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Heralding Our History: Durham furnace gets new life as a mill

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One of the significant challenges of colonial-era iron making was that the furnaces were charcoal fueled. Since the old Durham furnace consumed the wood of one entire acre of forest per day, it wasn’t long until the wood supply had outstretched its logistical limits of delivery. The old 1727 furnace shut down circa 1790 and the site lay dormant until 1820. However, since the area had been denuded of trees, it was only logical that farmers would move into the area and make use of the fertile soil thereby created. They found the lime-rich soil to be ideal for stone-fruit (peach, plum, cherry and apricot) trees but, more importantly, also for another crop which helped to sustain daily life and provide the farmer with a good income. That crop was wheat.

Although there were various mills in the area, Judge William Long intuitively realized that a modern mill of significant size, with the ability to handle large harvests of grain, could be a profitable venture. He acquired the property that had formerly housed the furnace and built a mill upon the old furnace’s walls. Making use of the already constructed mill race and the waterwheel, which had powered the old furnace’s bellows, the mill became operational in short order.

For its time, the mill was technologically advanced, with four sets of millstones. Most mills of the time only had two sets, one for local use and one, using imported French stone, for a finer ground flour suitable for sale. The Durham Mill’s four pairs of stones set it apart from its competitors. In time, not only wheat was ground at the mill but also oats, rye, buckwheat and of course, corn.

In 1912, by which time the mill had been acquired by the Riegel family of nearby Riegelsville, a decision was made to add a warehouse to the mill complex. This enabled the miller to store grain for longer periods so that the milling season could be extended. In addition, the storage facilities could be rented to local farmers as a safe place to have their grain stored until further processing was needed. The mill and the warehouse both made use of the Oliver Evans system of milling, which basically directed incoming grain to be transported to the top floor of the mill by a water powered elevator system and then utilized gravity to move the grain through the various stages of processing.

The mill had a partnership with the Ceresota Flour organization and had a huge Ceresota mural painted on its southern wall. (This mural was painstakingly restored in 2003 by an artist commissioned by the Historical Society.) The flour produced by the mill had a reputation for quality and purity and for this reason, the Orthodox Jewish community in New York made use of Durham flour in the making of matzoh for the Jewish holidays. (An interesting account of this can be found in a story related by a Riegel relative on the society’s website: www.durhamhistoricalsociety.org.)

As time went by, the mill became unable to compete with larger, more modern mills. In order to stay in business, it converted its operation from the grinding of flour to the production of animal feed.

Eventually it converted its water-powered system to electricity and instead of employing millstones, a hammer mill and then rolling mills were used. A large molasses vat was installed in the mill to store molasses which was mixed with the processed grain to make the feed more palatable for the animals. Even the animal feed business became too competitive for a small operation to prosper and in 1967, after 147 years of operation, the mill shut its doors.

Fortunately, the building remained a virtual time capsule and most of the internal workings remain as they were when the lights were turned off 56 years ago. The building is currently owned by Durham Township, with the Durham Historical Society serving as “Friends of the Mill,” offering programs to the community and raising funds to refurbish and restore the mill to a point where, sometime in the future, it may be operational once again, at least for demonstration purposes.

David Oleksa is president Durham Historical Society.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.


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