Posts Tagged ‘roller mills’

Coffin’s Mills

May 21, 2009

Coffin’s Mills, 1912, from the George Russell album of Franklinsville Mfg. Co. Author’s Collection.

Flour milling is Franklinville’s oldest activity. Since at least 1801 the falls of the river there powered a grist and saw mill which had in turn nurtured a small community of shops and houses. In 1821 those mills were acquired by Elisha Coffin; from him the settlement took its name, “Coffin’s Mills,” and became the site of one of North Carolina’s oldest textile factories.

That’s Franklinville history in a nutshell, but the answers to the basic “who, what, when and where” questions of the town’s founding are all more complicated.

The first person known to have held title to the site of Franklinville was Jacob Skeen, who in 1784 received it as a grant from the State of North Carolina [See Randolph County Deed Book 2, p.136 (State to Jacob Skeen, 2 Nov. 1784) and Book 4, p.108 (Skeen to daughter Jane, 23 Sept. 1790)]. In 1795 Skeen’s daughter and heir, Jane Safford, and her husband Revel Safford, sold the 400-acre tract to George Mendenhall, who in turn sold it to Benjamin Trotter, both of whom could recognize good mill real estate [Book 17, p.226 (Jane & Revel Safford to George Mendenhall, 9 Sept. 1795) and Book 8, p.401 (Mendenhall to Benjamin Trotter, 28 July 1797)]. Both men were millers, but it is unclear whether they made any use of the site, and their intentions may have been purely speculative. Mendenhall owned the substantial mill on Deep River now known as Coletrane’s Mill, and he seems to have acquired sites for other mills as investments. In 1801, Trotter sold the property to Christian Morris; that deed refers to “Benj’n Troter of Randolph County and State of No. Carolina (Miller).” [Deed Book 8, p.441 (Trotter to Christian Moretz, 15 Oct. 1801)].

Either Mendenhall or Trotter could have been the first to utilize the property as the site of a grist mill. Local tradition, however, states that the first mill at the site was built by the 1801 buyer, Christian Morris (or Moretz), a member of the German community in northeastern Randolph. [J.A. Blair, Reminiscences of Randolph County, 35 (Greensboro: Reece & Elam, 1890)].

Whether or not Morris built the first mill, by 1802 he was being taxed for the operation of a large cotton gin (verbal shorthand for ‘engine’). Invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, the unpatented invention spread quickly around the South, and Randolph County had five gins subject to taxation the year Morris erected his machine. [“Return of the Cotton Machine for the Year 1802,” in Randolph County Miscellaneous Tax Records, C.R. 081.701.5, North Carolina State Archives]. Morris’s was one of the larger machines, featuring 30 saws designed to pull the cotton fibers from the seeds. Since Morris also operated a wool-carding machine and saw mill at the mill, it appears that the site rapidly acquired the characteristics of a rural trading community. At the tiny frame mill a farmer could have his corn and grain ground into flour, have his timber sawed into lumber, gin the seeds from his cotton, and have the wool from his sheep carded for his wife to spin into yarn.

Morris died about the year 1812, and his extensive property holdings were divided among his children by the county court. Morris’ oldest son, John, received the mill tract, but since he had moved to Lincoln County, North Carolina, someone else must have run the mill until it was sold to James Ward in 1818. [Deed Book 14, p.124 (John Morris to James Ward, 2 April 1818)].


Elisha Coffin, taken about 1855.

Elisha Coffin (23 November 1779 – 22 May 1870) was a son of Nantucket Quakers who moved to the New Garden community (now Guilford College) in the 1770s. In 1816 he purchased a mill site on the Uwharrie River (Deed Book 13, Page 127), but soon sold that and purchased the Deep River mill from Ward [Deed Book 14, p. 531 (Ward to Elisha Coffin, 25 Dec. 1821)]. Owner and operator of several other mills in Guilford and Randolph Counties mills, Coffin was also a farmer, merchant and politically active Justice of the Peace. He organized a group of investors under the name of “The Randolph Manufacturing Company,” with the aim of building Deep River’s second cotton factory. [Southern Citizen (Asheboro), 3 March 1838], and ambitiously named the small community to honor Jesse Franklin, then the governor of North Carolina. It continued to be known locally, however, as “Coffin’s Mills on Deep River” until the name “Franklinsville” was officially recorded in the town’s 1847 legislative act of incorporation. [Chapter 200, Private Laws of 1846-47, ratified 18 Jan. 1847]. Coffin sold his property in 1850 after pro-slavery interests took control of the factory (Deed Book 28, Page 479), and purchased 345 acres on Richland Creek (Deed Book 28, Page 480) from Thomas Lucas—probably the mill site now known as “Kemp’s Mill.” He eventually moved back to Guilford County, ending his career as proprietor of the “College Mill” at New Garden.

Much if not all of the building pictured must dated from the time of Coffin’s ownership, as the oversized twelve-over-twelve window sash are appropriate to the 1830s. It is probable that the original windows were closed only by sliding wooden shutters, as in the Walker/Nixon mill and Dennis Cox mill. The dormer window lighting the attic floor is even later, probably added around 1880. The steeply-pitched roof of the building provided space for grain storage, and the north-facing lucam in the gable allowed wagons to be unloaded between the cotton factory and grist mill, and the grain sacks hoisted into the attic. An earlier photograph suggests that the lucam might have been remodeled, and could have been enclosed originally as at the Walker/Nixon mill.

The 2 ½-story frame building shown above is the smallest, and probably the oldest, Randolph County grist mill in any surviving photograph. The photographer is looking northeast, at the western and southern walls of the building. The grist mill shown here was about 30 x 30 feet in plan, and was situated about 75 feet west of the river and 25 feet from the south wall of the cotton factory boiler house and smokestack. At that location the building was sitting approximately 15 feet above the level of the river, and judging from the water level of the race the water wheel under the shed must have been a “pitch-back” style breast wheel. The flowing water would have hit the buckets of the wheel somewhere between 10 and 11 o’clock, causing the wheel to rotate counterclockwise. The shed roof to the right (or southern end) of the building covered the water wheel, and to its right, out of frame, was a sash sawmill. The head race is dry while the crew rebuilds it, but the mill operates even without the water power. The smaller shed roof to the left, at the northwest corner, is attached by piping to the vertical steam boiler visible at left, and exhaust steam spraying out of the pipe just above the jib boom crane indicates that the engine must be running.


1885 Sanborn map (the 1888 map is identical). The boiler and engine house of the cotton mill is just to the north.

According to the 1885 Sanborn Insurance Company map of Randolph County, the mill was heated by an open grate fireplace and lit by candles. It featured three “run” of mill stones on the first floor, with a “smutter” machine and “bolting chest” on the second floor. From this we can reconstruct the entire operation of the mill. A farmer delivered his harvest to the base of the north wall, where the windlass in the lucam hoisted the grain into the attic, called by millers “the sack floor.” From there the grain dropped by gravity to the “bin floor,” where the grain was cleaned and stored in large wooden bins. The smutter and bolter
mentioned by the insurance agent were on bin floor, and were the minimum machinery required to produce high quality flour. A smutter is an enclosed fan which cleans the raw grain by blowing mold, rust, fungus and dirt particles off the kernels. A bolter is an inclined, revolving wooden cage covered with silk; flour conveyed into the bolter was sifted by the silk, with the smallest particles falling through the silk at the high end to make the finest quality flour, the next grade through the silk in the center called the “middlings,” and the coarse bran collected from the bottom as breakfast cereal and animal feed.

To start the grinding operation, a wooden chute was opened to funnel grain from the bin floor to the “stone floor,” where it fell into the “hopper,” held in place by the four-legged “horse” atop the “stone case,” a circular wooden frame enclosing the working pair of millstones. From the hopper grain vibrates into the “shoe,” a tapering wooden trough through which the grain is fed into the stones. The turning upper stone, or “runner,” does the grinding work against the fixed “bed” stone. The ground meal or flour worked its way to the center or “eye” of the bed stone, where it was channeled through a spout into a bin or bag on the “meal floor,” at ground level, or conveyed back to the sack floor for bolting or further storage.

Grist mills with just one or two stones were considered “custom” mills, because they ground to the personal specifications of the farmers who patronized the mill. What the farmer brought in (wheat, rye, barley, oats or corn) was what he got back, in a different form (flour, meal, bran), less a portion retained by the miller as his fee (the toll”– no money changed hands). The bolter was another step in refining the finished product, and allowed the miller to collect an additional toll. A “merchant” mill had three or more “run” or pairs of stones and operated year-round, packaging the flour in 100-lb. bags and 196-lb. barrels for sale to the general public. Although a single pair of stones could be used to grind any kind of grain, one stone was usually reserved for grinding wheat and one for corn, and the stones were furrowed in a way that worked best to grind each type of grain (no one bothered with 5-lb. Bags then!). Many mills used an expensive “buhr” stone imported from France for grinding the best quality white flour, while corn could be ground on American granite or sandstone. In a merchant mill, the third stone was sometimes used to clean grain or de-hull oats, barley, or buckwheat; but by 1885 it is likely that the third stone was being used to regrind the middlings, producing higher quality flour. That procedure was called “new process” milling, and it was developed to compete with the new “roller mill” technology developed in the late 1870s which used grooved porcelain or toothed steel rollers to pull the grains apart rather than grind them. Roller milling was the biggest technological change in the milling process in 2,000 years. The invention of roller mills not only outmoded grist mills, but caused a complete shift in the types of wheat that were produced by American farmers.

In 1912 the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company replaced this antique grist mill with a greatly-expanded modern roller grinding operation. That three-story “Roller Mill” opened in 1913, operated until 1990, and burned in 1992. When their picture above was taken in 1912, the gang of men were building wooden forms for the concrete walls of the new roller mill head race, or “forebay.” At least eight of the fifteen men in the photo appear to be African-Americans; they are not the ones white shirts, vests and ties. At this time the only jobs in or around the factory for black workers were the ones requiring heavy lifting, usually in the mill “yard,” loading and unloading wagons or managing the 500-pound bales of cotton in the opening room. Here the construction crew digging and forming up the new race appear to be entirely or predominately black.

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Dicks’ Mill

April 15, 2009

[Circa-1960 photo of Dicks Mill from North Randolph Historical Society, http://www.stpaulmuseum.org/exhibit_randleman.htm]

The original name of Randleman was Dicks Mill, after the merchant flour mill shown here, built by Peter Dicks about 1830. The mill was built on Deep River above the modern U.S. 220 Business highway bridge, but about 1900 was moved downstream to stand near the Naomi mill. At one time it included not only wheat and corn stones but an oil mill. It was demolished about 1965. Architecturally the building is too big to be an 18th-century mill, and the many large windows (nine over six sash, unusually large) are early-19th century at best. It is the size of what was called a “merchant mill,” a mill that not only ground corn into meal and wheat into flour, but graded the flour through bolting and sifting machinery to produce a more refined white flour.

Peter Dicks (b.1771 – d.1843), the subject of the last few posts here, was a farmer and a merchant who operated a general store in the then-thriving village of New Salem. He served in many public capacities, including being one of the commissioners of New Salem (incorporated 1816), who sold lots and laid off streets; he was a Justice of the Peace (what we now call a county commissioner); he also served as Clerk of the Court of Equity. He was one of the founders of New Garden Boarding School, now Guilford College; throughout his life remained a trustee of the school and was an active member of the Society of Friends in both Centre and New Salem Monthly Meetings. Peter Dicks and wife Nancy Ann Hodgson tombstones in New Salem Methodist Ch/Cem.

Even though it is historically clear that Peter Dicks’ mill on Deep River was the focal point around which the village of Union Factory and the City of Randleman subsequently coalesced, there is confusion over when that actually happened.

Some sources say 1800 (“Peter Dicks built a grist and oil mill, on Deep River in 1800.” (library http://www.randolphlibrary.org/historicalphotos.htm ; also Randleman city website http://www.randleman.org/History.aspx). Other sources say 1830 (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randleman,_North_Carolina , no citation). Pioneer local historian J.A. Blair in his “Reminisences of Randolph County” (1890) finesses over the question by saying “Away back in the shadowy past Peter Dicks had a grist and an oil mill at this place.”

I’ll say they’re all wrong, it was even earlier than that. Grandfather Peter Dicks (ca. 1720-1796), brought the family down from York County, PA to Guilford County in 1755, settled in the Polecat Creek area near Centre Meeting. At some point soon thereafter he built a mill on Deep River which became the family business. In the Rowan County Court Minutes, (McCubbins, ed., Book 1: 1753-1772, p. 1), we read:

“On petition of hickory Creek and Russell’s Runn and Poulcatt [Polecat]for a Road to Mill and Market, from Pennington’s Mill through Hickory Creek Settlement the best and nearest way to Peter Dick’s Mill and from thence to the Trading Path, the convenient way to Market on Cap Fair [Cape Fear], and that Peter Dicks, James Green, James Wilson, William Arafield [Armfield], Robert Lamb, George Hodgins, Robert Hodgins, Mathew Osborn, Daniel Osborn, John Osborn, Robert Fields, and William Fields be a jury to lay off the same and make return thereof to our next county court, and that James Green be appointed Overseer for the Lower Part and Abraham Cook for the upper part. Granted.”

Pennington’s Mill and Hickory Creek were in southern Guilford County, with the creek heading on or about the present Sedgefield golf course and running into Deep River below Freeman’s Mill (now under the Randleman Reservoir). “Russell’s Run” or Creek runs into Deep River between Freeman’s Mill and Coletrane’s Mill. Polecat Creek rises in southern Guilford and runs into Deep River below Randleman. So this road ran roughly from Sedgefield to Groometown Road near Jamestown to the Trading Path Ford near modern Randleman. [For more information on this petition and Pennington’s Mill, see http://penningtonresearch.org/resources/articles/Pages%2014-15-PP0602.pdf ). It appears that Peter Dicks either applied for permission to build a mill, or bought an existing mill site, just as soon as he came to North Carolina in the early-to mid-1750s. And if that mill on Deep River wasn’t located at the modern Randleman, I don’t know where else it could have been.

When Union Factory was built just upstream in 1848, it made use of the Dicks Mill dam. James Dicks (1804-1883), owner and operator of the grist mill at that time, became a stockholder of the cotton factory along with a group of fellow Quakers. When the Naomi Manufacturing Company was built in 1879-1880, a new dam was built downstream at the site of the Naomi Falls, and the new dam backed water into the tail race of the grist mill, making it inoperable. Dicks Mill was thereupon disassembled, moved to a site below the Naomi Factory, and reconstructed just beside the new bridge over the ford below the mill. The mill is clearly visible in several photographs of that side of Naomi factory, including one where it is in the background as the steel bridge is being replaced in 1959. The mill remained in business on that spot until it was demolished in the mid-1960s.

The final years of Dicks Mill were chronicled in this article by Ruby K. Marsh, published on Monday, March 28, 1960, in The Greensboro Record. This is one of the last descriptions of an operating grist mill in Randolph County.


Century-Old Mill Still Grinding Corn

Randleman, March 24—

The Old Naomi Roller Mill—grinding corn and wheat for over a century– is still running, using the same machinery re-installed in 1880 when the mill was moved down river for lack of water to operate.

Naomi Manufacturing Company (now J.P. Stevens Co.) built a new plant that year—just below the old grist mill, using up the available water supply to generate power for the cotton mill. The grist mill was torn down and relocated below the Naomi Falls plant where it still stands today- just as it has stood for 80 years.

Hand-hewn beams and rafters from the original mill were used to build this sturdy, three-story plant which is completely furnished with machinery for grinding flour and corn meal as well as other feeds.

The “old corn rock” is still in use with the original boards which were shaped by hand to surround the round rock which grinds corn. The boards were neatly mitred at the four corners, put together with large wedges of wood and look as though they would last another century if needed.

The woods are polished from the passage of corn over the surface over the years. The floor too is polished as slick as though freshly waxed. Here wide pine boards of about two-inch thickness were used, the floor being as solid today as it was when placed there despite vibrations from the heavy machinery.

Just when the mill converted to electricity is not definitely known by present owner W.C. Routh, but he thinks about 40 years ago. The old mill race has been filled in, and boards cover the opening where water flowed underneath.

Six different processes were required before flour could be finished. In the old roller mills section—now idle—elevators carried wheat from one floor to the other, dropping the ground flour down through bins where pure Japanese silk screens bolted the flour—sending any coarse materials back into the elevator to be carried back to the roller where it was reground, then redropped into the screen for sifting. Waste materials went out a separate chute. Some of these old silk screens are still hanging on the wall, though they are now yellowed with age.

Up on the third floor the pan to mill self-rising ingredients is still sitting on top of the scales, just waiting to be used once more. The mixing bins where the flour and self-rising soda baking powder and salt- were added now have dirt-dobbers nests inside. The old wooden barrel which once held three or four bushels of corn is sitting idly by.

Corn was brought up from the wagon outside by a windlass which a man could pull with one hand. About 200 lbs. of corn could be carried up with one hand on the large four-foot wheel with a rope 1 ½ inches thick, being located out under the eave of the roof.

In front of the mill old dutch doors with a long slide wooden latch locks the door at night. The upper half is kept open during the day so people can see the place is open for business.

In the office the old box-type desk was nailed to the wall—right where it was located 80 years ago. The stool, made of two-inch pine, is polished from the millers sitting to tally up the price of a sack of corn meal or flour.

On the wall is a sign telling everyone to beware of the loaded rifle, kept to shoot rats which become troublesome sometimes. Little boys became meddlesome so Mr. Routh put up this sign.

Corn cobs are used to keep the office warn. They are burned in a tiny laundry heater.

On one of the large bins, names of the millers since 1900 are inscribed for posterity. Among them are five names of the seven Routh boys.

Routh and a brother operated a mill down in the borders of Chatham County just outside of Randolph at Bennett before Routh was born at Grays Chapel not far from his present home above the mill.

The mill site has long been a trading center. Indians traded with white settlers long before the Revolutionary War. It is also the site famed for the murder of Naomi Wise by her lover—for whom the mill is named.

Since he is partially retired Routh does not mind the slow pace which his mill now has—selling a little egg mash and other feeds and custom grinding corns for his friends, many of whom delight in going to visit him while he grinds corn on the ‘old corn rock.’