Ancient Ohio Grist Mill Set To Grind Again

Nov 13, 2016

A nearly 190-year-old grist mill in Fairfield County will spring back to life next month.  A $1 million restoration will soon be complete. 

Rock Mill was built in 1824 on a road that connected present-day Lancaster to Columbus. For more than 80 years, the giant mill processed the area’s agricultural bounty.  Dave Fey, the director of Fairfield County Historical Parks, stands at the main entrance to the six-story white oak building.

“This is the place where the miller would have greeted the farmers bearing their loads of grains, be it corn or wheat, which were about the only products that farmers in the county were planting and harvesting,” Fey says.

During harvest, Fey says, farmers literally had to ‘wait their turn,’ a reference to the mill’s huge spinning stones.

 

Fey descends a steep flight of steps to the grinding floor.  He says the miller often had his ‘nose to the grindstone,’ to ensure that the work was done properly.

“He had to listen, he had to feel the floor and the vibration, he’d also put his nose to the grindstone, so that he could smell whether or not the meal was being ground too fast – it would be burning; or not fast enough, which it would be not completely ground,” he says.

The waterwheel at Rock Mill.
Credit Sam Hendren/WOSU

Rock Mill ceased operation in 1905 and sat silent thereafter.  A photo from the 1980s shows the mill near collapse.  After the property was donated to Fairfield County in 2003, restoration began.  Work started on the bottom level which Fey calls the Power Floor.

“It was tough to decide where we needed to begin our work most because so many things needed our attention but the wall in the power floor where we are right now had collapsed into the gorge.  The stones were still down there; we gathered those up and brought them back up.

Rock Mill is powered by a massive waterwheel with more than 50 buckets.  The wheel only turns at around 8 rpm.  But that, says Fey, is enough.

“The waterwheel itself is 26 feet in diameter.  It’s made entirely of white oak and weighs 20,000 pounds.  So once it gets turning, it takes a lot to stop it,” he says.

Gearing inside the mill steps up the speed to the grindstones.   

A millwright is now installing something called a Hurst Frame that will protect Rock Mill from damaging vibrations.

“The vibrations set up by the stones, the milling equipment and the gearing would actually cause these buildings to shake apart.  They would lose the pegs if they were wooden buildings like this one is or if it was a brick building the mortar would start to break apart, and the building would literally fall down,” Fey says.

Credit Sam Hendren / 89.7 NPR News

Rock Mill could have been lost to the ages if it were not for the foresight of Dave Fey and others who saw the structure as an irreplaceable historic treasure.

“We could have replaced this with a bronze plaque outside that always begins with the words, ‘Here once stood…’  And we’re trying to teach are children to appreciate their heritage. How do you do it with bronze plaques?”

Fortunately Rock Mill will operate again and Ohioans will get perspective on the past.

“You’re going to feel movement beneath your feet, vibrations coming off those stones.  You’re going to taste the flour that’s in the air, you’re going to smell it, you’re going to see the machinery moving, you’re going to hear it.  You have just impacted all five senses.  That’s a memory,” says Fey.

Dave Fay expects that the mill to be operational sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.