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White’s Mill, Tylersport, Pennsylvania Part 2

January 18, 2012

To read Part One, click here.

White’s Mill in context

1928 aerial view of Tylersport, PA, Courtesy the Free Library of Philadelphia

The area around Tylersport, Pennsylvania, was settled in the early 18th century by southern Germans of mostly Reformed, Lutheran or Mennonite affiliation.  The land in Upper Salford was less fertile and rockier than that in Lower Salford, though among the area’s more interesting geologic features are large fields of boulders, such as “The Devil’s Potato Patch”  (a favorite place to take visitors from out of town).

Devil's Potato Patch

Tylersport was originally named “Cressmanville” [a name once seen on many of the cigar factories in the area] until a post office was established in 1842, at which time the postmaster renamed the village Tyler’s Port in honor of President John Tyler.[i]

An 1877 atlas of Montgomery County described the township of Upper Salford and indicated that Tylersport was the largest village in the township.  In 1880, the village had 50 houses, a “segar” factory, a Belgian block factory, and 224 inhabitants.

The Montgomery County directory for 1900-1902 listed everything a thriving rural town might need:  attorney, baker, blacksmith, brickmaker, carpenter, cigar makers (who worked at home or in the local factory[ii]), physician, farmer, foreman, hostler, hotel, laborer, machinist, merchant, organist, packer, painter, sawyer, stripper, saddler, shoemaker, surgeon, teacher, tinsmith, and wheelwright.  Thos. H. White was listed as miller.  Frank S. Shipe, from whom he bought the mill, was listed as farmer.

The number of farmers and laborers far outranked any of the other categories, underscoring the agrarian base of this economy and the importance of the miller.  In keeping with his position in the community, Thomas White was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and a director of the Green Lane National Bank.

Thomas White, Miller

Thomas H. White was born in Norristown in December 1871 and grew up on a busy farm on Marshall Street in Jeffersonville, the town adjacent to Norristown.  He attended the local schools and worked hard on the farm.  He found time to work in local mills to learn the trade and to attend classes at a Philadelphia business college.

A journal from his 23rd year gives us an idea of the weather and general events of his life in 1894.  He sold subscriptions to the Farm Journal, and took part in church activities.   There were funerals to attend, lectures on the evils of drink, lambing season, dentist appointments, and a tunnel to be dug through the snow to get the cows out of the barn.

In a typical entry he wrote:  “A little snow in morning, moderating.  Sleighing still very good.  Took Alice to station this morning.  Norristown, Franklin Ave. 6:51 A.M.  Went to Providence and was successful in securing a promise from Mr. B. to lecture at our social.  Went to Norristown with 115 lbs hay for Neiman.”

In 1895 he began to look for a mill to buy.  Wednesday, October 13, 1895 he wrote:  “Went to Lansdale to look at mill, did not find it satisfactory.”  Later in the month:  “John Brooks offered me $18 per month and board as miller” — an offer he did not accept.  In November and December of 1895 he looked at an unnamed Norristown mill, a mill on “Pickern’s Creek” which he noted had “good power but poor buildings,” and Brook’s Mill in Norristown, which was for sale for $8,000.  Apparently frustrated by the lack of appropriate or affordable situations in the area, he wrote to offer himself as an apprentice to his uncle Harry M. Halloway in Larned, Kansas, who established the Keystone Mill there in 1884.

Thomas Halloway White

Thomas White departed Norristown for Larned on January 7, 1896 and returned home from his apprenticeship on December 17 of that same year.

Business owner

Shopping for a mill of his own, Thomas White visited Tylersport for the first time on February 17, 1897 to see a mill for sale for $3,500.  He made his offer in April and the paperwork was completed on May 17.

Thursday, May 20, 1897 his journal entry reads:  “clear and warm.  Went to Norristown for stuff from Phila.  Started for the mill Tylersport about 11:30 am with Duke and Dan [horses] in Haywagon and General in Dearborn.  Bertie [his sister], Geo, [his brother] and I arrived about 7:30 pm.  Lost lynchpin and box out of front wheel of wagon, so delayed.”

On Friday, May 21, he wrote:  “Cloudy and sunny a.m., heavy shower at 2 p.m.  Went to Sellersville for feed and shipment from Phila.  Drove in shed at Maceville to escape shower.  Took in first money at mill. .05”

The next day was a busy one:  “clear and sunny.  Worked in mill and hauled out manure a.m.  Plowed gardens and worked it p.m.  Sold first feed.  Started for home at 4:40 p.m.  Arrived home at 9:00 p.m.”

He worked long days getting things in order at his new place of business. It appears he moved in

Anna Mergner White

once and for all on May 24:  “Rainy early and late, sunny and hot noon.  Started for mill with big load of stuff.  Bertie, Geo., and myself, at 1:30 pm arrived 6:20 pm.”

Thomas married Anna Mergner, niece of Mr. and Mrs. George Belz of Camden, on Tuesday evening, September 20, 1904 in Jeffersonville.  They had three children:  Paul (born 1905), Ruth (born 1909) and Esther (born 1915).  Years later, Paul White would recount sitting outside the house while his mother was in labor in the bedroom upstairs.  At last, he was told it was time for him to get the doctor to help with his sister Esther’s birth.  He ran up the wooded hill behind the house, following an old Indian trail to reach the doctor’s home.  The doctor hitched up his buggy, while Paul ran back through the woods to home.

[Author’s note:  I despise it when women’s bios consist of “she married him and had children; thus began the daily drudgery of housework” with no flavor of the spirit of the woman.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot to go on, though there’s a tale to be told.  You’ll see.  We’ll see a little more of Anna, my great grandmother, later on.]

White’s Mill

The mill site consisted of a house for the family and another house for the hired man and his family.  There was a wagon house, a barn, a chicken coop, a pig shed, and two ice houses[iii].  At the center of it all stood the mill.

The mill became a major social gathering place as soon as the winter grain crops were harvested.  Children were released from school in time to help with the harvest.  They would arrive at the mill riding on the wagonloads of grain. As an adult, Paul White told his son about those times, and how, when he was done loading bags of grain into the chutes feeding the stones, he dashed off to play with the other children in the woods behind the house, land too steep and rocky to cultivate.

Sometimes the farmers’ wives came along with food.  Everyone would picnic on the front porch of the house and Anna, Thomas’s wife, would provide drinks and fresh vegetables from her kitchen garden on the other side of the road.

The gathering must have been a welcome change of pace and an event both adults and children anticipated.  One better understands author Henry Engart’s attempt to convey the wonder of a mill seen through the eyes of a young boy.

White's Mill, Image courtesy of Phil Ruth

When you drew up to the mill it was not unusual to be fourth or fifth in line, so great was the volume of business done by the local mills in the years gone by.  While awaiting your turn you watched the unloading of the teams ahead, particularly the bags of grain as they were hoisted aloft and skillfully swung in through the open door by the miller, all white and dusty.  How the gurgling and rushing of the water along the mill race tempted you to get down from your wagon and try your luck at sailing boats or fishing….  Another sore temptation, both hazardous and fascinating, was the desire to unlatch the lower half of the first floor mill door and go exploring into the very midst of all that rumbling and grinding machinery.  The hand-hewn posts and timbers, the easy stairways, the flapping belts and grinding cog-wheels, the miller’s bag truck and the piles of filled sacks – a most interesting place to go and a temptation the average child could not resist.[iv]

Engart goes on to empathize with the adults who discovered a child missing and imagined the horrors of a mill-related accident.  “These were not idle delusions either, for there was hardly a mill that did not have its tale of horror relating to some one having been killed, or of arms, legs, fingers or toes that were torn off.”

In fact, at White’s Mill, Maggie Hartley, wife of Theodore Hartley who worked at the mill in the early part of the century[v], had an accident that was recounted in the local Pennsburg Town & Country newspaper of 1901.

A peculiar incident occurred at White’s Mill one evening last week.  While the family of Theodore Hartley was seated at supper, Mrs. Hartley walked over into the mill on some errand, while the machinery was running at full speed.  A draught caused by an open door blew her clothing so that it was caught by an upright shaft, which was revolving rapidly.  Before she had time to realize her position, it had torn every stitch of clothing from her body, which fact alone saved her life.  Her cries brought her husband to the scene.

Drs. Acker, of Tylersport, and Blanck, of Green Lane, were hurriedly summoned.  Her injuries were considered very slight, consisting of abrasions upon the left side of her body.  That she escaped with her life is remarkable, as the clothing was wound around the shaft so tightly that it was necessary to cut it loose.  It was later learned that Mrs. Hartley’s injuries were of a more serious nature and the unfortunate lady is now in a dangerous condition.

Interior view of White's Mill, Image courtesy Phil Ruth

It is assumed that she recovered her full health, since later photos show her posing outdoors with an addition to the family.[vi]

Milling the grain was a long and laborious process, particularly if the stones had to be adjusted from feed to flour grinding.  Paul White remembers a great part of the expertise of a master miller was the skill it took to dress the stones that did the grinding.

“Hitting that stone and cutting it was very trying stuff.  Jees, you’d be there all day and on into the night and he’d eat and say ‘I got to get back.’  Working away getting those damn stones sharpened.  And his fingers all were blue with pieces of steel from hitting there on the rock and the steel would kind of… he wore gloves but they’d go right through the gloves.  He always had this streak on his hands from that work on polishing the stone, cutting the stone.  Really something.”[vii]

Many of the farmers would store the raw grain or corn cobs at their farms so there would be milling right up to the arrival of cold weather with a final rush just before water froze.  Thomas White would then go down to the dam and close off the mill race gates so the water would build up behind the dam and provide more ice.

White’s Mill was a factory of sorts, which not only ground grain but provided ice from the mill pond for use in the summer months, cut lumber for building and firewood, and made gravel for many of the roads in the county.[viii]

Ice was the cash “crop”

Thomas White began a new journal on his December 10th birthday in 1921:  “The finish of my half century and feeling good.  Carrying on; tho lazy at times, especially Sunday mornings.  Best year ‘financially’ I have ever experienced.  Presume ‘ice” gets the credit for most of it.”  The mill pond that powered the mill wheel also had value when frozen.   Thomas White would sample the ice regularly to determine when to start filling the ice houses.  The journals contain numerous entries about clearing off snow, lest it spoil the ice.  Local laborers waited eagerly, as this was an important source of income in the off-season, since it “paid their taxes and so forth.”[ix]  Cutting the ice was done with an ice plow, which held a five foot saw.  Some expertise was required to determine the best places to cut in terms of thickness, and whether or not there was any plant matter that would ruin the ice.

“So once you decided on the area you ran a strike line.  Put a nail in the ice and ran a line to where you wanted to stop the thing.  Then you took the ice plow and the horse – this is all handwork – one man led the horse and the other one held the plow and they cut along this line to make this starting ridge.  After you got the starting ridge you started really making the cut because you now moved the plow over and it had a guide on it and you swing the guide over into that line.”[x]

Plowing ice was not without its potential for harrowing accidents as Thomas White’s journal notes on Thursday, February 10, 1921:  “Cloudy & warm.  Hauled four loads of ice to Musselman’s Creamery with truck and five with teams.  Geo. Horse broke in dam while plowing ice.  Out O.K. but with considerable effort.  Roads in very bad condition especially below the Branch Creek.”  As Paul White recalled:

That was a very noteworthy thing because we weren’t sure whether we lost a horse for awhile.  We finally got a board underneath so at least he could get a foot up.  And after we got his shoulder up on the ice and with harness you had something to get on and get ahold of and we hitched another horse to him and he had to keep pulling while we kept pushing with boards, different areas that were kind of stuck and the, of all things, the ice started sinking with this weight on it!  That would have been terrible because we’d have been right back where we started except that at that point we were getting closer to the edge.

For awhile, I think, Father was considering breaking all the ice away and just leading him out if we had to but he was thinking about the horse being in the water too long to do that.

We got him out and then we walked him around for a couple hours to get him back in to circulation.  He didn’t have any ill affects at all.  But boy, that was exciting!  Because while the process was going on we had, I suppose, five people working in the ice house and then Father and I got the hired man and the guy running the engine plus a couple of other workers pushing ice around.  And we were all there, you know?  We could have all gotten ourselves a bath![xi]

The ice business provided employment in both winter, when it was cut and stowed, and in summer, when it needed to be delivered.  Loading the ice house in the winter was cold, back-breaking work (and risky, as noted above).  The summer work took place in the pre-dawn hours to beat the sweltering heat of summer that would reduce the valuable “crop” to nothing.  Decades later, Paul White could still recall the experience in detail.

“We’d get in there at like two o’clock in the morning and get a load of ice ready and our man would come at four o’clock with the first truck backed up to the door and we’d load him in nothing flat with the ice and he’d drive around front and pull the covers over it and away he’d go.  And then we’d go in and lay down for a few minutes in front of the front door of the house.  We’d open that door and usually a draft would come in there and if we were lucky we’d get a little sleep until it was time to get the next load out because the truck was due back….  Saturday was a big push.  Everybody wanted ice over the weekend and the beginning of the week and it was pressure time for the people in Perkasie that delivered the ice.”[xii]

Sawdust was used as insulation around the ice.  White’s journal contains regular entries about hauling sawdust and enlisting even his youngest daughter’s help to fill up holes and protect the ice from the flow of warm air.  Melted ice was lost income.

For Part 3, click here (as far as I’m concerned, it’s the crux of the story)


[i] Montgomery County Planning Commission

[ii] Baum, Two Hundred Years, the author was surprised that he found it necessary to detail the processes by which tobacco was harvested, cured, and made into cigars but realized that, along with many other things, this knowledge was falling away from the collective memory

[iii] The financial return from the ice “crop” led White to decide to build a second ice house.  His journal on December 19, 1921 notes “Carpenter (4) came and started [to] erect new ice house.  30 x 42 x 21.  Wages 75¢ per hr.”

[iv] Engart, p. 105-106

[v] Someone named “Dory”  working at the mill appears in various of Thomas White’s journals, including 1903 and 1906.   One assumes this is short for “Theodore” Hartley.

[vi] Census records for 1900 show the Hartleys with two children, Sadie, born June 1894 and George W., born February 1899.  The 1910 census lists an addition to the family, Harry S., five years of age.  The photographs of the Hartley family (and a rare interior image of White’s Mill) may be found on page 58 of Phil Ruth’s book, A North Penn Pictorial.

[vii] White, Paul, taped conversation

[viii] White, James, email regarding mill recollection

[ix] White, Paul

[x] White, Paul

[xi] White, Paul

[xii] White, Paul

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