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Kathryn Finegan Clark: By the Way

Precious mill put back in shape


The Durham Grist Mill has had a partial facelift and was almost ready to show itself off to the public Saturday, but the continuing pandemic has put a stop to the special event.
It was to have featured tours of the mill by Ron Fox, a resident who worked there in the early 1960s after he had graduated from Palisades High School. In its final years, the mill was used to grind feed for animals but it had a long history of producing flour.
Durham Township officials and members of the Durham Historical Society had scheduled the event but as other municipalities announced cancellation after cancellation of other activities as COVID-19 numbers continued to rise, they decided to follow that cautious route as well.
“It’s a shame,” said Lois Oleksa, one of the directors of the society. “There’s so much history in this one place, three centuries of history. But there’s no reason we can’t have an open house at another date.”
The grist mill is built on the stone foundation of the 1727 blast furnace that provided ammunition for the Revolutionary War. Then William Long constructed his grist mill on the Colonial furnace’s foundation in 1820. In 1912, an adjoining warehouse was built.
The present complex also includes the township offices and meeting room, as well as the tiny Durham Post Office, said to be the second oldest in the country.
The mill was operated by Floyd Riegel until 1967. Bucks County bought the mill from Riegel and later sold it to Durham Township. It is listed on the Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places.
I’ve been a frequent visitor to the mill over the years when lectures and workshops have taken place there and it’s never looked better than it does now.
David Oleksa, society president, and Stephen Willey, treasurer, pointed out some of the improvements. They were made possible with funds from a $53,000 state Department of Economic Development grant spearheaded by former state Rep. Wendy Ullman.

A safe new viewing area now allows visitors to see the giant waterwheel. “It’s an overshot wheel that is turned by the water coming in from the top,” explained Willey. Before the see-through barriers were erected the open area was a bit hazardous for visitors. The mill also now owns a handsome old feedbox that came from a mill in the Lehigh Valley.
One of the most user-friendly improvements at the mill is the addition of a handicapped-accessible bathroom. Before that was added, people attending lectures or workshops would have to leave the mill and walk up the hill to use the restroom at the township building
“We’ve been working on this for many years,” Willey said. “First, we had a new roof, and then the walls were sealed. Now we have new windows, so the building envelope is enclosed.”
All 45 windows in the mill and warehouse have been either replaced or restored and they allow more sunlight to filter through. The electric lighting has also been updated.
In addition, the tailrace, the water channel below the wheel, has been cleared of debris. The mill is still in working order, just as it was more than 50 years ago.
David Oleksa said the nonprofit society has about 200 members with a full slate of officers and nine directors. “A dozen or so are very active and have done much of the volunteer work to improve the mill,” he said. The members are hoping someday to be able to sponsor events, such as parties or weddings at the mill if they can get the supervisors’ approval.
Jim Walter, a member of the society, started a Durham Historical Discussion Group on Facebook and it contains a lot of information from people whose fathers or grandfathers worked in the mill or had some other Durham historical interests.