By Hannah Thompson, OCJ staff writer
Not many would argue with the fact that farmers today face many challenges. From the weather to the markets, farming is an occupation that requires a level of tenacity and willingness to face uncertainty.
Farmers in Fairfield County circa 1799 had their own challenge to face. Transporting their grain 100 to 150 miles in wagons over rough roads was proving to be of great difficulty, and many families were leaving the area to move closer to where they could market their corn and wheat.
Hezekiah Smith and Joseph Loveland saw a great opportunity in this challenge, and thus built the first gristmill in the county on the upper falls of the Hocking River.
“The advent of the first mills really opened the county up, and other farmers then followed and established the great farms that are still a large part of the economy in this county,” said David Fey, director, Fairfield County Historical Association.
Today, visitors have the opportunity to view central Ohio’s history and agricultural roots at Rock Mill, located in Bloom Township. Though the original mill constructed in 1799 was destroyed in a flood in 1820, one was
constructed in its place in 1824 and remains standing today as the oldest and largest gristmill in Ohio.
The area turned out to be an ideal location to harness the power of water to turn raw materials into finished products, and soon there were 13 other mills within a mile radius around Rock Mill, Fey said. These mills included spinning mills, wool mills, sawmills, and gristmills.
The mill, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places, was used to grind corn into meal and wheat into flour for farmers in the area until 1907 when it ceased operation. The mill has six floors because it was originally designed to be both a grist and woolen mill, though, the equipment to process wool was never added.
After closing, Rock Mill sat vacant for nearly 100 years until it was donated to the Fairfield County Historical Parks Commission in 2003. When the Historical Parks levy passed in November of last year, restoration of the exterior and interior of the mill began. In March, workers removed the steel cables that kept the mill from leaning further into the gorge on which it sat, allowing the mill to stand on its own again.
“What we’re trying to do is go back to the times that were critical to the settling and development of Fairfield County,” Fey said.
One of the biggest renovation projects for the mill was the installation of a new white oak waterwheel, completed last month. The waterwheel weighs in at 19,000 pounds and is 26 feet in diameter, making it the largest all-wooden water wheel in the United States, Fey said.
“The wheel was fabricated in Virginia by one of only four millwrights in the country,” Fey said. “In order to find beams of white oak the right size to make the wheel and trestle, we had to go to the U.S. Naval shipyard in Connecticut, where they stockpile materials to repair old sailing vessels.”
The original mill was powered by a waterwheel until the late 1890s, when the wheel was replaced by a combination of steam engine and water turbine in an attempt to increase efficiency. When the mill closed, it was powered entirely by steam and hadn’t seen a waterwheel for quite some time, Fey said.
“The mill was a huge operation, putting out 300 pounds of flour an hour and almost the same amount of meal, a large amount for that time,” Fey said. “To also have a fulling mill is pretty rare. There are only remnants of four fulling mills left in the country.”
Fulling, similar to felting in cotton, refers to the process of cleansing cloth to remove dirt, oils and impurities and to make it thicker. To complete this process, workers relied on an interesting byproduct that they obtained from the Blue Ball Tavern, which sold alcohol produced by a distillery that used grain from the mill.
“They would collect buckets of human urine from the tavern and go back and dump it onto the woolen cloth along with soap. Then, they would use paddles powered by the waterwheel to move the cloth back and forth in this solution overnight, which would chemically break down some of the fibers of that wool and soften it,” Fey said.
The cloth would next be rinsed with spring water and finally made into clothing.
Eventually, the Historical Association hopes to put the fulling mill back into operation, complete with some power weaving and spinning equipment that would also have been in the mill during that period.
“They were playing into the needs of the agricultural industry in two ways; not only the grain farmers, but those who raised sheep for wool as well,” Fey said. “The mill definitely played a huge role in helping the farmers get their labor to market and turn it into things that could be used.”
As renovations continue on the site, Fey says the goal is to restore it to a functioning mill, where a farmer could bring his or her corn or wheat to be processed. Fey encourages farmers and others interested in Ohio’s agricultural history to visit Rock Mill and other similar sites to fully experience the industry’s past.
“We need to have things like this around instead of just historical markers that say ‘here once stood…’ To me, it’s far better to experience some of these early facilities rather than just read about them. You’re impacting all of the senses when you walk into a mill that’s in operation: you’re going to feel it, you’re going to smell the flour dust in the air, you’re going to taste that flour, you’re going to hear it, and you’re going to see it,” Fey said.
The Fairfield County Historical Society will be hosting a Christmas Open House at Rock Mill on December 9. More information on the mill and upcoming events can be found on the Society’s website at www.historicalparks.org.
Ohio is home to several other mills where visitors can take a look at the past. Indian Mill, located in Upper Sandusky on the Sandusky River, was built in 1820 and is the nation’s first educational museum devoted to the milling process. Indian Mill is owned by the Ohio Historical Society and is open for tours through the end of October.
Bear’s Mill in Greenville, one of the few operating water-powered mills left in the state, still produces flours and meals today and sells these products in the on-site Mill Market. The mill also features the Mill Gallery, where displays of paintings, sculptures, and photography of Ohio Valley artists can be viewed and hand-made pottery is available for purchase. Bear’s Mill is open for tours year-round.
Clifton Mill in Clifton boasts not only a historical site with great views, but a restaurant and gift shop as well. Throughout the year the mill hosts events such as car shows, beer tasting, and the Legendary Lights at Clifton Mill during the holidays.
Most parts of the state are only a short drive from one of Ohio’s collection of historic mills. These locations allow families an ideal respite from the challenges of modern agriculture to enjoy the beautiful fall weather while learning more about the struggles and accomplishments of our ancestors.