Kansas Collection books


The Old Mill

old mill


    Grandpa and I went down to the blacksmith shop to get the horses shod.  While that was being done, I went exploring, as little boys are prone to do.  I came across an old building, half buried in weeds and debris.  Leaning against the high stone foundation was a large circular saw.  It was much taller than I and, although it was rusty from exposure, the large teeth were still sharp and intact I was curious about this big saw and so I hustled back to the shop and asked Grandpa about it.  He said, "You had better ask your Grandma about that."  So I did and here is what I heard.

    "That old saw was part of the sawmill your great grandpa shipped from Ohio by riverboat and ox team a long time ago," she began.  Then she wove the rest of the story together for me.

    Her father, A. G. Barrett, came to Kansas bringing with him a complete saw mill.  He used it to cut up the huge stands of timber that grew so abundantly along the Vermilion River.  Lumber was in great demand in those days and Barrett's Mill was the closest source for many miles in any direction.  It was a booming business and the mill, located at a busy crossroads on the old Oregon Trail, grew and prospered.

    Barrett was both a miller and a millwright and had experience in grain milling.  Soon he returned to Ohio to purchase and ship to Kansas a pair of millstones.  He built a grist mill on top of the sawmill and installed the millstones and other equipment to grind corn into corn meal and wheat into whole wheat flour.  There was very little money to bargain with in those days, so he would grind the grain and keep a toll (or one tenth) as a fee for grinding the grain.  The Oregon Trail was a busy route westward and there was a ready market from travelers along the trail for the cornmeal and flour.  In addition, there was an Indian reservation just to the north, in Nebraska Territory, and the Indian Agency would purchase all the cornmeal and flour he would sell them.

    Barrett's original idea was to operate both mills on water power.  He soon learned that water in dry Kansas was not a reliable source of power.  So he returned to Ohio and purchased a steam boiler and engine to supply his mills with power.  The sawmill, on the ground floor, was arranged so that the hug logs could be "snaked" into the mill with oxen and then rolled onto the cradle and fed into the saw.  The finished lumber was then hauled to the drying kiln to be dried.  The wooden slabs from the logs were cut into short lengths and used as fuel for the steam boiler.

    The grist mill on top of the sawmill eventually contained several pairs of millstones and other equipment.  There was a long wagon ramp up into the mill so that horse and wagon could drive in, unload the grain and load up the finished meal or flour.  There was a separate chute that carried the bran and offal from the milling process down to a hog pen below the mill.  The hogs were fattened on the byproducts from the mill and became hams and bacon during the winter months.  Later, Barrett sent to Switzerland to purchase silk the flour and meal.

    The steam engine did not have enough power to operate both mills at the same time.  Barrett set up a schedule for his sons to run the saw mill in the daytime and he would run the grist mill at night.  For a number of years his trusted helper on the night shift was a large Negro named Rufe.  Those were perilous times, as "Bleeding Kansas" attempted to gain statehood.  There was bloodshed as roving bands of guerrillas ravaged the countryside in their attempts to bring Kansas into the Union as a free or a slave state.

    One night, as Barrett was operating his grist mill with his helper, he went down to stoke the boiler fire and was seized, bound and gagged by the guerrillas.  As he was about to be tossed into the blazing furnace, Rufe came to the rescue with a stick of cordwood and saved Barrett's life.  No one was safe in those days --- not even millers of wood and grain.

    Grandma concluded her story with the remark that she thought it was only by the grace of God and a series of miracles that her father lived to the ripe old age of 85 and then died a natural death.

    I hadn't realized before that milling was such a hazardous occupation before the Civil War.


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