War History Hidden in Mills

The Arlington Mill of northern Virginia is finally on the map, thanks to a group of Civil War enthusiasts who convinced the county board to erect a trail sign commemorating a June 1861 skirmish. Although this early engagement was short-lived, it proved to the Federal government how vulnerable the U.S. Capital was, and Union forts were constructed all around Washington City as a result.

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On Veteran’s Day 2017, a Civil War Trails sign unveiling ceremony began with a presentation of colors by members of the Army of the Potomac Living History Society, accompanied by fife and drummers from the Union Army Honor Guard. In attendance were Virginia State Delegate Alfonso Lopez, County Board Member John Vihstadt, local historian Beth DeFrancis Sun, and keynote speaker Peter Vaselopulos, who helped spearhead the project and produced a short companion film titled Skirmish at Arlington Mills.

During times of war, the mills of the Mid-Atlantic took on special significance. They either helped or hindered armies and often played a role in battle strategy. Many mills served as military staging grounds, hosted hungry troops, or/and served as post-battle hospitals. Millers in southern Pennsylvania helped feed General Braddock’s army during the French Indian Wars, while others sustained George Washington’s troops throughout the American Revolution. During the Civil War, southern mills that were believed to be assisting rebel forces were often wrecked. Many were burned, others taken apart plank by plank. The recycled wood was used to kindle warmth, stoke bonfires, or create make-shift shelters.


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America’s missing mill patents, 1790-1836

When Blodgett’s Hotel caught fire on a mid-December morning in 1836, the firehouse on the same block was ill prepared to extinguish it.  Although it housed a pump engine with 1,000 feet of riveted leather hose, the volunteer firefighters had long disbanded, and the company’s hose had disintegrated to the point of uselessness. The Washington, D.C. bystanders helped form a bucket brigade, but flames were already spewing from the first-floor windows by the time backup engines arrived.


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By the time the fire was doused, every sheet of paper and 3-dimensional model lie in ruins.  Every American patent ever issued, together with the models kept in the garret, were gone. The temporary housing facility, intended to protect the patents until a fire-resistant building could be erected, had failed to safeguard the country’s earliest patents of invention.

Upwards of 9,000 original drawings, 7,000 3-D models, and 168 folio volumes of records were among the casualties, which included national treasures such as Oliver Evans’ automated flour-mill patent (issued in 1790) and Robert Fulton’s original bound folio of full-color steamboat drawings, rendered in his own hand.

Recovery of what came to be called the “X patents” proved to be a messy undertaking with bits and pieces showing up (or not) over time.  Of the nearly 10,000 patents issued prior to the fire, fewer than 3,000 have since been restored.  Among the “survivors” are about 100 patents directly related to mills — including millstone carving, water wheel design, mill dams, and the construction of grist, tide, saw, wind, and cider mills. What remain missing, however, are more than 500 additional patents related to early American mills. Practical patents for millwrights such as the “saw set for mills” (patented 1832), the “framework of mills” (patented 1834), and the “wheelwright labor sav’g machine (patented in 1810) simply vanished for good in the great smoke billows rising up over Blogett’s.

Selected Resources:

Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents

Hagley Museum American Patent Models

List of Patents for Invention & Designs 1790-1847 [Washington, J. & G. S. Gideon, 1847

Patents for Inventions, by subject, 1790-1873, inclusive

Patents restored after the fire of 1836

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Patent and Full-Text database


Patent 9292H mill bolt (fractional 1:2)

How to “date” a mill timber

Deciphering timber surface marks to help determine the age of a mill

In the absence of primary source historical records such as maps, deeds, land surveys etc., architectural historians and preservationists often use physical evidence in a building’s construction materials to determine its date of construction. In the case of a timber-framed mill, the timbers themselves provide clues. Since the technology of producing lumber from trees has evolved over the centuries, it is possible to narrow the time period of timber production based on evidence found on the surfaces of the lumber.

The earliest method of producing dimensional lumber, generally from the 1600’s up until the mid-1700’s, was hand-hewing.  This involved chopping off the bark and sides of a log with an ax to create a roughly planar surface, then smoothing further with an adz or draw-knife.  This was done on two sides to create log joists, or on all four sides to make a rectangular timber.

Simplified drawings of the hand-hewing, pit-sawing and sash sawing techniques, by Eric Sloan (1905-1985):

Hand-hewing remained in practice well into the later period of sawing methods because it allowed for longer timber lengths. A long, straight tree trunk could be worked by hand into a timber beam, 30 feet longer or more.  Most sawing methods limited the timber lengths that could be produced to the length of a mechanized sawmill shed itself.  The visible evidence on hand-hewn beams is the chop marks of the ax, and the slice-marks of the draw-knife, on its surfaces. (1600’s to 1750 and later)

The earliest method of timber sawing was “pit sawing,” which was used from circa the mid-1700’s to 1800 or later.  A long trench or “pit” was dug in the ground, deeper than a man’s height, and saw horses were placed spanning across it, where the log was clamped on them.  One man walked in the pit, with another man above, and they used a double handled saw to push and pull the saw through the log to produce a timber. Imagine what a nasty job it was to be the “pit-man”.  I hope that they traded places often!  The physical evidence on pit-sawn lumber is the random angled saw-marks with no uniformity, on the surfaces of the sides. (Circa 1750 to 1800 and later)

From the late 1700’s to circa 1850, most mechanically-sawn construction lumber was produced by a water-driven straight saw blade, mounted vertically in the center of a wooden rectangular frame similar to a window sash.  A gear with cogs moved the log forward on rails on the floor, in equal steps, while the sash saw slid up and down in the same coordinated steps, cutting on both the up and down strokes. The resulting saw marks, which date this method, are vertical lines on the faces of the timbers, equal distances apart (usually about ¼” apart). These are typically called “water-sawn” or “sash-sawn” timbers and joists. (Circa 1780 to mid-1800’s)

The method of circular sawing began post-1850, initially water driven and later steam-engine driven.  In this method, a circular blade of about 3-feet diameter was rotated by the power source to cut through a log as it moved steadily along rails. The physical evidence of this method is concentric circular lines on the timber faces. (1850 to 1900 and later)

So, the manufacturing date of dimensional lumber, and therefore roughly the date of a building, can be narrowed down to one of these approximately 50-year periods of sawing methods, based on the observation of saw-marks.  However, due to the slow change in the technology in some regions, there could be an overlap in the sawing methods of lumber for up to a quarter of a century (25 years).  It is often possible to see dimensional lumber from two or more of these periods of cutting methods in the same structure, also due to the recycling of earlier timbers from former structures.  Thriftiness was a common practice of early Americans!

By Daniel T. Campbell, AIA, Preservation Architect, Chester County, PA  www.danielcampbellarcht.com



Captured on camera during the Civil War


The war-wrecked Arlington Mill Courtesy of the Civil War Collection, Photography Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The use of photography during the Civil War provides primary-source evidence of many a war-wrecked mill. In addition to the iconic silver print of the ravaged brick walls of the Gallego Flour Mills in Richmond, time has also preserved this rare still-frame photo of the old Arlington Mill.

Built in 1836 by George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, the mill was destroyed by Union troops after the Second Battle of Bull Run, who then used the planks to construct make-shift shelters. For additional photos of mills taken during the War between the North and South, see the Library of Congress Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints collection. Included are Civil War images of Gaines’ Mill, Union Mills, and Jericho Mills of Virginia.

Filling in the Missing Mills on the SPOOM Mid Atlantic Map

Mills in the mid-atlantic

The SPOOM Mid Atlantic Historic Mills Map pinpoints 4,000 mills, mill sites, and ruins in the states of Pennsylvania (2,985) Virginia (508), Maryland (503), Delaware (101), and the District of Columbia (5).  Included in the data are the latitude and longitude of the mill or mill site, the name of the mill, and the source of the information.  If you’re interested in visiting any of the sites, you can easily sort the online data by state, region, county, or town/city.

Since mills were once commonplace in the Mid-Atlantic region (not unlike today’s Seven-Elevens, where it seems there’s one around every corner), it’s not unusual to stumble upon one that has not yet made it onto the map.  If you do happen to come across one of these unmapped mills, please be sure to let SPOOM Mid Atlantic know of its whereabouts!  You can use the Mill Survey Form to report the address and map/GPS coordinates (where known). If possible, also provide the name of the mill, the”type”(whether grist, flour, saw, textile, or other); the power supply (water wheel, wind, electric, or other); and the condition of the mill. This information will be used to update the SPOOM Mid Atlantic’s mill records and uploaded to the Google Fusion Tables. Refer to the organization’s website for additional information on the SPOOM mill lists

Happy mill sleuthing!

The burning of the Shenandoah Valley

The burning

Custer’s Division Retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, October 7, 1864, by Alfred R Waud. Library of Congress

In the late autumn of 1864, Union troops marched through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, burning up the “breadbasket” region that helped feed and fuel the Confederate foe. The Burning Raid — carried out under order of General Philip H. Sheridan and endorsed by General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant — extended nearly 140 miles from north to south between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. Rich in bountiful wheat harvests and mechanical reapers that helped keep the southern flour mills in business, the Union commanders perceived this agricultural area to be a particular threat to the North’s victory.

According to The War of the Rebellion (the official records of both Union and Confederate armies), the Burning Raid resulted in the destruction of 70 mills full of flour and wheat, and 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming equipment. Even more mills might have been destroyed had it not been stipulated that only barns and mills containing grain or forage were to be burned. Under Sheridan’s orders, those that were empty were to be left standing, and those owned by single women, widows, or orphans were to be spared. As a result, mills such as the one operated by Joseph Byerly’s widow, just east of Bridgewater, were left standing.

Other mills and barns in the Shenandoah Valley also managed to escape the flames of 1864. A display of the Masonic symbol is said to have saved some, while the draping of a Union Flag appears to have spared others. For example, when Samuel Hockman, miller at the Andrew Zirkle Mill in Forestville, saw smoke rising from the structure, he quickly opened a window and hung the Union stars and stripes from the mill peak. He swore his allegiance to the Union, and the mill was spared.

Another Civil War survivor is the Edinburg Mill in Edinburg, Virginia, which was put to the torch but then later extinguished by a bucket-brigade after the troops learned that the mill had been constructed by Major George Grandstaff, who had served in the Mexican wars. At the time of the burning, the mill was occupied by Grandstaff’s granddaughters.

The Breneman-Turner gristmill near Harrisonburg is said to have survived two separate burning attempts by Sheridan. According to local folklore, Federal soldiers came several times to burn the mill. One account reports that when they discovered sickness in the home, they were sympathetic and moved on without setting the mill on fire. Another account holds that soldiers set fire to a wooden addition, but the owners at the time were alerted and able to extinguish the flames. Another theory is that the owners were seen as Union sympathizers by the invading army and were left alone. In any case, the Breneman-Turner mill is now the surviving pre-Civil War mill in Rockingham County with all of its gristmill equipment still in place.