History of Peirce Mill

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Historic Photograph of Peirce Mill
Historic Photograph of Peirce Mill-date unknown

Library of Congress

1829- Isaac Peirce and the building of the mill


Isaac Peirce (1756-1841) was born to Quaker parents in Pennsylvania. He married a woman named Elizabeth Cloud in 1778. In 1788, Isaac and Elizabeth left Pennsylvania to make a new life for themselves and their young family in Maryland. Isaac originally purchased 150 acres of land along Rock Creek. This included 10 acres which already included a mill and a few other structures. This would become the heart of his large property holdings.

Isaac's estate eventually grew to include almost 2,000 acres of land, a large family house, distillery, mill and miller's house, springhouse, cow barn, potato barn and carriage barn and several other out buildings of unknown use.

Peirce Mill was built in 1829. It is constructed of blue granite that was quarried along Broad Branch Road. It uses an Oliver Evans system which allows the mill to operate continuously and made labor in the mill easier. The 1829 mill was built as an investment to improve returns from those leasing it and to increase production.

Running the mill

Isaac was not a miller and didn't run the mill himself. He leased the mill to others who operated it for him. Milling was a lucrative business in the Washington area during the 1800s so the building of the mill in 1829 was a good investment at the time. It is believed that the previous mill, built by William Deakins in the 1790s, had used an Evans system and that Peirce transferred it into his new mill when it was built.

Oliver Evans had patented his milling system--which allowed for near continuous production--in 1790 and published The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide in 1795. The Evans Milling System was the third patent to be issued by the United States. The system used a series of belts and gears to run the stones that would grind the grain into flour as well as the other equipment needed to produce flour. The Evans system also reduced the amount of labor required to operate the mill. Belts lined with a series of small cups or buckets would carry the grain to the upper floors where it would be cleaned or stored. This meant that men did not have to carry heavy grain sacks up stairs or ladders.


 
A colorful drawing of the interior workings on the four floors of the mill
Graphic of the Interior workings of the mill

NPS

How did it work?

Water turned the wheel on the exterior of the mill which connected to a series of gears inside the mill's basement. These gears drove a shaft, like the axle on a car, that powered the machinery in the mill.

When farmers brought their grain (wheat, rye or corn) to the mill, they brought it in through the front door and dumped it into a "hopper" or bin that connected to a chute running into the basement. Another chute equipped with a belt with small cups scooped the grain from the bin at the bottom of the chute and brought it to the third floor of the mill where it could be run through a cleaner. The cleaner tumbled the grains and got rid of rocks, dirt and bugs. From the cleaner it could be stored in bins on the second floor and be ready to grind.

Grain from the second floor storage bins would fall into hoppers above the mill stones. These stones are paired with one anchored to the floor called the "bedstone" while the other stone, called the "running stone," would rotate above it. Grooves in the stones would cut rather than crush the grain to turn it into flour. The flour is pushed from the middle of the stone to the outside where the spinning stone helps force it down a chute and into the basement again.

Corn is sifted in the basement and bagged based on the quality or size of the meal. Wheat had to go through additional steps before it could be bagged. Wheat that had been ground was taken up on another chute lined with a belt with cups. This returned the flour to the third floor where it would be put into a machine called a Hopper Boy which would rake the flour and make sure it was dry. From the hopper boy it would be taken to a Bolter on the second floor. The bolter was a large machine with a hollow drum angled inside it. At the highest part of the drum, the mesh was very fine and would allow only the smallest flour grains to be sifted through it. These grains would fall through the first chute in the machine and be collected in bags below as fine flour. The next two or three sections of the bolter had progressively larger mesh openings that would allow progressively larger grains to fall into the sacks downstairs. The spinning of the drum sifted the flour and allowed it to be graded and bagged.

Once bagged and counted the miller would take their share while the farmer took the milled product to market or back to their farm.

 

1870s & 1880s- By the numbers

How successful was the mill?

Peirce Mill operated as a merchant and custom mill. It had three sets of mill stones and ground corn, wheat and rye. Two or three men could keep the mill working and grind an estimated 150 bushels of grain per day. Though earlier records have not been discovered, records from 1870 indicate that Peirce Mill produced 40 bushels of wheat flour, 150 barrels of rye flour, and ground 4,075 bushels of corn for animal feed for market. The same census records indicate that the mill custom ground 3,000 bushels of corn and rye flour, 632 bushels of animal feed, and 3,375 bushels of meal and flour. This was produced over the course of eleven months by two men who earned $500 in wages and had a production value of just over $5,000 (Historic Resource Study, pg. 38)


The next census in 1880 indicated that Peirce Mill was being operated by three men; Charles and Alcibiades White, who paid $600 to operate the mill and a laborer they employed for one dollar a day. They ran the mill year round and was half-custom, half-merchant grinding. The value placed on the grinding was $8,250. They primarily ground corn meal (480,000 pounds of it) and animal feed (127,900 pounds) (HRS, pg 39).
 

1890s- Park beginnings, mill endings

The federal government began buying land to create Rock Creek Park in the 1890s. The mill, carriage barn and springhouse were purchased from the descendents of Peirce Shoemaker, who had died in 1891. When the government purchased the mill, they made an agreement to allow the Whites, Charles and Alcibiades to keep their lease of the mill and continue to operate it.

The Whites continued to lease the mill from the federal government until 1897 when the main shaft broke. The government assessed the damage and determined that it would cost more to repair the mill and keep it operating than was being generated from the lease. The decision was made to keep the mill closed.

1905 through 1934- Pierce Mill Tea House

The Mill was located along Peirce Mill Road just below where the Peirce Mill Bridge crossed the creek. The road (which would eventually be renamed Tilden Street NW and Park Road NW) had become a main east-west route across northwest Washington City. The location made the structure a candidate to be turned into a tea house and refreshment stand in the new park.

In 1905 an enclosed porch was added where the water wheel had once turned and the Tea House opened it's doors with a succession of managers.

Mary Louise Noble

(1905-1915) The first manager of the teahouse.

Florence I. Blake

(1915-1919) Part of the Dolly Madison Candy Company, her contract was terminated when she failed to pay the $60-per-month rent on time and was reported for providing poor service.

Hattie L. Sewell

(1920-1921) A woman of color who obtained the concession for $45-month. Though her business was successful, park neighbors and Peirce-Shoemaker estate trustees complained to park management and her contract was not renewed.

Girl Scouts Association of the District of Columbia

(1921) Among the specialties offered were "Harding waffles," honoring the incumbent president. The Girl Scouts Association was allowed to use the second floor of the mill as living rooms for the attendant in charge. They did not keep the concession for very long.

Welfare and Recreational Association of Public Buildings and Grounds, Inc.

Took over from the Girl Scouts. They ran the tea house concession until 1934.

 
 

Peirce or Pierce?

The spelling of the last name Peirce was not standardized. The earliest census records show the name spelled "Peirce". Other census records show it spelled "Pierce." Still other records show the name spelled Pearce. Most records use the "Peirce" spelling though and that is what the National Park Service has decided to use most recently.
 
Photo of construction showing the wheel pit next to the mill
Peirce Mill Restoration 1930s

Library of Congress

1930s- Restoration at Peirce Mill

In 1934, the new superintendent of National Capital Parks, C. Marshall Finnan proposed several restoration projects within Rock Creek Park. These projects would be funded through a public works project. The mill proposal for the mill project was approved by Department of the Interior secretary Ickes at a projected cost of $19,250.

The enclosed porch was removed and a new water wheel was put on the exterior of the building. The inner workings of the mill, replicating the old Oliver Evans system that had run during the 19th century was also re-installed. When the project was completed in 1936, the total cost of restoring the mill to it's pre-Teahouse appearance was $26,614.

Robert A. Little, a veteran miller, was hired to run the mill, which began operating on October 27, 1936. Meal ground at the mill was taken to cafeterias run by the Welfare and Recreational Association of Public Buildings and Grounds. It was also sold on site to members of the public where prices were advertised as "higher than in the stores."

 
The back of Peirce Mill with scaffolding covering the walls
Peirce Mill getting a new roof in the late 1960s

NPS Photo

Peirce Mill in the 20th Century

The mill was operated through World War II and continued to provide meal to government kitchens, but it was never a huge money-maker. It ran sporadically until 1958 when operations came to a full stop. Problems with machinery, an inability to find trained millwrights, fluctuating water levels in Rock Creek were all contributors to the stop in operations.

In 1967, there was interest in re-starting the mill. Research showed that the undershot wheel that had been installed during the 1935 restoration was an inaccurate representation. A new over-shot wheel was installed to be more in-sync with historic authenticity. Another improvement to the mill was the use of municipal water used to move the wheel. Skilled millwrights were located and in 1970 the mill once again ground corn under the watchful eyes of Robert Batte and then Brian Gregorie.

Tropical storms in the 1970s damaged the equipment yet again and the mill ran sporadically until 1993 when the mill experienced a catastrophic failure with the main shaft.
 

New friends and new life in the 21st Century


Peirce Mill re-opened as an operating mill in 2011 with the help of a not-for-profit group called "The Friends of Peirce Mill." This organization helped raise funds, secure grants and assisted the National Park Service with getting the mill restored to the point that it could once again grind corn.

The mill now provides an opportunity for visitors to see and hear what life in the mill was like during the 1800s and the mill's hey-day and school groups learn about engineering and local history on field trips to the site.

Projects to continue the restoration of the mill are ongoing.
 
For information on when the mill is open to visit, please go to our Operating Hours &Seasons Page.

Additional information on the mill can also be found on our Places page

Last updated: March 5, 2021

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

5200 Glover Rd, NW
Washington, DC 20015

Phone:

(202) 895-6000
Rock Creek Park's main phone line.

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