Monday, May 29, 2023

The First Four Decades of Milling in Chemung County

by Monica Groth, Curator 

Arnot Mill on Newtown Creek, painted by Mabel Shoemaker, 1973

Living alongside creeks, rivers, and waterways has its many advantages. A river is not only a source of food and a means of transportation. Its power can also be harnessed to perform work for millers.

Almost as soon as the area which was to become Chemung County was settled by Revolutionary War veterans in the late 18th century, it became home to a number of sawmills – that is, mills which process lumber into wood for building homes. As past curator Frances Brayton writes, “even before a church or courthouse is built, the mill, by a rushing stream is set up and in operation.”

The first sawmill in the area was built on Seeley Creek by Abraham Miller in 1798. If his surname is any indication, Abraham might have descended from a family of English millers. He served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and was captured by the Haudenosaunee. Escaping around Seneca Lake on his captors’ route to Canada, Miller settled in New York. Historian Ausburn Towner names Miller “one of the most active, foremost and enterprising of the earliest settlers of the valley”.

Many equally enterprising settlers followed Miller’s example. In 1800, the first sawmills were built in Ashland and Van Etten. In 1805, Nathan Teall erected two mills, one in Horseheads and another in Millport. In the early years of the 19th century, sawmills sprang up throughout the townships, as the plentiful lumber of the surrounding hills was harvested to supply the needs of the growing population.

Thirty years after Abraham Miller built the first sawmill, there were no less than 19 mills in Southport on Seeley Creek alone.

That year, Big Flats boasted 5 sawmills,

Catlin: 18

Chemung: 21

Elmira: 13

Erin: 4

Veteran: 36

This was before the Chemung Canal opened in 1833. Once completed, the canal greatly increased the efficiency with which lumber could be transported and greatly expanded the markets which it could reach. Trade increased and more mills were constructed to capitalize on this economic opportunity.

Lumber outside Rodbourn Sawmill in Erin, NY. Sawmills continued to thrive into the 20th century.

By 1836, when author Solomon Southwick published the pamphlet “Views of Elmira”, the area’s mills had modernized and were extremely productive. Southwick writes that the 6 mill complexes closest to Elmira produced nearly 20,000 feet of lumber daily.

You’ll notice I wrote of mill complexes – meaning buildings harnessing water power to perform a variety of different tasks. Sawmills used that energy the operate saws to cut wood. Grist mills used that energy to grind grain between heavy millstones. Some millers did both tasks, while other specialized in one mill type.

A mill pick like this one in our collection is used to "dress" or re-carve
the furrows on mill grinding stones
A millstone - most grist mills will contain two stones arranged horizontally atop one another. One, the bedstone, remains stationary while the other, the runner stone, rotates on top of it. Grain its poured through the center whole and moves outwards through the channels as it is ground into fine flour, which emerges at its edge.

Grist mills appeared in our county sometime after our earliest sawmills and were extremely important to the area’s first families. Though a matter of some historic debate, the first grist mill is believed to have been built by Daniel Carpenter on Newtown Creek around 1800. Prior to its construction, families would transport their grain south to a mill on Tioga Point to be ground into flour. Towner writes that grain was transported on horseback or more often, by boat, and it was “a tedious process in bringing it home up river”. “When the mill was built at the mouth of Newtown Creek,” Towner writes, “it was an enterprise of more necessity… than the completion of the Chemung Canal.”

Soon after Carpenter’s Mill was built, another early grist mill was opened by the Webb family in Southport (in the vicinity of the district which now bears its name).

Scale model of Webbs Mill, originally on Seeley Creek in Southport.
Webbs Mill was among the first grist mills in Chemung County

By Southwick’s observation, in 1836, the aforementioned mills nearest the city of Elmira were grinding approximately 800 bushels of grain a day.

However, there were still far fewer grist mills in the area than sawmills, and grist mills, performing a great percentage of their work to serve the local community rather than more distant markets, remained very important to Chemung County residents. When a fire destroyed the grist mill Sullivan's Mill (also known as the Tuttle or Arnot Mill) in 1836, The Elmira Gazette wrote that the loss of the mill and over 650 bushels of wheat would be “severely felt by the community, as there are few such establishments in the neighborhood.” The mill was immediately rebuilt the following season.

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