In a region of Southeastern Pennsylvania once known as the “Breadbasket of the Colonies,” it makes sense that Chester County had more gristmills than Quaker Meeting Houses.
Nearly all of them are gone, razed for highways and road improvements, or left to fall into disrepair, especially during the 1930s when new portable mills made it easier for farmers to turn wheat into flour or corn into livestock feed.
Given the statistics, it’s a wonder that the Anselma Mill still stands. It not only stands, it’s in working order and may be the only extant mill in the nation with what historians call an intact colonial-era power transmission system, or wooden cogs and gears.
During the warmer months—the exact opposite of when the mill ran in colonial times—the volunteers of a nonprofit group known as The Mill at Anselma help to produce stone-ground flour into products as part of Demonstration Days.
The group also hosts a speaker series and annual events like the harvest festival featuring apple cider pressing and craft demonstrations. There’s also a visitor center housed in a former barn where volunteers sell the mill’s products: bread and pastry flour, dark roasted cornmeal and handmade crafts. (On a recent visit, the inventory included wooden spoons carved from a fallen branch from a 200-year-old sycamore tree that towers over Anselma’s 18th-century spring house.)
According to David Rollenhagen, Anselma’s volunteer miller, the mill was especially busy during the fall and winter season, when farmers brought their harvest to Anselma, a “burr” or “grist” mill that gave one control over coarseness and refinement of various free-flowing grains and corn. The mill still has its original Paris-quarried millstones, one fixed and the other (the “runner” stone) rotated by an 1880s “Fitz” waterwheel.
Rollenhagen points out the unused stone fireplace on the ground floor, perhaps the only original feature of the mill currently not being used save the so-called barrel packer—used when a miller brought wheat, manufactured it into flour and sold it in bulk by the barrel.
In its early years the mill was known as the Lightfoot Mill, after its first owner, Samuel Lightfoot, who was the Pikelands’ wealthiest citizen and eventually the largest landowner.
Lightfoot settled in the area about 1725 but his mill, a two-and-a-half story banked stone structure, was not listed on any tax assessments until 1747. Lightfoot was the highest assessed taxpayer among 50 residents who obtained land in a 10,000-plus tract belonging to a former Irish merchant named Joseph Pike.
Although the region eventually had seven additional mills, the Anselma Mill, named for a 19th-century village that once included a one-room school, a general store, post office and rail depot, was one of the few that operated successfully.
“For years, this was the only game in town,” Rollenhagen says. He explains how the grain is fed into a gap between the burr stones, each grooved in a certain pattern to aid in the shearing and crushing of the grain.
Rollenhagen, who is known for his calm and easy manner, is admired by the other volunteers for his ease with schoolchildren. He’s able to explain such colloquial and obsolete terms as “grist for the mill” and “in the hopper,” along with various mill parts such as the “damsel” and the “shoe” to the numerous groups who tour.
“Working with the kids is the best part of the job,” Rollenhagen says, modestly understating the fact he keeps the entire mill in working order and that his business card reads “Miller.”
Active from 1747 to about 1950, the Anselma Mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. The 22-acre complex includes trails that take you to various locations such as the “upper” pond that feeds the mill pond and headrace and to former farm outbuildings and the ghostly traces of the former Pickering Valley Railroad.
Anselma was once the largest dairy shipping point on the line and had the second largest creamery in Chester County; just two reasons the village has been called a virtual theater of the changes that took place in the agrarian, commercial and industrial activities of Chester County. However, the centerpiece of the village has always been the Anselma Mill. Historians have long claimed it to be a rare artifact that reflects both the “Wooden” age of technology and the post-1820 “Automatic Flour Mill.”
The art of turning grain into flour— cleaned, ground, cooled, bolted, and packed—never changed from the colonial days on. But the process was made easier by a Wilmington inventor named Oliver Evans who installed features like lifts, pulleys and conveyors to transport the grain from one milling stage to the next.
Today the sounds of straining and creaking wooden cogs and gears—and the grain-scented air—give visitors a glimpse into the life of the miller, once the unofficial mayor of early communities and later romanticized by 19th-century writers and poets who feared losses brought on by the Industrial Age.
Ironically, one of the most famous poetsof Chester County, Sara Vickers Oberholtzer knew firsthand the dangers and rigors of running the mill: she was wife to the miller John Oberholtzer, who turned to storekeeping after being seriously injured while trying to free a frozen waterwheel. In one of her many Anselma-inspired poems, “Lost Music,” she mourned no longer hearing the milling sounds of “clattering, clattering/grinding and pattering.
During my visit, Charlie Jordan spoke of his late father, Dr. Henry A. Jordan, a philanthropist and early champion of the mill, who knew the only way to save its ancient history was to get a lot of people involved. “I think it’s an incredible place,” Jordan says, “You’re walking back to the 1700s.”
Thanks to Henry Jordan and other former board members of the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust, they were able to purchase the mill from the estate of Anselma’s last miller, Oliver “Pop” Collins, who died in 1982.
“Our second meeting was to ask ourselves to what period of time do we want to restore this mill?” George M. Irwin recalls, adding that he first got to know the then tucked-away mill when he was chair of the supervisors. “We thought, do we want to take it all the way back to 1747 or just to the 1800s? The other alternative was to when it stopped being a mill in 1933.”
In the end, the board decided that Anselma Mill would reflect its many eras including the final stretch when Collins—a multitasker before there was such a term—found many uses for the mill without making any drastic changes. In fact, it was Collins who helped to preserve the Anselma Mill by not doing much to it.
In 1919, the 31-year-old Collins bought the mill for $2,800 and moved to Anselma with his wife and three children. As he often told the succession of newspaper reporters who came to visit, he was born during the infamous blizzard of 1888 and knew how to overcome difficulties using his mechanical ability honed from years working with mills and machines.
During his first years in Anselma, the mill complex reflected his many occupations ranging from running the post office to operating a steam engine-powered sawmill and a cider mill that was especially profitable during Prohibition.
With his ingenuity, the mill became a kind of one-man operation, with surplus submarine batteries, for instance, installed in the mill and charged by the waterwheel to turn equipment belts instead of millstones.
Today Collins’ old office, filled with crowded shelving and an old-fashioned barber’s chair, tells of his final years when he cut hair and sharpened tools for a living.