Antique roller mills and bran dusters used to bring century-old flour mill back to life
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.”
Over the next two years, Bob and Gary began disassembling and restoring their acquisitions, and Bob (a mechanical engineer) drew plans for a typical mill from the mid-1880s. Concrete was poured in 1999; by 2002, construction was complete on a 3-1/2-story, 25- by 30-foot mill. The entire structure, featuring oak framing and cottonwood siding, is built of lumber sawn on the grounds. A 25-foot line shaft was installed on each floor (including the basement). Each shaft is operated with flat belts that can be powered by horses, a steam engine, tractor or electric engine.
Flour milling was (and still is) a five-step process that begins with the receiving and storage of whole grain. The grain is then moved through a cleaning process to remove stones, sticks, dirt and debris. In a modern mill, the grain also goes through a tempering process to control the moisture content before it is milled.
The flour milling process began with the break system, using roller or stone mills to break down the grain into components. The rolls in the roller mill run in opposing directions at different speeds, and are designed to break the kernel open. A sifter/bolter is then used to separate the endosperm from the bran and germ.
The reduction system consists of a sequential series of roller mills and sifters used to reduce the endosperm to flour. The Cottonwood Station Mill is designed to run the endosperm through four breaks, but in a modern flour mill the process may be repeated as many as 11 times. As the bran is separated from the endosperm, it is sent to a bran-sacking machine and sold as animal feed.
Varied functions on every floor
The Cottonwood Station Mill represents a small commercial mill capable of producing up to 50 196-pound barrels of flour in a 24-hour day. Storage bins are housed on the third floor, where an auger delivers grain from the unloading dump. Hanging from the ceiling on wooden reeds is a Salem rotary sifter/bolter with five separate compartments, each containing four sifting screens. The sifter/bolter, which screens and grades flour or meal, came from Virginia. It dates to the days when the Salem Foundry & Machine Works first began producing sifting machines.
On the second floor, wheat is run through a scouring cleaner to clean and grade it, and then through a cast iron drum designed to break loose remaining dirt or loose bran. A mixer was used to add bleaching agents, vitamins and minerals to the flour; a bran duster used brushes and a cone-shaped sieve to dust off the bran.
The second floor also houses an 1880s vintage dust collector found in Illinois. Bob explains it as a giant vacuum cleaner with a fan that pulls a light draft over the mills on the lower levels. The draft prevents potentially explosive dust from escaping the mill housings. “This particular dust collector included 460 cotton socks to trap the dust and dirt,” he notes. “Luckily, they’d all been stored in sealed tin barrels with mothballs, so we thought we’d died and gone to heaven when we found them intact.”
Nordyke Marmon roller mills
The milling equipment is located on the mill’s ground floor. It includes two Nordyke Marmon “Mae West” roller mills built in Indianapolis between 1885 and 1889; a Nordyke Marmon 3-pair high roller mill built prior to 1880 and designed for milling corn; and a Starr 30-inch stone mill built prior to the Civil War.
Founded in 1851, Nordyke Marmon was a leading manufacturer of flour milling equipment. Gary says the company would sell and ship an entire mill, complete with a steam engine, for about $10,000 (about $250,000 in today’s terms). Bob, who has an original copy of a Nordyke Marmon catalog, says the company’s literature even included descriptions and dimensions for a typical mill building. In 1902, Nordyke Marmon formed the Marmon Motor Car Co., and began producing speedy, upscale cars featuring such innovations as the first rear-view mirror, use of aluminum in auto manufacturing and a pioneering V-16 engine.
The Starr stone mill, which Bob believes dates to as early as 1850, was also referred to as a plantation mill. He says it was the first form of mechanical milling and was used until roller mills were invented.
Displayed out front of the mill is an Allis-brand sieve purifier, which Phil Robertson, donor of the machine, says is just one serial number different from a restored model on display at the Smithsonian Institution. “The name on it is Allis, but I can’t say it had Chalmers on the end of it, because Allis and Chalmers weren’t connected yet,” Gary explains. “We found this poor thing sitting outdoors in Indiana, and when we found Phil was planning to junk it, we told him we’d take it.”
Also sitting on the front porch is a restored 20-inch stone mill built in 1941 by Meadows Mills, Inc. After 108 years in business, Meadows Mills still manufactures and sells stone burr mills, sawmills and hammer mills from its headquarters in North Wilkesboro, N.C.
Preserving the past
Today, Gary and Bob gladly provide tours of the Cottonwood Station flour mill on request. Otherwise, the mill is operated only during the club’s annual Antique Engine and Threshing Show (starting the third Friday in July), the Fall Festival and Swap Meet each September and school tours.
“The first two or three years after we got the mill complete, we’d run both the roller mills and the stone mill and sell flour and corn meal,” says Gary. “But after we found ourselves spending more time cleaning the equipment than running it, we stopped making retail sales, and now we just give short, informative demonstrations.”
While Gary and Bob have acquired other milling equipment, such as a bran packer and auger used to pack bran into gunny sacks for livestock feed, there’s still one treasure they hope to acquire. “We’d love to find an authentic line shaft speed indicator,” says Gary. “It was a device used on waterwheel mills that had a bell that alerted the mill man when the flow of water through the race gate had reached the correct speed. Those things were made of brass, and they make beautiful wall ornaments, so they’re very hard to find.” FC
For more information:
Meriden Antique Engine & Threshers Assn., online at www.meridenthreshers.org.
Gary Bowen, (785) 484-3705; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM), (703) 759-2626; e-mail: email@example.com; online at www.SPOOM.org.
Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.