Watt’s Mill near where I grew up in South Beaver Township, Beaver County, Pa., was a classic example of a grist mill. The mill was built in 1798 and operated continuously until it burned on Jan. 14, 1916. Frank Steele, who grew up in the area during the early part of the century, recorded the following recollections of Watt’s Mill:
“In the winter of 1912, my father and I went to Watt’s Mill with 10 bushels of buckwheat and two bushels of corn to get ground. (We had) to go down to the Little Beaver Creek, which we had to ford. The horses did not want to cross as the water was real deep, about two inches from the bottom of the spring wagon. Tom Watt and his brother Jim operated the mill. They also had a sawmill (although) I never saw it in operation.
“They would not grind buckwheat when the weather was damp, as the buckwheat would not grind well on a damp day. They did not like to change from grinding buckwheat to corn, as they had to operate the mill (empty) a short time to get it cleaned out.
“Stone grinding wheels were used, turned by a water wheel laid on its side, called a tub wheel. They let the water wheel operate continuously in real cold weather so it would not freeze. In winter there would be pieces of ice come through the water wheel. It would sound like a lot of glass being broken, (or) a bunch of rocks in the wheel.
“The door of the mill was higher than the wagons, (so) they had a plank to leave down to the bottom of the wagon. You would fasten a rope around two or three sacks of grain and they would pull the sacks up the plank to the mill floor. The rope was fastened to a revolving shaft operated by the water wheel.
“The Watts brothers would take part of the flour as toll. I believe it was one eighth. They would rather have flour than cash, as there was a great demand for the flour.
“Mr. Jim Watt told us about being to the Klondyke (sic) gold rush in Alaska (and) showed us the gold watch and chain made from the gold he had panned. He smoked a corncob pipe (and) would reach in one chute where the buckwheat hulls came down from the screen and filled his pipe with hulls and smoked it. It did not smell very good to me.
“In 1915, Frosty Cook and I would take 15 bushels of buckwheat and two bushels of corn in the sled and we had to leave it because there was so many grists ahead of us. We would go back in a week taking 15 bushels more. That year my father raised 120 bushels (of buckwheat). He sold the flour in Beaver Falls at the Grand Hotel (and) also at a lot of restaurants. We would have buckwheat cakes every breakfast and mush fried every weekend.”
The old mills were still important even into the 20th century. A few scattered around the country are operated as part of various festivals and celebrations. You should visit one of these if you get a chance; they’re quite interesting. FC
For more on grist mills, read Oliver Evans' Improved Grist Mill from the May 2011 issue.