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The Miller in Eighteenth-Century Virginia An Account of Mills & the Craft of Milling, as Well as a Description of the Windmill near the Palace in Williamsburg

The Miller in Eighteenth-Century Virginia
An Account of Mills & the Craft of Milling, as Well as a Description of the Windmill near the Palace in Williamsburg
Category: Virginia / History
Title: The Miller in Eighteenth-Century Virginia An Account of Mills & the Craft of Milling, as Well as a Description of the Windmill near the Palace in Williamsburg
Release Date: 2018-10-05
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Miller in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

in Eighteenth-Century

An Account of Mills & the Craft of Milling, as well as a Description of the Windmill near the Palace in Williamsburg

Williamsburg Craft Series

Published by Colonial Williamsburg


The Miller in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

Decorative capital

The reader of this account, being of openmind and charitable disposition, as good menand women have ever been, will readily recognizethat whatever may appear in these pagesto the discredit of millers in times past cannotbe taken to reflect in any fashion upon the presentmaster of Mr. Robertson’s windmill. Indeed, the age-oldrepute of the calling is as distasteful to him and his colleaguesof today as it would be inappropriate if applied tothem.

Unhappily, it cannot be denied that millers of an earlierday—those of Chaucer’s generation, for example—left somethingto be desired in the way of scruple. That gifted storytellerand honest reporter of the age in which he lived gaveprominent place in his Canterbury Tales to two millers.One of these was the villain and ultimate victim in theReeve’s Tale: “A thief he was, forsooth, of corn and meal;And sly at that, accustomed well to steal.”

The other miller of the Canterbury Tales was himself oneof the pilgrims, as merry and uncouth a rogue as one couldfind in any band of cathedral-bound penitents: “He couldsteal corn and full thrice charge his tolls; and yet he had athumb of gold, begad.” That last remark, an allusion tothe proverb that “every honest miller has a thumb of gold,”cut a broad swath indeed. Only Chaucer’s own regard fortruth could have moved him thus to dignify the popular2belief that among millers integrity was as rare as twenty-four-caratthumbs.

Similar distrust can be discerned in early feudal and manoriallaws in England, which prescribed certain methods ofoperation for grist millers and established correspondingpenalties for violation. The miller was directed to chargespecified tolls for his services, and no more. The lord of themanor got his grain ground “hopper free,” since he generallyowned the mill and held the local milling monopoly. Underthe thirteenth-century Statute of Bakers, chartered land-holderspaid the miller one-twentieth of the grain he groundfor them, and tenants-at-will gave one-sixteenth, whilebondsmen and laborers had to part with one-twelfth of whatthey brought to the mill.

The same law also required that the miller’s “toll-fat”(or dish) and “sceppum” (or scoop) used to measure grainbe accurate. The manorial seal on a measure testified thatit had been compared with the standard measure and foundexact. But millers in all lands and times (the present excepted,of course) have been adept at finding ways to outwitlaw and customer at the same time.

A method popular among some millers was to build squarehousings for the millstones, thus providing four innocentcorners in which quite a bit of meal could collect. The moreartful members of the craft built a concealed spout that carrieda small proportion of the meal to a private bin whilethe visible spout delivered the bulk of it to the customer’scontainer.

Other stratagems, too varied and too numerous to listhere, testify to the craftiness of many millers. The lengthsto which the law went in trying to keep up can be seen in anEnglish statute of 1648. This law, closing one loopholethrough which a miller could levy a hidden toll, allowed himto keep no hogs, ducks, or geese in the neighborhood of themill, and no more than three hens and a cock.

All of this ingenuity, most of the popular suspicions of the3milling craft, and some of the legal restrictions consequentupon both, crossed the Atlantic along with the millers andmillwrights who came to the colonies. More details of thisin a moment; meantime, what of the mill that belonged tothe man that owned the name of rascal?

Some simple grist mills: (A) stone mortar and pestle; (B) saddlestone andmetate; (C) sappling-and-stump type of mortar and pestle, often used by earlycolonists; (D) Roman quern.


For uncounted generations in every pre-mechanical civilizationgrain has been ground in a variety of one-woman-powerdevices. Pounding with mortar and pestle was oneof the earliest and is still the crudest of these devices. Thesaddlestone-metate device, still to be seen in some areas ofCentral and South America, substituted a rolling, slidingmotion to the upper stone that rubbed and sheared the grain.Finally, the Roman quern, rotating continually in the samedirection and shearing the kernels between grooved faces4of matched stones, opened the door to the use of naturalinstead of muscle power.

History does not record the name of the man, probably aGreek, who first harnessed natural power to grind grainbetween opposing stones. Possibly it happened when hiswife handed him the family quern with the command,“Here, you do it!”—in Greek, of course. What he did, insteadof earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, was toapply brain power. He fixed a water wheel to the lower endof a vertical shaft and attached the upper end to the upperstone of his handmill. And then, no doubt, he went fishingin the millstream while the flowing water did his work.

In the anonymous Greek’s footsteps, a Roman namedVitruvius made the arrangement more flexible by introducingwooden gearing to transmit the power. Others madefurther improvements in the slow progress of time until thewatermill was a reasonably efficient and widely used machine.The Domesday Book, or census of the year 1080,recorded 5,624 mills in England alone, all operated eitherby animal or water power.

The identity of the man or men who invented the windmillis also lost in the mists of antiquity—or at least of theMiddle Ages. The earliest authenticated reference to a windmillin western Europe refers to one that stood in Franceabout the year 1180. The next known reference dates from1191 and concerns a windmill in England. Both were postmills, more or less like the reconstructed windmill of WilliamRobertson in Williamsburg. This is the simplest amongseveral types of wind-operated mills and was the type firstadopted in Europe, in England generally, and in the colonies.

Anyone who has read much poetry cannot fail to realizethat a watermill is by nature a more romantic machine thana windmill. Poets recognize this as a fact, and perhaps non-poetswho have spent some well remembered moments downby the old mill stream will agree. But this is not to saythat windmills are lacking in emotional appeal and romanticinspiration. Far from it. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:


“There are few merrier spectacles than that of manywindmills bickering together in a breeze over a woodycountry, their halting alacrity of movement, their pleasantbusiness of making bread all day with uncouth gesticulations,their air gigantically human, as of a creaturehalf alive, put a spirit of romance into the tame landscape.”

One of the earliest medieval illustrations of a windmill in England is this brassplaque (here redrawn) in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk. It tellsthe ancient joke on the good farmer riding to the mill: To relieve his tired horseof the burden, he carried the sack of grain on his own back! Note that the mill wasa post mill and that it was slightly head sick.


A post mill, as its name suggests, perches somewhat likea flagpole-sitter on the end of a sturdy post held upright bya timber framework. The Laws of Oleron, a breezily wordedmaritime code adopted in England about 1314, stated that“some windmills are altogether held above ground, and havea high ladder; some have their foot in the ground, being, aspeople say, well affixed.” In the latter case the substructureof timber bracing was not above ground, but was buriedin a mound of earth.

The comparison to a flagpole-sitter is perhaps misleading,for the post does not end where the mill house begins.Rather, it enters the body of the mill through a loose fittingcollar beneath the lower floor and extends about half-wayup into the mill, where it ends in a pivot bearing. The entireweight of the mill—sails, body, millstones, shafts, gears,grain, meal, and miller (to say nothing of the mill cat, kittens,and resident mice)—rests on this single bearing at thetop of the great post.


Keeping so much weight in stable balance was no greatproblem for the millwright as long as the mill did not move.The collar or ring bearing around the post kept the bodyfrom tipping far in any direction—or was supposed to.Moreover, the millwright estimated the weights of the variouselements and positioned them appropriately about thepivot. Of course, things sometimes came out wrong. Amill that tipped incurably forward was called “head sick”;one that always tipped backward was “tail sick.”

When the mill was in motion the matter of stability becamea good deal more complicated. For various reasons,including aerodynamic and gyroscopic effects that the earlymillwrights sensed but did not fully understand, the balanceof a windmill is different in operation than at rest.The successful millwright, therefore, needed an accumulationof trial-and-error knowledge that might go back forgenerations.

The result, even though most everything but the millstoneswas of wood, was a surprisingly stable and exceedinglydurable structure. A post mill built in Lincolnshire,England, in 1509 was still in operation in 1909! And althoughany storm might leave tragedy in its wake, postmills toppled over less often than their precarious positionand top-heavy appearance would seem to promise. In thisrespect the Williamsburg mill is doubly guarded, beingequipped with removable metal braces and buried groundanchors for use in the event a hurricane is predicted. Thisadaptation, to be sure, is a twentieth-century safety measure,not an eighteenth-century custom.

The problem of balance, and the related difficulty ofmaneuvering a post mill to face the wind because its wholeweight is focused on the one bearing, generally limited suchmills to one or two pairs of stones. Some English post millshad three pairs and a few even four. But these exceptionsdemonstrate the limitations of the post mill and the reasonsfor development of its successor, the tower mill.


The purpose in this development was to transfer weightfrom the pivoted upper portion of the mill to solid groundbeneath it. In the tower mill, almost the whole mill becamea firm structure. Only the cap, holding the sails and theiraxle, needed to be turned to face the wind. Turning thiscap was far easier than turning the whole body of a postmill. Small to start with, tower mills became quite largewhen mechanical means were developed to adjust sail area.The tallest English tower mills were more than one hundredfeet high at the hub of the sails, with sweeps that reached outas much as forty feet.

The so-called “smock mill,” common in Holland andbrought to England probably in the time of James I, is atower mill whose structure is framed and covered in woodrather than built up of masonry. Examples of this varietyof mill can still be seen on Nantucket Island, Cape Cod,Long Island, in Rhode Island, and perhaps elsewhere. Theeastern end of Long Island contains more colonial windmillsthan any other part of the United States today, and allwithout exception are smock mills.


Both windmill and watermill have been intimately associatedwith the development of the English colonies inAmerica from their earliest days. This, of course, is nota matter of wonderment since bread was the staff of lifethen even more than it is today. No doubt all the earlysettlements had mortars or small hand mills, and in manycases they also employed larger ones powered by animals.

The first settlers at Jamestown in 1607 brought with themfull and detailed instructions drawn up in advance by theVirginia Company of London. The 144 men and boys wereto be divided into three working groups: one to build afort, storehouse, church, and dwellings; the second to clearland and plant the wheat brought from home; and the third8to explore the surrounding countryside in search of theNorthwest Passage, mineral riches, or other resources thatmight return dividends to the company’s stockholders.

As it turned out, the planting of grain received less thanprime attention. Defense against the Indians was a morepressing demand, and many of the gentlemen settlers wereunwilling to soil their hands with menial labor. An

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