Millers and Milling
in Rochester, New York
For settlers in the Genesee Country two centuries ago, the grist mill represented continuity with civilization. "Hull corn and pounded wheat, prepared Indian fashion, by mortar and pestle, could do at a pinch." writes Maude Motley on milling in the publications of the Rochester Historical Society, "but they were not what white folks were accustomed to. Early settlers toted their grists tiresome miles over tortuous trails to get where some pioneer, mechanically inclined, had harnessed a waterfall, improvised mill-irons, and freighted in, or carved from natural rock, a couple of millstones. A natural site for a mill-dam often fixed the location for a white settlement after the inrush of immigration from the east had begun."
As the French Revolution was getting under way, three grist mills were constructed in the Genesee country — one each on minor streams near Avon and Penn Yan, and Ebenezar Allan's at the Genesee falls. Streams that today seem minor were often deeper and fuller two centuries ago, having since been heavily silted. At the falls, "Allan called in some of the neighboring settlers and his Indian friends to assist at the raising of the grist-mill which occupied two days and wound up with a dance and an hilarious time generally. The millstones were probably made from a local quarry. The mill-irons were floated down the river in canoes from Allan's farm near Scottsville — having been packed in to that place from Cohocton." The resulting mill, according to Motley, was "poorly constructed, carelessly planned and operated, and was unable to grind more than ten bushels per day." Although soon taken over by a more dedicated miller, within a decade it was undermined by a spring freshet and not long after was hit by fire and abandoned to rattlesnakes.
Something of the character and power of the miller emerges in a story about a farmer from Farmington "who, with two yoke of oxen, [made] a tortuous day's" journey to a mill in Bristol, finally arriving late Saturday night. "The miller's wife declared the mill should not run on Sunday, 'if all Farmington starved.' Whereupon, [the farmer] meekly made a second journey." Still, given the value placed on milled grain, there were exceptions. For example when a pioneer miller in what is now Waterloo could not find enough neighbors to raise the heavy timber mill frame, "A preacher in Geneva…notified [him] to have some boats ready at Geneva 'right after church' the following Sunday. After service the preacher called upon the men of his congregation to volunteer to help raise the new mill for the good of the community…'the frame was raised in short order, while a spirit of propriety prevailed.' Raisings, generally, were scenes of great liquid jubilation in those days."
The early mills at the Genesee falls were, according to Motley, "the first great institutions of the locality. They were patronized by the settlers far and near, and they were run, week day and night, but never on Sundays. The social gatherings [included]…jokes and anecdotes…;…stories of wolf, bear and raccoon hunts…[and]…of life in the woods, the privations and sufferings of families; the narrow escapes of people lost in the forest; the winter tales of settlers snowbound, losing their stock for want of proper shelter, and procuring sustenance for their starving families only by arduous journeys through the woods on snowshoes…" Such stories were swapped as settlers "awaited the miller's service and sat around the miller's office where there was always a bed for the man of the second watch to sleep until called at two in the morning. In winter, there was an old-fashioned box-stove that burned large wood, and his was usually red hot."
One grist mill at the falls was especially notable as a social institution. "One of the head millers in Ely's old Red Mill, was a Scotsman named Rogers, as jolly a fellow as Burns' 'Malt-man.'" Pioneer Edwin Scrantom described him. "He had a thick rotund body, a snappy pair of eyes, and carroty hair, much frizzled and arranged anyway the old hat left it last. He had a commanding voice with a good deal of music in it; a winning way about all his movement; fine conversational powers, enriched by a fair education and polished by culture; and, at his tongue's end, a fund of anecdotes that, told in his Scottish way, were sure to convulse the hearer with laughter, and drawn around him many listeners. The evenings, therefore, at the old Red Mill, were frequently a great entertainment…as the machinery of the mill, the heavy grinding of the stones, the click of the 'damsel' against the 'shoe' in the eye of the stone under the hopper, and the strokes of the levers that descend on the revolving bolt, chimed their unceasing play with it.
Those days, too, were the days of much social drinking, and the 'toddy' and 'flip' and 'hot-stuff' that was imbibed, made men voluble as well as witty, and, as is always the case, made them say and do some foolish things. Of the many who frequented the old Red Mill…prominent was old Van Sickle, with a deep rough voice, original in his ignorance, a giant Dutchman, six feet six, of massive frame and having a pair of enormous feet. Also a Mr. Bingham, tall and slender, so that the fever and ague tried him three years before it shook him all over. Then, there was old Charley Harford, a stout chubby Englishman, gay and sparkling with wit and repartee, and who could keep up his end at storytelling. As a group, these men were original and comical, and it was therefore not surprising that the old Red Mill was a popoular rendezvous and it is not wonder that shouts and roars of laughter were heard there 'into the wee sma hours of the night,' or that farmers and their boys should come oftener with their 'grist,' than real necessity demanded, and that they should come at the close of the day. Was it a wonder that the new settlers, isolated and lonely, should crowd the old Red Mill to while away a little time in mirth and forget, for a time, the stern demands of life?"
Thurlow Weed, a Rochester pioneer, prominent politician and keen observer of men, described the early merchants and millers of Rochester in his autobiography. "Many of them were young, bold, dashing adventurers, doomed almost inevitably to pecuniary shipwreck. They were, for the most part, impulsive, liberal, energetic, and honest." The heydays of Rochester milling support his judgment.
Millers had style. Elisha Johnson, pioneer miller, civil engineer, developer, and early mayor timed blasting for a mill raceway for the Fourth of July, when it was accompanied by optimistic toasts. "The night that followed…was more than usually still. The barking of the fox, the howling of the wolf, and owl's hoot,…were not heard; the great guns of the raceway had awed them all into silence." Before long, they retreated entirely from the boomtown beside the Genesee.
"By 1834," writes Maude Motley, "Rochester had become the greatest flour manufacturing center in the world, turning out three hundred thousand barrels…annually, Genesee flour having achieved a world-wide fame. Profits were good, and outsiders were attracted to the industry."
Millers needed optimism, because they faced potential disasters, among them explosions, fire and market forces beyond their control. Edwin Scrantom, a Rochester pioneer, is quoted by Motley: "In those [early] days, it used to be said 'that no man could get a discount at any bank from Albany to Buffalo unless he had flour on his back.' I know the millers had 'flour on their backs' in those days, but history reveals the fact that they carried on their backs also other loads that crushed most of them down to old age and the grave under bankruptcy."
Through the 1830s, "the trade in flour [was] speculative and unreliable. Flour was shipped to New York with a view only to the demand of the English market…For a time this state of affairs ran smoothly, millers and commission merchants kept the prices continually on the increase, and the result was, of course, a sudden and disastrous collapse. The anticipations in regard to the English and other foreign markets were not realized…Very few men interested in the business came through the season of 1839 with any money in their pockets. The greater part of the wheat had been bought at high prices…and it was an impossibility to realize the first cost on it. Rochester millers were compelled to begin again at the foot of the ladder. The year before, the mills had turned out nearly half a million barrels. The season immediately following the panic, a comparatively small amount was manufactured. Year by year, little by little, their business came back; the mills were enlarged, barrels were again filled by the hundred thousand, the business resumed its former activity and prosperity.
"Then, in 1855,…[j]ust before the harvest…a rain set in, and for six weeks, there were daily showers. The result was that Genesee Valley wheat lay in fields until it sprouted. Scarcely a bushel found its way to Rochester that was not germinated. The crop was a total loss and the milling business again a failure. After the rains of 1855, came the weevil and other plagues, and through the combination of all these evils, the reputation of the Genesee Valley wheat was seriously damaged. From that time on, the great part of flour manufactured in Rochester [was] from western wheat…" In time, inevitably, milling moved west.
There were other hazards too. In 1850 a prominent mill owner stockpiling wheat for winter milling found structural weaknesses in his building but continued. The building collapsed, nearly killed the night watchman, and eleven thousand bushels of wheat poured "into the raceway and flumes, which dammed up the water until it burst through, sweeping a great portion of the grain out into the Genesee River. Later, at low water, much of this wheat was salvaged and sold for chicken feed." However, "[t]he collapse of the mill crushed [the owner's] spirit…and though he ordered the repairs made on the wrecked building, he found himself unable to view the ruins." He died of apoplexy.
A bizarre accident in 1887 killed a young mill partner when "the accidental introduction into the sewer-system of waste-material from the Vacuum Oil Works" exploded in Mill Street destroying three important flour mills. The man ran into the street but a second naphtha explosion blew up paving blocks, mortally wounding him.
Millers experienced severe ups and downs that seemed intrinsic to their trade. One thus tested was James K. Livingston, who built four large mills in 1835, and was described by contemporaries as "a grand man both in character and appearance." He practiced law, but soon devoted more time to real estate and milling. "Although he was very highly esteemed, he did not succeed financially in his various business adventures. After some years of misfortune, he disposed of all his remaining possessions, and gave a dinner [for] all his creditors. There he met every obligation, saying at last; 'Gentlemen, this, my watch and chain, is all I now possess, and it will pay my one small remaining debt.' …[His] guests did not allow him to part with the watch." He later went to live with a daughter near Albany. "At his death, in 1876, [he] was brought to Rochester for burial." His funeral services were very largely attended and he was interred in Mt. Hope Cemetery. Livingston Park, in the old Third Ward, was named for him.
Mill owners impacted the community in other ways too. Gideon Burbank, endowed a professorship at the new University of Rochester. "When financial disaster [later] overtook [him], he remarked, 'at least that twenty thousand dollars is safe.'" The University president, Martin B. Anderson, eulogized him. "When an institution is old, rich, and successful, there is no difficulty in raising money to secure its growth and development. He gave to us at a time, and under circumstances, which made his donation double in value to the same sum given now. It gave us heart and hope for future work such as none but a few burden-bearers can ever know."
© 1995, Robert G. Koch