ferguson built the first gristmill on Slab Cabin Run in what is now the village of Pine Grove Mills. Thomas Ferguson's name disappears from the assessment lists in 1804. John Barron built another mill on the site. The mill was advertised for sale in the June 13, 1833 issue of the Bellefonte Patriot and Farmer's Journal. The paper reported that the mill had been recently rebuilt by Jacob Bargstresser and had two pairs or runs of french buhr mill stones and one pair of "country" stones. It eventually was purchased by Joseph B. Ard, a doctor from Lewistown. On his death, it was willed to his sons J. B. and W. P. Ard.

 

In a letter dated February 2,1899, Sprout and Waldron, mill builders from Muncy, Pennsylvania, reported that they had removed a 30-foot diameter steel wheel and replaced it with an 8-inch turbine in this mill. They also installed 700 feet of pipe up to the dam which gave them a head of about 60 feet.

 

The rebuilt mill sold at sheriff’s sale in 1915 to David L. Kerr, who in that same year sold it to Ezra H. Auman. The mill burned on October 22, 1929 and was never rebuilt.

 

It stood on the south side of Route 45 and the north side of the road over the mountain to Stone Valley, near the gas station at the intersection of routes 26 and 45 in Pine Grove Mills.

 

Centre Furnace Mill. This mill was built prior to 1801 by John Miles. It appeared in the 1801 assessment of Ferguson Township under the name of James Newell. Newell was the manager, for John Miles, of the Centre Furnace properties. Newell left in 1804 to manage the properties near Milesburg. Assessments show the mill under various Miles names until 1827 when it is listed as being owned by Joseph Green and Company. In 1832, General Irvin, with his father, purchased Miles’ share of the furnace. In the 1836 assessment for Harris Township, Green, Irvin & Co. are assessed with a gristmill, sawmill and 430 acres of land.

The mill was owned for many years by Moses Thompson and later his son, James I. Thompson. The mill stopped operating as a gristmill in 1918. After 1922 the building was used to make ice and store beer. It was in the possession of William Hickey when it burned in February 1938.

 

The mill was located on the south side of College Avenue where Thompson Run crosses, near YBC building supplies. The race is still visible behind YBC and Blaise Alexander auto dealership.

SPRING CREEK (9 mills)

 

McFarlane Mill.  Michael Jack was assessed with a gristmill in 1791 in Potter Township.This site was near where Centre Estate Apartments is located, just east of Boalsburg along RT 322. There is a monument near the site. Samuel Wilson built a new mill on this site in 1828. The miller at McFarlane Mill in 1834 was John H. Smith. In 1872, William McFarlane bought the property from J. B. McWilliams. Frank McFarlane took over after his father's death in 1893. Little else is known about this mill.

 

Irvin’s Mills.  In 1805, George McCormick bought the Benjamin Bayless (Balefs) tract from the estate of Rueben Haines and built a mill on Spring Creek near Oak Hall. In 1811 he sold it to John Irvin. In 1822, James Irvin built a brick mill on the same site. The brick mill burned down in the 1880's. It was rebuilt as a wood or frame mill. After the mill closed, it fell into a state of disrepair. Clayton Etters owned and operated the mill for many years. It was purchased by Joe and Gloria Humphreys who, in 1961, removed the upper stories and turned the rest into a home.

 

Dale’s Mills. Christian Dale purchased 326 acres called "Bayless Adventure" from Rueben Hains by deed dated August 30, 1794, although there is some evidence that he bought it several years earlier. In 1796, Christian Dale erected a gristmill on Spring Creek between Lemont and Oak Hall on what is now Hansen Quarry. When Dale died in 1805, he willed the mill along with 50 acres to his son Felix. Felix died in 1833, and willed the property to his sons Felix and David. Felix sold his share to his brother making David the sole owner. Upon his death in 1854, David willed the mill to his sons who operated it under the name of Dale Brothers. They hired a miller or rented it out until 1864 when they converted it to a woolen mill. It was abandoned in 1881.

 

Houser's Mill.  Jacob Houser came to Centre County in 1788 and the following year erected a gristmill on the "Caleb Jones" warrant (a grant of title from the Pennsylvania state land office, see.www.phmc.pa.gov/Archives/research-Online/Pages/Land-Warrant-Applications.aspx) where Houserville is now. The mill burned in 1802. In 1836, his son Daniel rebuilt the mill. On Daniel's death, his son Jacob became owner. Jacob is shown as a miller in Harris Township in the 1860 census. (College township was not established until 1875.)

Jacob Houser got his millstones from an area on the south side of Nittany Mountain called "Raised Gap". These were cut from the sandstone formations there. The mill no longer exists; a house was built on the foundation of the mill.

 

Rock Mills.  General Phillip Benner bought three tracts of land known as the Rock Forge Tracts from Josiah Matlack in 1792. He erected a gristmill on the Binks tract between 1784 and 1801 as his name appears on the assessment list for Upper Bald Eagle township in 1801. This was a log gristmill which was near the upper forge. Later he built a stone gristmill about a half mile downstream from the log mill. When Phillip Benner died in 1832 he left the mill tract to his son, Phillip. Phillip’s (the son) estate sold it on his death and it was in dispute until 1848 when William Reynolds purchased the mill. Mr. Reynolds rebuilt the stone mill. On his death, it was willed to his son Fred Reynolds. It burned down in February 1898 and was never rebuilt. At the time of the fire, it was grinding feed for the Reynolds Farms and the mill was operated by C. Y. and Harry Wagner who had taken over from their father, Adam, upon his retirement. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission became owners of the property and built a fish hatchery on the location.

 

 

Brockerhoff Mill (left, figure 5).  One of Centre County's few remaining flouring mills is at Roopsburg, an area near the intersection of Route 550 and Seibert Road about a half mile southwest of Bellefonte.

 

The fine three story brick mill standing there was built by Henry Brockerhoff in 1862.

 

Henry purchased the property in 1847 at Sheriff's sale for $7,550 along with 235 acres.  It had four runs of stones and produced seventy-five barrels of flour daily. Henry died in 1878 and his sons took over operation of the mill doing custom and merchant milling.

 

William Kerlin was miller there as early as 1860, as his name appears in the census that year for Benner township along with Henry Stroub living in the same household. Kerlin was suceeded as miller by C. Y. Wagner and his brother Harry. The Wagner brothers were at Brockerhoff Mill from 1898 to 1917 when Harry retired and they sold the business.

 

Turner's Mill. In 1795, Daniel Turner erected 3 mills, a gristmill, a forge and a sawmill. These were located on Spring Creek about a mile upstream from Bellefonte. Sometime after 1801 the business failed and the works were sold to William Grant. The three mills were offered for sale in 1807 by Thomas Billington. Little else is know about these mills.

 

Gamble Mill (left, figure 6).  William Lamb built a gristmill in 1786 on Spring Creek at what became known as Lamb's crossing in Bellefonte. In 1800, James Smith, son-in-law to James Dunlop, built a new mill on the site. The first miller at this mill was Daniel Weaver. From 1810 to 1814, Hamilton Humes rented the mill. Various others owned it until 1834 when W. A. Thomas purchased it. In 1848, John M. Wagner came to Bellefonte as an apprentice to his brother D. M. Wagner and later succeeded him as principle miller at the mill until 1859 when John moved to Milesburg. He moved back to the Thomas mill in 1862 and formed a partnership with Sholl & Geberich known as Wagner, Sholl & Geberich. This firm continued to operate the mill until 1871 when the firm dissolved and John Wagner moved to Central City. In 1874, the mill was purchased by Duncan Hale & Co., comprised of William P. Duncan, E. W. Hale, and C. T. Gerberich. Mr. Gerberich was managing partner and, having taken milling lessons at Gamble Mill in 1854, he had the knowledge to serve as the miller, which he did beginning in 1864.

 

The mill was heavily damaged by a fire in the early morning hours of May 25, 1892. It was rebuilt by Mr. Gerberich and was back in operation in 1894.

 

The mill was sold by George M. Gamble to J.K. Ulsh and A.G.Bashoar who took over the mill’s operation on July 1 1923. The head miller at that time was a Mr. Hartranft. The new owners had recently sold their mill in Middleburg, Pennsylvania. They only had Gamble Mill about one year when they sold it to Frank M. Mayer on March 12,1924, in order to buy another larger mill in New York State.

 

Gamble Mill had five runs of stones and a seventy-five horsepower waterwheel. It produced up to 75 barrels of flour per day and ground from 40 to 50 thousand bushels of wheat annually.

 

Part of the mill was sold to Bellefonte so that the water power could be used to pump water for the city up to the reservoir on Halfmoon hill.

 

Greens Mill.  Before 1799, Joseph Miles erected a wooden gristmill on Spring Creek at Milesburg. It was replaced by a stone gristmill. Upon the death of Samuel Miles, heir to Joseph Miles, in 1805, the mill was willed to Thomas Potts. When he died, the mill was inherited by Frank Potts and Joseph Miles who built a brick mill on the site. Joseph Miles Green took charge in 1873. The mill burned on May 5, 1875 and was rebuilt. It was a three story building and had three runs of stones.

 

In 1809 David Ryman came to Milesburg to take charge of the operation of the stone mill built by Joseph Miles.  Ryman left to operate the Julian and then the Curtin mill but returned to the brick mill at Milesburg and worked there with his son Henry T. Ryman for 19 years. In 1859, John M. Wagner came from the Gamble Mill to operate the Green Mill until 1862 when he moved back to the Gamble Mill. The 1860 census lists as millers, Henry Ryman in Milesburg Borough and John Wagner with George Shull in the same household in Boggs Township. Henry T. Ryman continued to operate Green’s Mill at least until 1882.

 

Summary

 

The Spring Creek Watershed in Centre County has been home to 16 grist mills. From Gamble Mill, built in 1786, to C.Y.Wagners Mill, which operated until 1963, these gristmills were an important part of the local economy. A trip to the gristmill met an essential need, but also provided farmers and town-people, alike, an opportunity to visit and exchange information.  Little is known about most of these grist mills and information in publicly available records is limited. Perhaps family records had more detail, but these are generally unavailable, if they still exist. Much of this important local history has been forgotten. Despite this, if one looks carefully as they walk, fish or boat along the tributaries and main channel of Spring Creek, he or she might be rewarded with a glimpse of the past…the remains of mill dams and the races that carried water to power gristmills, and parts of foundations of mill buildings in ruins.   

 

Only three--Gamble Mill, Brockerhoff Mill, and C.Y. Wagner Mill--of the nineteen gristmills in the watershed, remain standing.  None of those that remain operate as grist mills; they have been converted to other uses more pertinent to modern lifestyles, or they sit vacant.

Robert McLaughlin has been researching Centre County’s grist mills, and grist mills around the country, for 30 years. He currently maintains the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM) list of mills in the US and Canada and in that role, also is a member of the Board of Directors of national SPOOM. He is a member of the board of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of SPOOM, and served as President of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of SPOOM from 2012 to 2016.

References

 

The Young Mill-Wrights and Miller’s Guide, Oliver Evans, 1850, 13th Edition, 1989 Reprint, Ayr Company, Publishers, Inc., Salem NH 03079

 

History of Centre and Clinton Counties, John Blair Linn, 1883, 1981 Reprint, Walsworth Publishing Company, Don Mills, Inc, Salem, WV 26426

 

 

 

 

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