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Group wowed by Shepherd Mill tour

By Staff | Oct 23, 2009

Robert B. Andrews, owner of the Andrew Zirkle Mill in Forestville, Va., inspects the gear and belt mechanisms along the axle of the Shepherd Grist Mill’s water wheel. He was part of a group of mill owners and enthusiasts who toured the historic mill last Saturday. Photo by Michael Theis/Chronicle

A gaggle of local dignitaries and molinologists, people who study wind and water mills, desceneded upon the Shepherd Grist Mill, owned and occupied by Patrinka Kelch, on East High Street last Saturday to examine and tour the ancient grain mill built by Thomas Shepherd, the founder of Shepherdstown.

The molinologists were part of a group of over 20 members of The International Molinological Society of America, or TIMS-A for short. Their stop in Shepherdstown was part of a one-day regional tour of locations important to the regional milling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Shepherd Mill was included in the tour because it is one of the first mills in the area. Its very contruction established the area that would become Shepherdstown a hub of economic and industrial activity in Northern Jefferson County. The group also toured the old Fitz Water Works foundry in Martinsburg. The Fitz company manufactured the water wheel which currently spins at the mill.

The event started around 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17. Shepherdstown Mayor Jim Auxer was present to address the group. He thanked Kelch for her work to preserve the mill and underscored the historic and economic importance of the mill to the early development of Shepherdstown.

The Shepherd Mill dates back to at least 1739, when it is first mentioned in court records. The original mill was a two story stone building and almost certainly used a smaller wooden wheel, says TIMS-A president John P. Joyce, who coordinated the mill tour. For the early European residents of the area, most of whom would have been involved in subsistence frontier agriculture, the construction of a grain mill meant that farmers could more easily process and market their grain, allowing them to expand beyond subsistence farming and into merchant agriculture. Joyce says that the presence of a mill usually indicated that an area had access to skilled technical labor necessary to operate a mill. Mill’s were the first factories, and the geared, belted, and water-powered machinery found inside would have been considered cutting edge technology in its day.

The Shepherd Mill, while dating back to the 1730’s, is more indicative of grist mills of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is during this era that the Shepherd Mill aquired its current exterior form. The current 40-foot diameter Fitz Water Works model I-X-L overshoot water wheel was installed during this time, and a third story was added to house additional machinery. The Fitz wheel is one of the largest American water wheels still in existence.

Shepherd Mill owner Patrinka Kelch discusses the history of the mill with visitors last Saturday. To the right is a painting of 17th century British King William and Queen Mary by former mill owner Ira Glackens. The mill is decorated with Glackens' humorous depictions of colonial-era British and American politics. edit Delete caption

Joyce says that in its heyday, the Shepherd Mill would have employed between 20 and 25 people. Most of those employees would not have been millworkers per-se, rather most would have been working in accounting and shipping, managing a flow of grain that ran from the farms in the Shepherdstown countryside, through the mill, and then shipped to all of the major port cities in the Mid-Atlantic. From there, grain produced in Shepherdstown was shipped around the world, mostly to Europe and the West Indies.

Colonial and Post-Revolutionary Americans were wild about mills. Taking advantage of early America’s abundance of virgin timber, and unencumbered by European aristocratic waterway privileges which made it a bureaucratic nightmare for a non-aristocrat to build a mill, the early Americans were quickly able to construct a vast number of mills. A map published in 1810, only 60 years after Shepherd’s mill went into operation, lists 31 grist or merchant mills in Jefferson County, a rate of roughly 2 new mills constructed per year. A modern day Shenandoah river guide lists the site of nine mill ruins on the Shenandoah between the county line and Harpers Ferry. The abundance of these water-powered factories kick-started America’s industrial revolution and established the nation as a powerful agricultural exporter.

The Shepherd Mill operated for over two centuries, from before 1739 to 1939. According to documents filed with the National Register of Historic Places, the last operator of the mill was Luther Thompson, Jr., who leased the mill fron 1923 to 1939. By the time World War II was on the horizon, the availability of cheap electricity made water-powered mills obsolete. The mill fell into years of disrepair.

In 1954, former Shepherdstown Mayor Mayor Silas F. Starry aquired the mill, and spent six years from 1961 to 1967 restoring the mill. In 1970 the structure was added to the National Park Services National Register of Historic Places.

Currently the mill is the home of Patrinka Kelch who aquired the mill in 1990. She spends most of her time in a small apartment built into the mill which overlooks the lower section of the Town Run. Were Luther Thompson, Jr. to be transported into the present day, he would hardly recognize the interior. The walls are dcorated with large contemporary paintings of 17th century British aristocracy. The floor where the eight grinding stones were located is now a large reception area. The third floor is an opulent great-room.

The mill is now owned and occupied as a private residence by Patrinka Kelch. The top floor, picture here, was added in the early 20th century to accommodate additional machinery, it now houses a large Great Room decorated with a collage of art.

Only in the basement would there be the familiar cogs and guts of the machine which built Shepherdstown.

TIMSA-A President James P. Joyce says the study of molinology is essential to understanding early American society, engineering, and agriculture.

“The millerswere the first bankers, economists and mechanical engineers.” Says Joyce, “its an important part of what made this country as great as it is today.”