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Early Mills in Southeast Ohio

Mills were so important in early Ohio history that there were well over a thousand grist mills in the Ohio country in the 19th century. By 1860 there were more than 1200 or these grist mills. These massive structures were framed with giant timbers from Ohio’s primeval forest.

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What is extremely common and likely taken for granted by millions of people on any given day in 21st Century America? How about a piece of bread? If there is not a loaf in the house, a quick run to one of multiple choices of nearby stores to grab a loaf easily solves that problem.

Consider the challenge of obtaining bread in the Ohio wilderness shortly after the earliest European settlements got underway. If you don’t have bread it could be a long process of acquiring it. Even if you have the grain, obtained only after months of planting, nurturing and harvesting, then you had to get it to a mill where it could be converted to flour. Then you can start the process of making and baking a loaf of bread on a day.

Mills were so important in early Ohio history that there were well over a thousand grist mills in the Ohio country in the 19th century. By 1860 there were more than 1200 or these grist mills. These massive structures were framed with giant timbers from Ohio’s primeval forest. Nearly every stream had a mill – or two. Getting a large mill constructed along a stream was no small task either. Harvesting colossal trees and erecting a timber frame building, often three or four stories high was a challenge. Constructing a water wheel and all of the associated gear works and a sluice to direct the water to that wheel were a combination of art, craft, and science. And then there was the matter of obtaining, transporting, and installing the buhr stones that were to grind the grains to flour. Many of these grindstones had to be shipped to Ohio. 

Much of Ohio’s bedrock was unsuited for the grindstones used in flouring mills. Limestone and sandstone are more likely to be used as grindstones for sharpening tools. As Ohio developed large numbers of such grindstones were shipped into growing urban centers and assembled in long rows in factories where they manufactured and sharpened the edges of farm equipment for rural residents who tilled the soil. But much of the sedimentary rock from Ohio’s bedrock was coarse grained and would leave too much fine rock material and small pieces of quartz in the flour – and that would make bread eaters very unhappy. Although Ohio chert, Berea sandstone, and some glacial boulders proved suitable, many grist mills relied on chert buhr stones shipped into Ohio from Pennsylvania, New England, and France. Granitic buhr stones were used as well.

The first mill in Ohio was on Wolf Creek in Washington County, a tributary of the Muskingum River upstream fifteen miles from Ohio’s first settlement in Marietta.  In 1789, in company with Maj. Haffield White and Capt. John Dodge, both Massachusetts men, Col. Robert Oliver erected a saw mill and grist-mill on Wolf creek, in Waterford, about a mile from its mouth at the Muskingum. These were the first mills ever built in the present state of Ohio. 

Wolf Creek Mill was the first mill in the Ohio country, constructed along Wolf Creek, a tributary of the Muskingum River 15 miles upstream from Marietta, the territory’s first settlement. Built in 1789, the Wolf Creek Mill was a combination of a saw mill and a grist mill, serving the pioneer farmers 15 years before Ohio became a state (Image: Historical Collections of Ohio by Henry Howe, 1886).

In 1791 fear of their Native American neighbors caused Jonathon Devol, of Washington County, to construct a floating flour mill on the Ohio River off shore from an early settlement called Farmer’s Castle, a defensive fortification, located about 15 miles downstream from Marietta.

Farmer’s Castle was a settlement inside a defensive fortification for settlers of the Ohio Company of Associates on the Ohio River across from the mouth of the Little Kanawha River. Pioneer farmers left Campus Martius after the first year of settlement and in April 1789 relocated 15 miles downstream. Thirteen blockhouses were occupied and a floating mill was built offshore in 1791. The farmers dwelling in this settlement called it Belle-Prairie. It became today’s Belpre, Ohio.

A larger boat, about 40 feet long and 10 feet wide supported a frame building where the gears and millstones were held. A smaller boat of 5 to 7 feet in length made from a large hollow sycamore tree, was joined with heavy planks keeping the two boats about 8 feet apart. The smaller boat, shaped like a dugout canoe or piroque, helped support the waterwheel which took advantage of the natural flow of the current flowing between the two connected vessels. An anchor, connected to the larger craft by a chain, was made of logs and filled with stones was used to keep the floating mill in place off shore. A grape vine was used to hold the smaller boat to the anchor. The varying current allowed the mill to grind between 25 and 50 bushels in a day.

One of two floating mills built by Jonathon Devol of Washington County. He built one on the Ohio River just offshore from the defensive fortification of Farmer’s Castle (early Belpre) in 1791 and another on the Muskingum Rive near the fortress settlement of Campus Martius (Marietta) in 1795.   

Captain Devol built a second floating mill 5 years later on the Muskingum River near Marietta opposite Campus Martius, another defensive settlement established a few years earlier, in 1788, near the confluence of that great stream with the Ohio River.

Sketch of a floating mill with two boats acting as a pontoon. The larger boat supported a frame building that houses the gears and the millstones. The smaller boat, similar to a canoe, was attached by heavy planks to maintain a separation distance and help support a waterwheel in between. The current turned the wheel and the gears attached turned the millstones. To stop the milling a wide plank was pushed down into the current like a gate

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Rock Mill, built in 1824, replaced an earlier combined saw mill and grist mill structure built on a 40 foot cliff overlooking the upper falls of the Hockhocking River in 1799. It was one of more than a dozen grist mills that derived its power from the current of the Hockhocking River in the 19th century. Rock Mill, a five story structure, stood on the cliff above the 26 foot diameter waterwheel. The timber framed mill was built with hand-hewn timbers fastened together with mortise and tenon joints held by wooden pegs.

Rock Mill was built on a cliff 40 feet above the upper falls of the Hockhocking River in 1824. A timber framed five story structure housed the buhr stones that were turned by the water directed through a millrace cut through bedrock and directed over the top of the twenty five foot in diameter overshot waterwheel – the largest of its kind built in Ohio. Note three men in image near center of the waterwheel.

Rock Mill was powered by water from the upper Hockhocking, directed through a millrace cut 18 feet deep, 30 feet long, and 3 feet wide through intervening bedrock into a wooden trough, that conveyed the water the rest of the way to the overshot waterwheel used to turn the grindstones.

By the late 1800s there were lots of mills lining Ohio’s streams including saw mills, textile mills, and paper mills. But the grist mill was of utmost importance to Ohio’s farmers. While grain was ground farmers gathered and shared the news as they hung around these noisy, vibrating water-powered grist mills. By 1840 there were more than 50,000 water-powered mills in the United States. Many were saw mills, textile mills and, by the late 1800s paper mills. But, there is no denying the importance of the abundance of grist mills in Ohio’s early settlement landscape. All for a slice of bread!

Most of the mills and all of the forest materials that comprised them are long gone. Demolition by neglect, fire, and flood took most of them. A few remain on Ohio’s streams. One of them is the 200 year old Rock Mill

Robert and Rita Stebelton donated the Rock Mill to the Fairfield County Park District in 2003. Extensive archeological excavation led to the discovery of the original mill stones, Fairfield County Historical Parks District embarked on a labor and money intensive effort to restore Rock Mill. Private donations, government funding local taxes, and grants came together for the future of this piece of the past. In 2017 the buhr stone began turning and converting corn to corn meal again for the first time in more than a century! People from far and wide visit to see the mill in action and experience some of the smells, and tastes, and sounds, and vibrations of a common and essential part of Ohio’s history.