You don’t have to travel to Mount Vernon, the National Mall monuments or the Smithsonian museums to see history come alive. One such place is in our neighborhood’s collective backyard, an old-fashioned grist mill sitting on the banks of Rock Creek.
Rock Creek Park is home to Peirce Mill, built in the 1820s and recently the site of a birthday party thrown by Friends of Peirce Mill and the National Park Service to wish the entire Rock Creek Park a happy 124th. And many more!
This day fell on a gorgeous September Saturday and attracted hundreds of guests for the demonstrations of mill operation and traditional craft skills, as well as performances of traditional American music and play time for the kids, with toys that cranked and spun, and looked like tiny mills themselves. Children also could try their hand at chiseling a stone and taking swings at a thick, stubborn log, which lasted through the entire day without giving way.
The main attraction is, of course, the mill machinery. Outside the stone building, the wooden water wheel spins as though no time has passed since Isaac Peirce, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, and his son, Abner, built the mill and set it in motion. Inside, National Park Service mill operator Jeanne Minor and assistant miller Kurt Luginbyhl are running the machinery and explaining the inner workings to the guests. Both are dressed in period clothing, so it’s easier to imagine generations of millers sifting whole-kernel grain into the wooden “sleeve” covering the grindstones, as the top stone, the “running stone,” spins at 125 rotations per minute.
Much to the surprise of all the visitors, the millers and volunteers from Friends of Peirce Mill inform the crowd that the spinning stones are not actually grinding the corn that is sifting into the hole in the center. The stones are finely chopping the grains until the whole batch is reduced to the yellow powder that was so in demand for baking in Peirce’s day.
Minor and Luginbyhl pause in their corn-sifting duties to point out the pair of mill stones on display to the right of the operating stones. The stones are lying on their backs, cutting surfaces facing up so the visitors can see they are, in fact, chiseled with furrows radiating from the center, cut so that the stones are mirror images. Minor and Luginbyhl explain that the furrows will scissor together as the running stone spins, cutting each grain over and over until the corn is dust and ready for the mixing bowl.
As with grist mills of the day, Peirce Mill utilized the machinery designed by a single engineer, Oliver Evans of Delaware, a miller’s son and miller himself, who invented the entire system that used falling water to turn a wheel, which was connected to a main shaft that moved every piece of machinery in the building. Everything runs off the power of the spinning central shaft, from the ingenious grain elevator, to the rolling screen that clears debris out of the raw grain, to the mill stones themselves.
Guests filter up and down the stairs – holding on tightly, since the stairs are of a historic design as well, i.e. steep and shallow! – to see the parts of the process open to the public: The stones and the chute, where the perfectly milled corn meal is falling out into soft heaps that tempt the hand to dig in. Judging from the amount of corn meal dabbed on hands, arms, and a few noses around the mill, not everyone resisted the urge to touch!
An active member of Friends of Peirce Mill, Quentin Looney, is downstairs, cleaning the equipment and showing visitors the nearly finished product. He recounts the nearly 200-year history of the mill and the triumphs and tragedies that beset the mill along the way. The mill and the Peirce family millers thrived in the 1820s and 30s, when their mill was among the best in an area with eight or more.
By the end of the 19th century, though, water-powered mills like Peirce’s were out of demand and falling on hard times. Steel rollers and steam power had replaced millstones and water wheels, and most of the nation’s milling capabilities had concentrated in the Midwest. Peirce Mill was shut down in 1897, when the machinery suffered a major breakdown.
The building was repurposed as a tea house and restaurant until the Great Depression, when a restoration project began, as part of the city government’s efforts to make improvements to Rock Creek Park and create jobs. Soon the mill was up and running, producing meal for government cafeterias through World War II.
Sadly, mechanical failures and breakdowns plagued the mill, leading to another shuttering in 1958, a renovation from 1967 to 1970, and still another massive breakdown in 1993, when the main shaft of the mill broke and brought the whole operation to a halt. For the next few years, Peirce Mill was just a lovely historic building on Rock Creek, until Friends of Peirce Mill was founded, with mill enthusiast Richard Abbott in the lead.
In 2000, Friends partnered with the National Park Service to raise the funds and local support needed to restore the mill building, machinery, surrounding gardens, and to reopen Peirce Mill as a working mill and education center. The mill’s grand reopening was held on October 15th, 2011. Since that time, the mill stones have been spinning and grinding corn for the public on the second and fourth Saturday of every month, from spring until mid-fall.
Head downstairs and the spinning stones are still audible, but louder still is the chute, which is banging against the side of the wooden trough catching the meal. No, this is not a rogue piece of machinery that has broken loose and is about the bring the whole operation crashing down; this is another example of the genius of Oliver Evans, the original engineer. He thought of everything. At this stage in the milling process, the powdery meal is still warm and moist from the cutting process and will easily stick to the equipment, so the chute moves back and forth, tapping against the trough and forcing the grain to spill out.
From this point, there are still four stages left in the eleven-step process. The flour is lifted in a second grain elevator, a metal tube that looks much like a modern-day downspout, that has a conveyor belt inside with metal scoops attached every 10 or 12 inches. The milled flour falls into the scoops and is hoisted up to the top floor, where it cools and dries, while being sifted through progressively finer mesh screens. The finer particles and the coarser ground bran flakes mixed with some fine powder, called middlings, are caught in the medium mesh. This was used as animal food by the miller and his customers. The finest, highest-quality flour is sifted into holding bins on the second floor below.
These days, much of the corn and wheat milled at Peirce Mill is sent to Oxon Hill Farm to feed livestock and other animals. Some of the finest flour is bagged in souvenir cloth bags stamped with the Peirce Mill logo and sold in the information center gift shop just up the rise from the mill. For those interested in obtaining a prize bag of Peirce Mill flour for autumn or winter goodies, our last chance may be this Saturday. The mill and information center are open one last time before April 2015, when warm weather will draw the crowds again.
Last chance, that is, unless the gift-worthy bags of local goodness show up in area gift shops and farmers markets (Hint, hint. Can we make that happen, guys?).
Our thanks go out to reader Deborah Dougherty, who provided information on the final event of the season at Peirce Mill, 2401 Tilden St NW: “Saturday October 25th is the final milling day for the season. The information center will be closed after the 25th as well. Mill tours and the information center (games and video) run from 10:00 to 4:00; the mill grinds corn from 11:00 to 2:00. The mill reopens in April 2015.”