Livingston County Mills
Compiled by John T. and Elizabeth P. Milbank
June 25, 1937
The first mills used by the settlers of Livingston and other counties were what
some facetiously called "Armstrong's Mills", that is to say, a mill
worked by a strong arm. Sometimes this was a mortar and pestle, a funnel-shaped
cavity burned in a stump into which corn was poured and with a pestle pounded
into meal and hominy. Sometimes it was a mortar and "Sweep'. The latter was
arranged like a modern well-sweep, save that instead of a rope attached to the
spring pole there was another pole, in the end of which an iron wedge was
inserted, making a very effective pestle.
In the first "Armstrong Mill" the stones that the burrs were made of was found on Honey Creek bluffs about six miles north of Chillicothe, and were made by Brannock Wilkerson about 1839. The base was a white oak stump hollowed out to fit the burrs. This was a free mill for all. Everyone had to do his own grinding. It was used for a number of years by the pioneers of the county. The next use it was put to was for grinding red lead to make a glaze for red pottery made by Abel Cox, the first pottery made in Livingston County. This mill, probably owned by the father of J.C. Cox, was kept by the latter as a relic of early days and the burrs were presented by him to John T. Milbank who has them in the basement of his home.
But power mills soon came in vogue and between Joseph Cox, who built a water mill in 1840 on the same location on Medicine Creek that was later known as Slagle's Mill, and Samuel Todd's mill on west Grand River near Utica, lies the claim of being the first water mill. Between Todd and Brannock Wilkerson lies the distinction of building the first horse-mill. Among the very early mills were Joshua Whitney's on Shoal Creek where Dawn now stands; James Black's horse-mill, afterwards Hicklin's, three miles northwest of Spring Hill, and Sharp's Mill in what is now Grundy County built as early as 1838.
Soon Mills sprang up in all parts of the county. This was in the good old days when housewives did not have bread, baked and even sliced, brought to their door, and anticipate the time when it will come pre-digested. It was in the days when farmers raised their wheat, harvested and brought it to the mills to be ground into flour. It was in the days when "Baking Day" was a household institution, the days that are gone forever.
Traces of some of these old mills may yet be seen, an old shaft; part of a foundation; a burr in the bottom of a creek, visible when the water is low a dam over which the water still flows with the same swiftness and power as when it turned the huge water-wheel.
Collier's Mill, one of the oldest, was located on Medicine Creek near the bridge on north Wheeling road, by Lewis Collier in 1851. It was a water mill built on the property of the father of the late Luther Collier, at one time a prominent lawyer in Chillicothe.
Joseph Slagle, the youngest of a family of twelve children -- it was the big families of the "good old days" which made the purchase of flour in 300 pound lots a necessity -- bought the Cox Mill, located on Medicine Creek, north of the Collier Mill which then was on its last legs and rumor says that later it fell into the creek.
Slagle also had across the road from his flour mill a carding mill and a brick kiln. Cox had laid out a town by the mill calling it Coxville, but it was a town without houses or inhabitants and has long since passed from memory. The mill itself was an institution of importance and numbered among its customers settlers not only from Livingston County but from Linn, Sullivan and Grundy. Yet perhaps Slagle is best remembered today by the fact that he had seven wives and that the seventh who survives him, erected a monument to his memory with the epitaph, "After life's fitful fever, he rests in peace".
Ulmer's Mill stood on Ulmer's bluff on the east fork of Grand River, fifteen miles northwest of Chillicothe. As was usual, a big frolic was staged at the "frame-raising". The proprietor was Casper Ulmer, the father of Miss Sadie Ulmer of Chillicothe. The great difficulty encountered by this mill, built about 1872, was in maintaining a dam at this spot. In the course of years it degenerated into a barn. The writer visited this mill, or what remained of it, many years ago, but could not see the mill for admiring the beautiful ferns and side-stepping the rattlesnakes on the side of the hill where it stood. Next in the circle was Braden's Mill at Utica, located on the west fork of Grand River between the river bridge and what is now the location of the Shale Hill Brick and Tile Factory. This mill was built at a big expense, the builder being ambitious to have a fine mill surpassing all others. But after passing through the hands of several owners it was torn down.
At Dawn a mill was erected on the site on an old pioneer mill, the owners being Mattingly Brothers. The other mills had been stone mills but this was in the days of the roller system.
At Bedford was a very old water mill of which no one seemed to know except "Old Charlie Ballew", an employee at Milbank's Mill and who as a boy, lived at Bedford. Later one of the owners was Dan C. Saunders for many years a resident of Chillicothe. There was also a steam mill at Avalon and a mill at Mooresville at one time owned by Harvey Ireland, grandfather of Miss Nell Ireland of this city.
Perhaps the best known of the county mills and the one which will be remembered longest, pictures of it hanging on the walls of many of our citizens and ex-Chillicotheans, is Graham's Mill. It was erected in 1867 on the Grand River, four miles northwest of town and was operated by him for twenty years, then passing into the control of his brother, Oliver Graham. Oliver Graham was a unique figure with his long flowing whiskers, so long that during business hours they were rolled into a knot and a hairpin stuck through them to keep them out of the way. Boys and girls of the "gay nineties" remember Graham's Mill as a picturesque place for moonlight picnics, where they danced on the scales platform to the music of the guitar, mandolin or French harp, and where the more romantic explored the dark mysterious depths of the covered bridge nearby known as Graham's Mill bridge. This mill was originally a stone mill but was remodeled with the roller system about 1890.
One of the last of the county mills to be built was a steam mill at Chula about 1890. It was in turn owned by Gardener and Treadway; Robert Wallbrunn and a Mr. Leavell. It has since been torn down.
The first mill in the town of Chillicothe was put up on E. Third Street by George W. Swank and was called the Keystone Mill because Swank came from Pennsylvania, the Keystone State. It was run by steam and combined a flour mill and a saw mill. The miller was Joseph Watson, father of the late "Joe" Watson, so well known here. In 1870 this mill was deeded to Hall (A.C.) and Loveland, and in 1874 to Holdridge and Sherman. John Holdridge was the father of Miss Alice Holdridge of Chillicothe. He ran the mill for thirteen years and abandoned it to go into the grain elevator business with George Rhea.
In 1867 George Milbank, coming here from Troy, Ill., broke down a fence and drove into an oatfield to lay the corner stone for the mill then called and still known as City Mills, and the original building is the central part of the mill today. Mr. Milbank started the mill in the spring and had it completed in time for harvest. It has been in operation constantly for seventy years and is now run by the third generation of Milbanks. In 1897 George Milbank sold the mill to his sons, John T. Milbank and Henry S. Milbank. In 1933 John T. Milbank, then sole owner, sold it to his son, John Palmer Milbank, present owner. The straggling little frontier town of 1867 has grown up to and around the mill. The mill pond which furnished water for power, and incidentally a swimming pool, a fishing hole, and a skating rink---according to the season--also a "baptizing ground", was long ago condemned by the city fathers as unsanitary.
From being a fifty barrel mill it has grown to be a one hundred and fifty one. The stones gave way to the roller process in 1888, and a Diesel engine has been substituted for steam. Typewriter, adding machine, and mimeograph add to the efficiency of the office force. The lard oil lamps which in the infancy of the mill were carried around were replaced by lanterns and they in turn by electricity. Where customers used to drive fifty miles or more with horse and wagon to bring their wheat and get their flour they now come in auto or truck, or send in their order by long distance telephone.
So well remembered is one of the early employees of the mill that customers still ask about him. This was Charlie Ballew, a colored man who died at the age of 93 and worked in the mill fifty years. During that time three months would cover his absence from the mill. He packed over three-fourths of a million sacks of flour, and although he did not go home at noon but carried a "full dinner pail", he had walked to and from his work enough miles to have traveled around the world.
Milbank's City Mills was the first Merchant Mill. In explanation to the uninitiated, a Merchant Mill is one that made a market for wheat at all times, buying all wheat and making it into flour, marketing such flour locally and to distant points, St. Louis and even to New York, as well as exchanging flour for wheat. The new mill ran night and day. A sign on the front of the mill reading, "Cash paid for Wheat" attracted the farmers. Heretofore they had "Custom Mills" which bought wheat only when needed, and grinding the farmers own wheat, giving him such flour in quantity and quality as his own wheat made, more a case of bartering than of buying and selling. "Cash for wheat" encouraged the growing of wheat and made Livingston County what it still is, barring droughts, floods and grasshoppers, a wheat center.
Other mills followed the Keystone and City Mills. A mill was erected at the corner of Cherry and Ann Streets in 1870 by Graham (Robert Graham, ex-sheriff) and Bement. After being run as a flour mill for five years it was converted into the "Bement Woolen Mill", manufacturing blankets chiefly. It was later bought by James Graham and his son, George, and was again a flour mill. Other owners during the life of the mill were John G. Graham and his son Harry; Graham and Pinckley, and the last owner was Henry Graham who tore down the mill and of the material built two houses now standing on the mill site.
A note of interest is added to this mill by the fact that in it was installed the first electric light plant Chillicothe ever had. Some promoter about 1890 placed just one arc light in front of what is now the Leeper House reading room, and the whole town flocked to see it. As the power came from the mill the owners became interested and formed a company, George Graham and the late W. E. Crellin being among the stockholders. The light plant later was sold to the water company.
At one time a corn mill was run by Robert E. Carr, better known as "Uncle Bobby", in a building put up as a foundry by Everhart Bros. on the corner of Elm and Polk Streets.
Tom Jackson and W. J. Gunby built an elevator and corn mill along the Burlington tracks which is now owned by Scruby Brothers and rented for the manufacture of poultry feed.
So mills came and mills went. Cawker's American Mill Directory of 1884 lists a round dozen mills in Livingston County, but in the county as throughout the whole country small mills are for the most part a thing of the past, and today Milbank's City Mills is the only mill from Quincy on the east to St. Joseph on the west.