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Spies at the Mill

By Staff | Mar 2, 2012

Shepherdstown’s history takes an international turn as “Ganzel & Wulff-The Quest for American Milling Secrets” becomes available for purchase. The work outlines a fascinating story of two industrial spies who traveled to America from Prussia in 1826.

The goal of the Prussian government was to find out the secrets to making long-lasting, super fine flour which was produced in American grist mills.

Shepherdstown’s grist mill was one location to which the spies gravitated to learn the secrets of milling. Flour milled on the East Coast was of superior quality and did not turn rancid but stayed fresh for long periods of time. The Prussian government wished to know the methods used by American mills to achieve such quality.

The Thomas Shepherd Grist Mill in then Mecklenburg, Va., began to grind grain in 1738. The mill was built by Thomas Shepherd, for whom Shepherdstown was renamed after his death in 1776. It served as the center of the area settled as Mecklenburg in 1734.

Shepherd, who had received a land grant of 222 acres under the auspices of King George, II, segmented 50 of those acres into what became known as Mecklenburg. He distributed land to settlers coming from points north on the Philadelphia Wagon Road, crossing the Potomac at Pack Horse Ford into Virginia from Maryland.

Shepherd sought a charter for the town from the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, Va., in 1762, nearly 30 years after settlement began in the area. The charter marked the official establishment of the town founded so many years before.

The mill, currently owned by Patrinka Kelch, is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Kelch has thoroughly researched and recorded the history of the mill and has shared that information with members of The International Molinological Societies (TIMS) who study mills. Members of the group have, in the past, visited the local mill and offer a series of publications that tell the history of American milling. Ganzel & Wulff is the latest in that series and tells the story of how two young engineering students were sent by the Prussian government to America to learn the secrets of the American flour milling technology.

Within the pages of the publication, one can find details on the findings at the Thomas Shepherd mill and how those details were reported to the Prussian government. That country’s government then produced a report on the milling techniques which published in 1832.

Thomas Shepherd was technologically advanced for his time and took advantage of the growing of wheat, an important product grown in the new land. He chose the location for his mill based on the small swiftly running year-round, spring-fed stream that provided sufficient water power to operate a mill by gravity flow. He continually upgraded his mill through a series of modifications keeping pace with the rapid advancements in milling technology, including using cement rollers to crush the wheat.

Shepherd and his mill were inspirational to others, leading to nearly 31 grist mills operating in Jefferson County. Shepherd’s mill had been the largest milling facility in the Valley of the Virginias. Because of his constant technological advancements and superior product, the mill was one singled out by the Prussian students. One of the two men worked at the mill in an effort to garner information for his country while the other traveled further north to seek information from mills along the coast.

Ganzel & Wulff-The Quest for American Milling Secrets can be found at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown as well as through The International Molinological Society website at www.molinology.org.