Mill Enthusiasts - Featured Article
Reconstruction of an 18th Century Mill
H. Dabbs Woodfin, Ph. D.
In 1704 Nathaaniel and Mary Newlin built a grist mill in Concord township, the third water-powered mill built by his family along the West Branch of Chester Creek after their move to the area from Ireland in 1683. That mill operated through several changes of owners and under various names until, as the Concord Flour Mill, it ground commercially for the last time in 1941. After a stint as a book shop and an antique store, it was purchased by E. Mortimer Newlin in 1957. He created the Nicholas Newlin Foundation (named for Nathaniel's father, builder of the first two mills), for the purpose of restoring and maintaining the mill as a museum; by 1962, that restoration was completed. For thirty years, with occasional predictable repair and maintenance, the mill has served as intended.
During 1992, the trustees and staff of the Foundation undertook reconstruction of the Grist Mill - "reconstruction" in a double sense. The task was to dismantle the old inner structure for purposes of rebuilding it, and to gain some knowledge of the original building so that a model maker could reproduce the mill to scale.
An eighteenth-century mill typically consists of two parts, the waterworks and the building. The building can be envisioned as three fundamental entities, each of which may be referred to properly as a "mill." First, the building itself, in this case a free-standing heavy timber frame and stone structure, banked into a natural east-west ridge, houses the industrial parts. Second, the inner structure is also heavy timber-framed and is also virtually free-standing within the walls of the building. Third, there is the cleaning, grinding and sifting machinery which is housed in, and supported by, the aforementioned inner structure.
Aside from the mill itself, the mill race, pond and dam constitute the most visible remains of the eighteenth century community extant on the grant made by William Penn to Nicholas Newlin. Like the mill, they are visible clues to the past, but they present mysteries as well. During the past several years, severe summer droughts have brought operation of the mill to a halt for days at a time. The incomplete historical record provides no clue as to whether these shortages represent a recurring problem in the Chester Creek watershed, whether this is a phenomenon of our time, or whether there might be another explanation altogether.
It seemed reasonable to attempt to solve the immediate problem using the most direct approach possible: assume for the time that nothing has changed since 1704; how could the water system be made to work? Four projects provided the answer: 1) making level and patching the dam; 2) dredging portions of the millpond; 3) dredging the millrace; 4)rebuilding the locks and spillways along the race. The millrace now provides an ample supply of water, and in fact, provides enough to power the much more extensive machinery of the mill of the late nineteenth century even at the worst of the most severe drought we have experienced to date.
Our temporary assumption that nothing had changed since 1704 was simply a convenience. The dam and millpond area that exist now differ radically from the situation of 1704. Silting of the old millpond has claimed several acres; construction of the Octorara Railroad line and of South Cheyney Road through the property have certainly altered the course of the millrace. The topography of the site could provide an intriguing study for an archaeologist, since nothing was destroyed in the latest rebuilding -- all the clues are there, all the places that archaeologists might probe still exist.
The Interior Mill Structure
The heavy timber inner structure rests on the ground or on stone foundations separate from the walls of the outer building. Thus, vibration and other stress caused by operation of the mill machinery is transferred to the inner structure, its foundations, and ultimately to the ground, rather than to the outer shell of the mill building. Contact between the inner structure and the building is almost incidental; therefore, operation of the mill causes almost no damage to the mill building, but wear and tear to the supporting inner portions is continuous and cumulative.
Reconstruction of the inner frame involved: 1) fixing several tons of millling machinery in place by means of jacks, scaffolding and other temporary devices; 2) removing and replacing most of the existing structure, mainly materials from the ca. 1960 restoration project. This work uncovered some previously hidden and unexpected details of the original building which would alter the historical interpretation of the building.
Removal of the timber frame exposed the inner surface of the north wall (which was in 1704 an original outer wall), revealing two previusly unnoticed (or unnoted) features: first, a six feet plus high archway on the wall, only inches from the corner at the banked end; second, a rectangular recess in the same wall, aligned with a stone pier on the south wall opposite it. Discovery of these features compounded questions about other unexplained formations in that original room of the mill, and lead to considerable rethinking about plans for the model scheduled for the new exhibit which will open June 12, 1993. Archaelogists and persons familiar with other early mills viewed and discussed the sometimes elusive possibilities contained in the remaining structures. The drawings published here represent an attempt to consolidate the opinions of many people who viewed the reconstruction in its various phases; the drawings form part of the final plan for the model of the early mill, which will be on the grain floor of the present Mill.
H. Dabbs Woodfin is the Former Director of Newlin Grist Mill