Bernard A. Drew: Alford's (almost) turn-key gristmill
I’m researching 18th and 19th century waterpowered industry for an Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area report. That’s why Donna and I last summer visited operating mills at Old Sturbridge Village, Hanford Mills and Upper Canada Village. Learned a lot.
But now I’ve been to a gristmill that not only dates from the 1760s, it has two intact original grinding machines, one a Civil War-era buhr stone grain mill and the other a tub-like crusher of some sort. Original line shafting and leather belts are still mounted to the ceiling. With a little skill and sweat, the turbine could be set to running again and there’d be an operable mill. Or so I imagine.
The mill is in Alford. An 1858 Berkshire atlas indicates Barrett’s "Chair Manfy" at a mill pond on Alford Brook, near village center. Daniel Barrett (1778-1864) owned the two-story woodframe building from 1830 to 1856. Besides making chairs, Barrett was the town’s first postmaster and was a captain in the militia. Barrett assembled chairs, but in season he still ground grain.
Asahel Gilbert was the original owner, said to have put up a mill in 1764 to replace one that had burned. This was when Alford was still part of Great Barrington. Gilbert conveyed the mill to Jabez Hamlin in 1802 and Hamlin rebuilt the dam, which is still in place.
Hamlin paid $1,100 for the property. The deed describes "one certain barn, or Grist-Mill, standing on Lot 23 of the west division of lots, so-called, with a suitable Mill-Yard, Ponding or Flowing with all the appurtenance and privileges belonging to sd. mill, with a privilege of a road to run north from the mill, along by the mill pond ..." After Hamlin’s death Barrett acquired the property in 1832 for $421. 13, the deed describing a water gristmill and privileges and the right to raise the dam.
Calvin Davis continued the business after Barrrett. He sold to Stephen Smith in 1882. Smith ran a cider and feed mill. Amos C. Brainard took over in 1893, and then Edward A. Rich in 1906. The Rich deed refers to a pond and spillway but not to a gristmill, so it had by then ceased operation. No surprise. There weren’t many farmers raising grain anymore.
The mill and dam and much-changed miller’s house, tucked out of sight below the street, are for sale. The real estate agency’s website shows several interior views of surviving, antiquated grinding equipment in the mill.
"It needs a lot of renovation, as you can imagine, but it’s exciting that it’s there at all," said Timothy Lovett, co-founder of Berkshire Property Agents.
I asked for a tour. And on a chilly minus-4 F February morning, Selina Lamb of the agency obliged my curiosity. She gamely listened to my chatter (no, my teeth weren’t chattering, I was rambling on about how the mill probably worked) as I snapped photos.
It was a step back into time. Real time, not museum time. The pulleys in the mill’s main room still has some of the belting. They connect with shafts and pulleys near a workbench, where Barrett powered a lathe and table saw. Some of the gears are cast iron. But at least one set is wooden -- surely from the first iteration of the grist mill. There’s a small grinder on this floor. It is small and I’m guessing has steel teeth, rather than stones. It was too dark to see inside and I hadn’t taken a flashlight. And I wasn’t going to run my fingers around inside without looking first.
I consulted with members of the Society for the Preservation Of Old Mills (SPOOM), North East Chapter. Don Woods of Vermont and John Lovett of Tennessee were very helpful and I have come to believe the upper floor machine is a vertical corn and cob crusher. It would have been used to grind cattle feed. On the lower level a shaft comes up from the turbine to a bullwheel that was belted to the small grinder made by Burton W. Leonard of Bridgeport, Conn., based on his 1858 patent No. 19,093. Beside it is a small wooden swivel crane with eyed hooks, used to remove the stones for sharpening or replacement. This machine ground wheat or other grains for meal or flour for household use.
Deep snow, a ripping river and thick ice discouraged me from examining the turbine, housed in a small leanto off the rear of the mill. There likely was a full waterwheel at the beginning of the mill’s life. Turbines were more efficient and easier to maintain.
I do not know why the mill is still intact. I do know that in our newly gluten-conscious world few people want ground wheat, so it’s probably a losing bet this mill will ever grind grain again. But I hope the next owners find a way to preserve this gem. It is a rare and fascinating connection with our agrarian past.
The author would be pleased to hear from readers about any other interesting mill sites in South and Central Berkshire, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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