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White’s Mill, Tylersport, Pennsylvania, Part 1

January 17, 2012

On my “About” page, I talk a little about how I ended up here, doing what I do (it’s a much longer, stranger story than is told there, but you have the pertinent facts).  One of the blips on the timeline has to do with my great-grandfather’s life.  I never knew the man, he died in 1935, but his son was my grandfather.  He was born at a mill in the Pennsylvania countryside and had a lasting attachment to the place until the day he died.

We didn’t tell him that they tore the mill down.  His old home was still standing, but the tall mill building was gone forever — a place he remembered as a busy, wheezing site of industry, dusted with flour, the air filled with the buzz from the sawmill and rock crusher.  There, in his mind’s eye, he could still see his family working and playing.

I wrote an article for the Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, and now I’ve chopped it up to share here.  Maybe those driving by that now-empty site will gain an appreciation for the phantom of what once was there.

“Experience once more that feeling of elation which seized you as you approached the rumbling old [mill] structure on a drowsy midsummer’s afternoon.  How your childish curiosity was aroused by the vertical row of doorways, one for each floor and often numbering as high as five.”[i]

Prologue

Figure 1. White's Mill, painted by Walter Baum

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Impressionist painter Walter E. Baum used both brush and pen to capture the landscape around his birthplace, Sellersville, Pennsylvania.  In newspaper articles and a slim volume impressively titled Two Hundred Years he evoked an image of the mill setting:

…I never failed to visit a mill whenever I had an opportunity to do so.  Naturally, also, I was attracted by the picturesque setting.  The old structures were wooden.  Later they were of stone, hardy and enduring.

When a miller chose a site, he took into consideration its accessibility for the neighboring farm people.  But more often he was concerned about the power which a stream could generate.  Quite naturally a place with a definite grade in the landscape was selected because it lent itself to the building of a dam.  Often, therefore, the mill structure was erected at odd places.

Today one drives along some out-of-the-way rural road and, among curves along the hillsides, suddenly there looms up a quaint structure.  Across the street or nearby is the miller’s house.  In the ensemble are a barn, a wagon shed and other buildings, added as the mill business expanded.

The spot seems deserted except, perhaps for a dog seeking the shade of the inevitable buttonwoods of the millstream.  The silence, as one approaches, is deceiving.  The miller is a busy person.  To see him one must go inside and, maybe, shout lustily.  Otherwise ‘twould be hard to attract him from the numerous chores that call him here, there and elsewhere in the building.  The tune of crunching mill stones, whirring, exciting shafting and pulleys with slap-slapping belts, the almost imperceptible drip-drip of a white or golden flow of flour or meal streaming from troughs to bins, the sonorous swish and groan of the mill wheel, the symbol of unfailing power, the click of cogs, the creak of timbers, protesting against the daily strain – these mystify the ear as if some strange symphony were heard for the first time.

As a figure in the ancient rural community the miller was a sage indeed. He was more than that; he was a man of influence and respect. The community depended upon him and, being of a type that required stability and character, he was one of the factors to promote its well being

To the alert miller these syncopations hold profound meanings.  The undue stress of some note here or the absence of another there, are becks and calls.  Perhaps some obstruction, escaping the screen in the mill stream, retards the wheel.  Maybe a lace or rivet has given way in some ancient belt.  Or, again, the stones, bolting their stock like some hurried child gulps its food in playtime, chokes and splutters.  These are an open book to him and, peering thru the dust, that whitens his face, hand, hair and clothing, he hastens to rectify or put in order the project, for such it truly is.

When all is well he can stop to chat with a visitor.  Indeed he is an interesting man – informed on what is new in his home community and eager to hear of what is going on outside.  Thus he becomes at once a sage alike to stranger or patron from the neighboring acres.

As a figure in the ancient rural community the miller was a sage indeed.  He was more than that; he was a man of influence and respect.  The community depended upon him and, being of a type that required stability and character, he was one of the factors to promote its well being.[ii]

White’s Mill in Ridge Valley

Figure 2. White's Mill, saw mill and rock crusher

Baum might easily have been describing a particular mill not far from his home in Sellersville.  He spent days in the area, eventually setting down a view of a cluster of buildings on a large canvas, eliminating the smokestack from the scene because it detracted from his desired sense of the pastoral.  [Figure 1. White’s Mill, Tylersport, by Walter E. Baum, and period photograph of White’s Mill by Thomas White, Figure 2., taken from the opposite side of the property, showing the grist mill, the saw mill, the rock crusher and the offending smokestack.]

The mill was White’s Mill, owned by Thomas Halloway White, master miller.  Located in Tylersport, Pennsylvania, approximately forty miles from Philadelphia, the mill exemplified the kind of rural institution and regional icon that vainly attempted to bridge the shift from past to future, from rural to industrial.

the origin and history of only a very few spaces, very few structures are on record. Those for which we have plans and maps and legal documentation and official descriptions are being studied and written about. But an infinitely greater number of structures and spaces have no documentation at all….

John Brinckerhoff Jackson wrote, “[M]ost of landscape history deals with an infinitely small fraction of the landscape….  The reason for this is simple:  the origin and history of only a very few spaces, very few structures are on record.  Those for which we have plans and maps and legal documentation and official descriptions are being studied and written about.  But an infinitely greater number of structures and spaces have no documentation at all.” [iii]

White’s Mill has been poorly documented over the decades.  Now that all but the original homestead has been demolished it could easily slip into the oblivion of the ages, joining many other of our undocumented, early vernacular sites.  Just as Brinkerhoff notes, this is one of those sites for which there is little or no public record.  The property’s deeds were held by my family for decades, kept in a file box in the back of a closet. The earliest among them dated to 1747 and indicated the land was part of an original thousand-acre parcel sold by William Penn’s grandson.

White’s Mill was located in an area of Pennsylvania that remains rural to this day, and the nearby town of Tylersport has the air of a town that time passed by.  This article is an effort to establish a record for White’s Mill that is more than some professional nostalgist’s vision.

To read Part 2, click here.


ENDNOTES

[i] Engart, “Notes on Gristmills and Milling in Pennsylvania,” p 2

[ii] Baum, Two Hundred Years, p. 31

[iii] Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, p. xi

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Miller permalink
    June 26, 2012 11:16 pm

    I drive by the old site nearly every day. I still mourn their having simply demolished it a few years ago. For so many years I was haunted by the mystery of it, so very intriguing was it. It never occurred to me that one day I would drive by & it would be gone. So thank you so much for the story of it! Susan Miller/Sumneytown

Trackbacks

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