by Steve Dryden
Reading a letter in The Washington Post about Peirce Mill led to a new chapter in my life that I could have hardly predicted.
As a native Virginian, I had always loved local history, and in particular, the old stone buildings I saw during camping trips in the Shenandoah Valley. Running water in the creeks and rivers also fascinated me, and so when Richard Abbott asked Post readers for help in restoring the old mill and its water-powered machinery, I was intrigued and gave him a call. Shortly after the Post letter was published in September 1996, I found myself to be the vice president of the Friends of Peirce Mill.
Richard, who was president, had been a volunteer docent when the mill broke down in 1993, and he was dismayed that the National Park Service didn’t have the money or personnel to get the millstones moving again. His decision to create a “friends” group, while hardly a new concept in advocacy for parks and cultural sites, was groundbreaking for Rock Creek.
By the time the mill re-opened in 2011, FOPM had raised $1 million from foundations, government agencies, and individuals. No Rock Creek Park nonprofit had ever accomplished so much, and that sum leveraged another $2 million from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program.
Since then, thousands of schoolchildren have visited the mill, and park visitors have enjoyed cornmeal-grinding demonstrations and volunteer-led tours of the only working gristmill in the nation’s capital. It’s a testament to the leadership and skills of Richard, who passed away in November 2021 at his home in Washington state.
I became FOPM’s first paid staff member in 2011, and later took on the role of executive director. This fall, Angela Kramer, our staff education specialist, became the new director. I’ll stay on as special assistant, planning a conference on the regional grain market for next fall, and developing an apprentice internship program for high school students.
The internship will be a new thing for FOPM, tied to the upcoming restoration of the “Evans” water-powered grain processing system. Though the earlier work put the millstones back in operation, the mill’s most impressive feature remains quiet.
Oliver Evans, a Delaware-born inventor in the years just after the Revolutionary War, designed an extraordinary processing system that moves grain via elevators through the building as it is cleaned, ground, and sifted for customers. The patented Evans design was a labor-saving and production boon, and it was widely copied in the U.S. and around the world (much to Evans’ chagrin, because patent enforcement was almost nonexistent).
FOPM’s intern apprentice program will offer work to a high school student or young adult interested in preservation carpentry and related skills. The intern will work under the direction of the millwright, Gus Kiorpes, who has led the restoration of the mill for the past two decades.
A second new venture for FOPM will take place in October 2023, when the mill will host the first mid-Atlantic grain fair and conference, The two-day event will bring together growers, millers, bakers and others who are creating a regionally based grain market.
Co-sponsored with the University of the District of Columbia’s agriculture college, the conference will also promote nutrition education based on a diet that includes whole grains. We like to think of Peirce Mill as Washington’s first whole grain producer, so the conference is a natural fit for us.
The grain fair will take the place of our autumn Heritage Day activity, but will similarly emphasize traditional skills and crafts, such as baking in an earthen oven.
The coming year will also see the day-long celebration of art and community called Create by the Creek. This annual FOPM event recalls the mill’s Art Barn, and features workshops by local artists, free art supplies, and a meet-up for landscape painters.
The past few months haven’t been easy for FOPM or the National Park Service. The discovery of lead paint on some surfaces of the building, and safety improvements related to the operation of the millwheel, forced the temporary closure of the mill.
We look forward to reopening in 2023, and hope we’ll see many Forest Hills residents.
Visiting Peirce Mill: In January and February, the mill at 2401 Tilden Street NW is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. The FOPM website has more information about the mill’s hours the rest of the year. Milling demonstrations are held the second and fourth Saturdays of April through October, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Steve Dryden is the author of Peirce Mill: Two Hundred Years in the Nation’s Capital. Sales of the book at FOPM’s online shop also help support the group’s mission. Dryden’s research for the book formed the basis for his 2015 lecture on Pierce Mill for the Chevy Chase Historical Society.