Early 19th-Century Milling and Wheat Farming

Related: Mills, Waterford mills, Wheat farming, Waterford farming, Corn

From Werner L. Janney and Asa Moore, editors, John Jay Janney's Virginia: An American Farm Lad's Life in the Early 19th Century (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications Inc., 1978), 72-75.

Loudoun Mills

What is a mill?
A mill is a building housing a set of machinery that processes raw material into finished products. Waterford's mills produced flour from grain; building lumber from logs, fabric from cotton and wool fibers, and lime for fertilizer and mortar from limestone.

How is a mill powered?
Janney's original log mill in Waterford was powered directly from the flow of Catoctin Creek. By the early 19th century, millers were harnessing waterpower through manmade channels or races. When Mahlon Janney built his stone and wood mill at the location of the present Old Mill, he dammed the Catoctin and diverted water from just behind the dam through a mile-long headrace to direct water over the wheel in the volume and speed required to power the mill. The design and construction of this race were an engineering feat-beginning with a dam to hold a reserve of water from Catoctin Creek, a chute to allow the race to pass over another stream without emptying into it, several overflow gates to prevent flooding during high-water, and finally a sluice gate to control the flow of the water from the headrace over the millwheel. A manmade tail race carries water away from the mill. Schooley Mill and the fulling mill were powered by a second race, fed by Ball's Run.

How does a gristmill Work?
Water running over a water wheel powers machinery that processes grain into a final product. Initially, the wheat or other grain is screened and cleaned to exclude foreign seed and other impurities. Next, the grain is weighed. During the milling, or grinding, phase, the wheat is reduced to flour. Initially, Waterford's Old Mill used the movement of grooved burr stones to grind kernels of wheat. This grinding process removes the outer husk from the grain then powders it into flour. In 1885, roller machinery was installed in the Old Mill. The roller process uses a gradual reduction method in which each step in grinding is performed between steel cylinders, first grooved ones, then in the final stages, smooth surfaced rollers, working at differential speeds. Once the grain is processed into flour, it is bolted, or sieved,·to remove any bran particles. The final product is then packaged or bagged and sent to market.

Loudoun Mills

A mill is a building equipped with machinery that processes a raw material such as grain, wood, or fiber into a product such as flour, lumber, or fabric. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Virginia's mills were powered by water in creeks or rivers. In a flour mill, water flowing over the mill wheel was converted by gears into the power to turn one of two burr stones. Kernels of wheat were then ground between the two stones. The grinding removed bran (the outer husk) from the wheat kernel, and then crushed the inner kernel into flour. Flour mills were an important part of rural communities across the country, including Waterford in the fertile Loudoun Valley of Virginia.

Among the earliest arrivals to this area were Amos and Mary Janney, members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In 1733, Janney purchased 400 acres along Catoctin Creek. By the early 1740s, he had built a mill of logs for grinding flour and sawing wood. As fellow Quakers came to the area seeking fertile farmlands, a settlement grew up around "Janney's Mill." Local farmers brought their wheat to the mill for grinding, and by 1762, Mahlon Janney, Amos's son, had built a larger, two-story mill of wood on a stone foundation.

Since its settlement in the mid-1700s, Loudoun County has been acclaimed for its fertile soil. In the 1850s and 1860s, Virginia was the fourth largest wheat producing state, and Loudoun was one of the state's top-producing counties. Thirty water-powered mills were processing a half-million bushels of Loudoun wheat by 1850. Aldie Mill emerged as the largest manufactory of its kind in Loudoun County. Once powered by three large water wheels, the mill's five run of French flint burrstones turned wheat into superfine flour for commercial export, while related machinery combined the works of a saw, plaster, and country grist mill.

In the 1700s, oxen took the flour to market in Alexandria. By 1826, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were in operation through nearby Point of Rocks, Maryland. Waterford flour could be hauled there by oxen, then barged to Georgetown or taken by railcar to Baltimore. After the Civil War ended in 1865, and Loudoun's damaged Washington and Old Dominion railroad could be repaired and extended west beyond Leesburg, it was even easier for Waterford area farmers to get their flour to market.

The Waterford Mill

More on Waterford mills

In the middle of the 19th century wheat remained important to the local economy. Janney's secod mill had been rebuilt and enlarged on the same foundation around 1818. The new three-and-a-half story brick mill doubled the previous capacity, reflecting the fertility and high wheat yield of the surrounding farmland.

Quaker historian Asa Moore Janney noted that Yardley Taylor's 1853 map of Loudoun County showed 77 mills of various kinds in the county, of which 30 were wheat mills. By the 1850s, Waterford's mill was producing flour for a wider market than just the village because the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad greatly improved the town's links to distant markets. Mill entries from 1849 show barrels of flour being hauled to Point of Rocks, Maryland, where they were loaded either onto Chesapeake and Ohio Canal barges or Baltimore and Ohio Railroad freight cars. In the Waterford area alone, by 1860, an estimated 80 farmers were producing more than 40,000 bushels of wheat, or about 500 bushels per farmer, an increase over the previous decade.

The Civil War brought devastation to Waterford. Grain and crops were taken or destroyed by troops on both sides of the conflict. Lapsed Quaker Sam Means had to close his mill after Confederate forces seized his horses, wagons, and grain in 1862. He retaliated by forming the Independent Loudoun Rangers, the only army unit organized in Virginia to fight for the Union. It did not spare Waterford from damage by Union troops. Later in the war, during General Sheridan's "Burning Raid" of 1864, Union soldiers burned area barns to deny food for the Confederates and their horses.

Relieved of his command in 1864 for refusing to obey orders, Means lived near Point of Rocks, Maryland until the war was over. Means never recovered financially from his previous losses. He sold the mill in 1868, moved to Washington, did not prosper, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Back in Waterford, however, others were looking ahead to better times. Quakers from Waterford and nearby Lincoln founded the Catoctin Farmer's Club in 1868; members formed subcommittees to explore ways to broaden markets for local farmers. When the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad was extended west from the nearby county seat of Leesburg, past Waterford in 1870, it opened access to new markets.

Old Waterford Mill in Waterford Virginia

Old Waterford Mill

Apparently the new mill owner, Charles Paxson, and his miller, J. F. Dodd, benefited from improved transportation connections. In 1885, they enlarged the brick mill significantly and installed the latest "roller mill" technology. The burr stones which used to grind the wheat kernels were replaced with porcelain rollers that successively crushed or rolled the wheat finer and finer, eliminating grit and producing a fine, white flour. The support industries for agriculture—harness makers, wagon builders, and blacksmiths—remained working in the village until the early 1900s.

Although Waterford grain had better access to markets, the village never returned to its pre-war level of manufacturing success because Waterford's villagers and area farmers were able to import cheaper machine-made goods—shoes, furniture, clothing, and farm equipment—from large manufacturing centers. They no longer supported local chairmakers, cobblers, and weavers, so these crafts began to disappear. As the artisans left, demand for new construction dwindled.

At the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Waterford mill stopped grinding. In spite of continued high production of wheat in Loudoun County, local mills could no longer compete with huge mills located outside the area. The mill's machinery was sold as scrap iron for the war effort during the early part of World War II.

Compiled from Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Agriculture of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Loudoun County, Virginia, Statistics of Agriculture, 1850-1870 (Microfilm edition T1132, Roll 7); Sheri Spellman and Bronwen C. Souders, Walk With Us (Waterford Foundation, 1992); Bronwen C. Souders and Kathleen Hughes, Waterford's Agricultural History: 1733-1993 (Waterford Foundation: Special Education Exhibit, 1993); and Thomas Phillips and Nathan Walker, Waterford Mill Ledger (Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, Virginia).

Early 19th-Century Wheat Farming Near Waterford

John Jay Janney, a distant cousin of Waterford founder Amos Janney, was born in 1812 near the Quaker settlement of Goose Creek, about 10 miles south of Waterford. Ninety-five years later, in Ohio in 1907, Janney penned his memories of his childhood. In addition to writing about all facets of life in Loudoun County in the 1820s, he outlined the farmer's duties regarding his crops for an entire year. The portions concerning wheat are excerpted here and describe farming activities similar to those around Waterford.

After [corn] harvesting was over [in the autumn], we plowed for next year's wheat crop, and when the ground was ready for sowing we hauled all the manure from the barn yard and the hog pen, usually a good supply and scattered it over the poorest part of the field.... We had not yet heard of "wheat drills" but sowed our grain "broadcast." We would take a bag and tie the string to one corner so we could hang it about the neck...and carry...about a bushel of wheat in it. We would catch up handfuls and sow them broadcast having first marked out the field into "lands" of a proper width. A little practice enabled one to sow very evenly. We then dragged a heavy harrow over it.

Now [in 1907] a man will do the same work in a better manner sitting in a pleasant seat driving two horses.... After mowing [the following summer] the wheat...was bound into sheaves and put in shocks of a dozen sheaves each. The children were nearly all, boys and girls, kept home from school to carry sheaves for shocking.....All the mechanics in the neighborhood worked in the harvest fields. The rule was, to pay them wages per day what wheat sold for per bushel. If wheat was worth a dollar per bushel, they got a dollar a day....

During the winter we "trod" out the wheat....we had a "treading floo" in the barn about 40 feet square. Many farmers' barns were not large enough for that, and they had what is called a "threshing floor" in the Bible: a level piece of ground, fifty or sixty or more feet in diameter, made smooth and packed hard.... We stacked our wheat as near the barn as we could, in the "stack yard," and when we commenced treading it out, we would take the sheaves into the barn, take off or loosed the bands, and lay a ring of sheaves four feet or four sheaves wide all around the floor. We laid the first one flat on the floor, the next one with the heads upon the butts of the first and so on all around the floor. We thus had a ring of sheaves about four feet wide, with the heads of the wheat only showing, and a vacant space in the middle of the floor, of about twenty feet in diameter.

We then put four horses, two abreast, walking around on the wheat, against the way the wheat pointed. After the horses had walked around sufficiently, two of us would each take a pitchfork, one on each side of the wheat, and turn it over. This we would repeat until the grain was all out of the straw, which was then raked off and stored as feed for the cows and steers during the winter.... Treading out wheat always made me feel as if I had a cold, headache, back-ache and slight fever, the result of the dust; and my grandmother used to say it always made me "take a bad cold."

When the wheat was all "trod," or when the floor became full, we cleaned it. We ran it through the wheat fan twice; the first time through the coarse riddle taking out the chaff only; the second time through the fine riddle taking out the "white caps" leaving only the clean wheat. The "white cap" was a grain of wheat with the chaff still fast on it. We then took it to the mill, where it was passed to our credit, to be drawn out for use or for market. We cleaned our wheat so well that it was never "docked" as that of some farmers was, that is, a number of pounds or bushels deduced, sufficient to make up for the refuse matter the wheat contained....

Farmers rarely if ever sold their wheat. They delivered it at the mill and got credit for it at the rate of sixty pounds to the bushel and when they wanted flour, they got for every sixty pounds of wheat, forty pounds of flour and about fifteen pounds of bran.