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Gristmill Grinds Again

Like the legendary phoenix, George Washington's Gristmill came to life last Friday after 152 years of silence.

Powered by a restored giant pitchback waterwheel, the two millstones began churning out finely ground corn and wheat under the watchful eyes of the millers and carpenters who had embarked on a labor of love to make the First President's contribution to the agricultural revolution a going operation.

"To have this fully operational is really exciting,” said Earl Clough, working as an apprentice miller.

With parts made of Virginia lumber, and a grinding operation based on authentic methods, the first president’s mill ground into operation for the first time in a century and a half, after half a decade of restoration.

It wasn’t the first time operations at the mill had been revamped. In 1771, Washington replaced a severely deteriorated gristmill on his 8,000-acre estate with a sandstone mill equipped with two sets of millstones. They ground the grain into super-fine flour, which Washington sold in markets as near as Alexandria and as far as the West Indies.

By 1850 both the mill and the adjacent distillery had ceased operation. Over the years, stones from the four-story mill and nearby distillery on Dogue Run were cannibalized to construct houses in the surrounding area.

In 1933, the Commonwealth of Virginia reconstructed the gristmill at its original site and opened it to the public as a state park. But it was not operational.

"From 1935 to 1990 the state requested Mount Vernon Estate take over the mill," said Dennis J. Pogue, associate director of Historic Mount Vernon. "We finally agreed on the condition that we could make it operational."

"WHEN WE STARTED we found most of the 1930s restoration had to be redone due to deterioration,” Pogue said. “So we assembled the nation's leading authorities to authentically reconstruct the mill. Visitors will see the entire flour-producing process — from seed to table."

Derek Ogden, a British millwright, was central to the restoration that would bring that process to life. Ogden came to the US in 1960 to construct an exact replica of the first English windmill built in Virginia. Now a resident of Madison County, he became the chief advisor on the Mt. Vernon project.

To make the mill operational, Ogden had to rebuild not only the millworks, but the entire interior of the gristmill itself, and he went looking for a team of carpenters skilled in historic restoration.

He found his men in Gus Kiorpis, lead carpenter, working with John O’Rourke and Tipper Davis.

"I started picking out the trees from various Virginia forests in 1996 with the help of state foresters," O'Rourke said. "We began cutting the lumber in 1997. Different woods are needed to properly build the structure to hold the stones."

KNOWN AS THE HURST FRAME, the two-story free-standing structure inside the mill not only holds the grinding stones, but also all of the works feeding grain and flour into and out of the mill. The mill also requires a counterweight system capable of lifting a 3,000-pound stone to the top floor of the mill.

"We brought in about three tractor-trailer loads of lumber,” O'Rourke said. The carpenters used white oak for the frame, maple for the cogs in the outside waterwheel.

"The waterwheel is the only one of its design now in existence,” Davis said. “It is known as a pitchback wheel because it catches and holds more water. It holds the water until it reaches about 10 o'clock in the turn before it dumps it. That delivers more power."

As the mill ground into operation on Friday, apprentice millers Clough and Mike Riley stood two floors up, feeding 50-pound sacks of whole grain into bins above the grind wheels.

"In Washington's time it took about seven years just to become a miller apprentice," Clough said. "The difference between a miller and a millwright is that the millwright is an experienced miller, plus he can do all the necessary repairs to the mill as they are needed.”

BUT ONE MORE ELEMENT is needed to bring the mill back to complete authenticity. This winter the Evans automated milling system will be installed. Upon completion it will be the only water-powered mill in the country to have a complete and fully operational version of this 18th century technological innovation.

Washington, always on the lookout for ways to improve farming, reduce the need for raw labor and increase revenue, was the first American farmer to use Delaware inventor Oliver Evans’ automated mill.

The mill was the third most profitable venture at Mount Vernon, trailing only the farms and the fishery, according to records. Washington made a profit of $25,000, in modern purchasing power, from grinding more than 275,000 pounds, of wheat. Another 3,200 bushels of ground corn were used internally at the plantation.

TOTAL COST of the Gristmill project, including installation of the Evans system, will be approximately $1.2 million. Financial support for the mill project was received from Cargill, Inc. and Betty and Whitney MacMillan, Chairman Emeritus of Cargill.

In addition to it tourism value, the restored mill will also serve as an educational facility. "The third floor is being developed as an learning center for students. They will be able to gain first hand knowledge about flour production and the entire milling process," said Stephanie Brown, marketing director for Mount Vernon Estate.