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  • Three Early Water-Powered Mills in Northwest Greene County, Ohio, and Their Impacts on the Landscape
  • David Nolin (bio)

After the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, settlers rapidly made new settlements in what is now Greene County, Ohio.1 One of the first priorities for the many new towns that began in this forest and prairie wilderness was the development of water-powered mills, small industries that utilized the constant and reliable energy source of falling water to provide vital services. This ancient technology was already heavily utilized in the eastern United States, and as new lands were settled, mills were quickly built to meet the needs of new communities.2 Millwrights, experts in the craft of constructing mills and conveying water to them, typically designed and built the mills, and millers operated them as a business. These early mills provided many services, but two of the most common and essential were sawmills and gristmills.

Sawmills facilitated the conversion of trees from the hardwood forests that covered much of the land into lumber for building materials. Early sawmills were typically small operations run by one or two people. A frame containing one or more vertically mounted saws was attached to a crank, which was turned by a waterwheel. These mills could cut about 3,000 feet of lumber in a working day, some 20 to 25 times more efficient than two men working in [End Page 51] a saw pit and using a whipsaw.3 The first sawmill appeared in Ohio in 1789, and by 1840, there were 2,883 of them operating in the state. A thorough examination of early Ohio sawmills was published in the Ohio History journal in 1975.4

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Location of eighteenth-century mills and millraces on Hebble Creek, Bath Township, Greene County, plotted on USGS topographical map.

The first gristmill appeared in Ohio in 1790, and by 1840, there were 1,861 of them in Ohio, providing the vital service of grinding grain harvested from agricultural fields between two round millstones, converting it to flour for bread and other staples.5 In early mills, a vertical waterwheel powered one or more sets of millstones or “buhrs” that could grind 10 to 12 bushels of grain per hour.6 After 1860, many gristmills replaced their vertical waterwheels with more efficient turbines. By the 1880s, most millstone systems were being [End Page 52] replaced by a new innovation, the roller system, using steel or ceramic cylinders that ground the grain against a flat plate. Roller mills had the ability to separate the bran from the germ, allowing the collection and sale of white flour. By the 1900s, the availability of engines powered by inexpensive fossil fuels eliminated the need for water power and the upkeep of water-wheels, millponds, and millraces, and many water-powered mills that could not compete were abandoned. The number of water-powered gristmills in Ohio dropped from 1,181 in 1870 to 94 in 1922.7 A comprehensive study of Ohio gristmills, their technological evolution, their rapid increase on Ohio streams, and their subsequent decrease was thoroughly examined in Water-wheels and Millstones: A History of Ohio Gristmills and Milling.

The first step for an early millwright was to identify a location or “seat” where the proposed mill could be successful.8 A seat required that a steady flow of water be available that could be conducted to the mill. A millpond was usually established upstream of the mill where a valley contained a natural constriction that could be impounded by a dam made of wood and/or stone.9 The raised water level provided the stored energy to power the mill. Water was diverted from the millpond by a head race, a dug channel, or a wooden trough that conveyed the water to a waterwheel, which turned the mill machinery. After turning the waterwheel, the water was sped back to the source stream via a dug channel called a tailrace. On a relatively swift stream, the head races and tailraces could be quite short, and these streams were the most favorable for mills. For instance, between 1798 and 1875, 11 gristmills, five sawmills, and...


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