Big Wheel Keeps on Turning, Grind Stones Keep on Grinding: A Brief History of the Plimoth Grist Mill Site

Second in an occasional series of “Schwamb Shares”

Weeks from now, when events have run their course and we are free to roam the New England countryside, a day trip to visit the Plimoth Grist Mill in downtown Plymouth, Mass., is a highly recommended, especially for enthusiasts of early American industrial sites.

The waterwheel at the Plimoth Grist Mill, Plymouth, Mass.

Located one hour south of Boston in the heart of the Plymouth Center Historic District, the Plimoth Grist Mill is a 1970 reproduction of the grist mill that was built on this historic site in 1636. It is a working mill that uses water power to mill organic corn into tasty, freshly ground cornmeal that is sold to local restaurants, bakeries, breweries and distilleries as well as to visitors. The mill replicates the first American grist mill built in Plymouth, one year before the grist mill built by Captain Cook on Mill Brook, at the foot of what is now Water Street in Arlington Center.

In 1636, John and Sarah Jenney were granted permission to run a mill on Town Brook in Plymouth and to take a portion of the corn that was brought for grinding as their payment or “toll.” The Jenneys were Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in 1623 from Leiden, Holland, via the ship Little James. Their mill was a vast improvement over the process of grinding corn by hand in wooden mortars. John Jenney died in 1644 and the grist mill on Spring Lane in Plymouth remained under Jenney family control until 1683.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the mill’s owners included Stockbridges and Churches. Charles Stockbridge purchased the mill in 1683 from John Jenney’s heirs. He was the owner of another mill in the nearby town of Scituate. Charles Stockbridge purchased the mill structure from the Jenneys but the Town of Plymouth retained rights to the mill privilege. Charles Stockbridge entered into an agreement with the town whereby he agreed to “maintain a self-sufficient corn mill.” He had to hire a miller “who would grind the Town corn well”— an agreement that underscores the ongoing importance of corn to the descendants of the Pilgrims.

The town also paid Stockbridge “eleven pounds in silver” to raise the height of the mill dam. Stockbridge also agreed to “make a watercourse for the herring to pass over the dam into the pond.” Today, the mill is the centerpiece of an annual spring festival along the shores of Town Brook which draws thousands of people to witness herring traveling up the fish ladder to their breeding grounds.

The mill’s water wheel — not running this particular day

Charles Stockbridge did not live long after his purchase of the Jenney Mill and his widow sold it to Nathaniel Church of Plymouth. Although little is known about Nathaniel Church, his brother Benjamin was a celebrated military figure who, in 1716, authored an influential book on military tactics, Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War. During the 1720s, the Churches ceased to be the sole owners/operators of the old Jenney mill and the property’s ownership was split up amongst numerous grantees.

In 1847, the ancient Jenney grist mill, a remarkable relic from the “Old Colony” days of Plymouth, fell victim to fire. Surviving for over two hundred years, it had supplied Plymouth with corn meal until almost the very end of its existence—a remarkable record given its wooden building and the ups and downs of the southeastern Massachusetts economy through wars , financial panics. Nor’easters and hurricanes.

After the fire, the mill site became host to other industrial concerns that were dedicated to manufacturing rather than food production. Indeed, during the second half of the 19th century, Samuel Loring conducted a factory on this site that made nails, tacks, brads and rivets made from iron, copper and brass. The buildings of Loring’s factory on Spring Lane are clearly shown and labeled on the 1879 George H. Walker & Co. Map of Plymouth Village. In 1886, Loring’s son-in-law John H. Parks became a partner in the company.

The 1886 Massachusetts report entitled Statistics in Manufacturing and Industry states that Loring’s 125 employees worked a ten-hour day and were paid between ninety cents and one dollar per hour. Reportedly, its roster of workers included a number of children. The report notes that for the most part Loring and Parks’ machinery was not up-to-date; however, a new fast and efficient cutting machine had been recently installed. By the late 1880s, the buildings of Loring and Parks’s enterprise extended beyond the original Jenney parcel to include a 30’ x 100’ slate-sheathed building, a two-story wood framed office building, and several warehouses. Evidently these were the buildings that were taken down during the 1960s as part of an urban renewal project that eventually paved the way for the Jenney Grist Mill Museum, later the Plimoth Grist Mill at Jenney’s Pond.

The present Plimoth Grist Mill was built in 1969-1970, the same time frame that the Old Schwamb Mill transitioned from working factory to living history museum. The present structure opened to the public in 1970 as an industrial museum that for a dozen years operated independently. Plimoth Plantation, the remarkable living-history complex that was created during the late 1940s, acquired the mill in 2012. (In the case of both the Plantation and the Old Schwamb Mill, the considerable financial resources of the Henry Hornblower family were instrumental in getting these visionary nonprofits up and running.)

Starting in 2013, the Jenney Grist Mill was renamed the Plimoth Grist Mill at Jenney’s Pond, thus honoring both the site’s Pilgrim progenitors and its Plimoth Plantation lease holder. The mill became one of five attractions now sheltered by the Plantation’s protective umbrella, attractions that include the 17th century English village, Wampanoag Homesite, Craft Center, and Mayflower II.

Currently, the Plimoth Grist Mill’s tour begins at the mill’s second floor which is at grade with Spring Street. The second floor features two massive 200-year-old French Buhr millstones. Buhr is mined in pieces in the Marne Valley of Alsace Lorrain region of France. The mill’s bed and runner stones are 54” in diameter. Grinding demonstrations by interpreter millers Matt Tavares and Kim Van Wormer illustrate how corn is ground into finer and finer pieces. The 2,500 pound moving or runner stone is capable of grinding up to a ton of corn per day.

The mill’s bed stone
The mill’s runner stone, hoisted up and away from the bed stone for as it would be for routine cleaning

Downstairs, large wooden gears inside the mill spin the runner stone in the upper level of the Mill. The large wooden gears are spun by the 14-foot diameter wooden water wheel located adjacent to an exterior wall. Working together, these gears translate the vertical turning of the water wheel to the horizontal movement needed to turn the runner stone.

Axle running from within the basement to the water wheel outside
Large vertical “geared” wheel that engages the horizontal gear above
Horizontal gear that transfers power to running stone on the floor above

The tour of the Plimoth Grist Mill includes working models of water wheels and a gift shop where sacks of cornmeal can be purchased along with books, collectibles and “I’ve been through the Mill” T-shirts. The Plimoth Grist Mill is within walking distance of Plymouth Center shops, restaurants, museums and the Mayflower II. In good weather, with concerns of the moment behind us, it will be an ideal day trip that will help visitors envision the water wheel that once powered our own Old Schwamb Mill.

Learn more about the Plimoth Grist Mill here.

Edward W. Gordon, Director of Museum Programs, Old Schwamb Mill

This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!

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