On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills once served local residents.
Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and a sawmill and furniture factory—exist and are probably familiar to lots of this blog’s readers. One of those photographs, in fact, is on the heading of this blog page.
But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. What kind of tools and equipment were required to turn grain into flour at the three gristmills? What kind of tools did workers at that furniture factory use? Fortunately, there was a way to find out.
For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. The maps included accurate building footprints, color-coded to record building materials for not only the building itself, but also any additions, including porches. Each building is accurately depicted how it sits on the lot or parcel of land where it’s located. In addition, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents are also listed so insurance adjusters could determine the amount of loss in case of fire. All four mills on my stretch of river had been recorded by Sanborn.
Starting as soon as the region’s pioneer millwrights arrived, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. Upon arrival, the miller weighed the grain and then shunted it by bins and chutes into the smut room to prepare it for milling.
In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove bad grains.
Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, turned, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’
Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. When the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour produced was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins, and from there to the bolter.
Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a grain of wheat or corn. The bolter was octagonal reel, usually 16 feet long and mounted at a gentle incline. The reel was covered with a series of open weave cloth of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water power slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, middlings towards the middle of the reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.
A middling purifier was also part of the Parker mill’s equipment. The machine was used to separate the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter separated in the middle of the bolting process.
In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ grain from the stalks.
Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain in trade, whichever the farmer preferred.
Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located opposite the gristmill at the east end of the Fox River dam. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite his gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.
By 1885, the sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.
The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand will be on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum when their core exhibit is finished in mid-March.
Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—ran just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of modern metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.
Down in today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.
By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining both the mills and the dams they required. Both dams and mills were frequently damaged or completely destroyed by floods and the spring ice break-up, while low water levels could cause the mills to shut down for long periods while they waited for rain to raise the water level.
The region’s water-powered mills were replaced by steam-powered grain elevators that popped up along area railroad lines. Elevators not only could process grain, but they could also store it so farmers could wait to sell until prices were right. And local furniture factories like Parker’s, were replaced by giant far-off factories that could undersell locally produced furniture.
But though they’ve been gone for many decades, some evidence of the era when the Fox River powered mills at dams along it’s entire length are still around if you look closely enough.