Recreating a 19th Century Flour Mill

Antique roller mills and bran dusters used to bring century-old flour mill back to life

| January 2011

The flour mill was a fixture in most towns in America during the 19th century, with as many as 23,000 water- and steam-powered mills operating by the 1870s. The mill was where farmers took a portion of their wheat and corn crops to be ground into flour, and where local grocers bought 196-pound barrels or 100-pound sacks of flour for retail sale to their customers. 

While most small-town mills have vanished over the years, burned to the ground or abandoned to the elements, a few have been preserved to remind younger generations of the days before flour came in a paper 5-pound sack. One outstanding example is located on the grounds of Cottonwood Station, a living history recreation of an 1880s town established by the Meriden (Kan.) Antique Engine & Threshers Assn.

In 1998, club members Gary Bowen and Bob Hjetland set out to recreate a small commercial mill typical of those used in 1885. “We started out by visiting Dr. W. Dale Eustace, a professor at the Milling Science and Management Department of Grain Science and Industry at Kansas State University, who gave us an idea of the types of machines we’d need,” says Gary. “We also got a lot of information from the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM), and made several trips to tour a beautifully restored mill at Lindsborg, Kan.”

Next, Gary and Bob made a proposal to the Meriden club. The two men would track down, acquire at their own expense, restore and equip a mill with the proper equipment dating to the 1880s – if the club would construct a mill building. The members readily agreed, and the two ran an ad in Old Mill News (the official publication of SPOOM) seeking vintage roller mills, a stone mill and other equipment.

Equipping an 1885 mill 
The ad quickly produced results, and before long Gary and Bob headed for Brownstown, Ind., where they purchased three Nordyke Marmon & Co. roller mills, a Meadows 20-inch stone mill, three small metal swing sifters, a metal bran duster, a flour sacking machine and sack holder, a Nordyke Marmon differential reel, a Columbian governor and miscellaneous other equipment. “We rented a 24-foot truck,” Gary recalls, “and still ended up making two trips to haul everything home.

“We also got a call from Sammie Phillips in Willis, Va., who had some old machines from an 1800s water-turbine mill in Floyd County, Va.,” Gary adds. “Bob and I drove out, and with the help of Dennis and Dorothy Knudsen, members of our club, we came home with a Salem swing sifter large enough to handle five breaks (grindings), along with a Monitor wooden scouring machine, a wooden bran duster and a differential reel. Then we got a lead on a five-story mill in Nashville, Ill. While most of the machines were too large for our needs, we were able to acquire the line shafts from the third floor up, a large dust collector, and a Fairbanks barrel scale.”