Working historyWASHINGTON — When farmers, agribusiness executives and conservationists visiting Washington get tired of walking the halls of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they can now visit the only legitimate agricultural or farm exhibit within the nation’s capital: the restored Peirce Mill, a 19th century commercial flour mill and its grounds, where an apple orchard will be replanted this spring.
By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek
WASHINGTON — When farmers, agribusiness executives and conservationists visiting Washington get tired of walking the halls of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they can now visit the only legitimate agricultural or farm exhibit within the nation’s capital: the restored Peirce Mill, a 19th century commercial flour mill and its grounds, where an apple orchard will be replanted this spring.
Peirce Mill is located in Rock Creek Park, only a few miles from the Capitol, the White House and USDA. The mill operated as a commercial flour mill from the 1820s to 1897, became part of Rock Creek Park in 1892, and was a tourist attraction and education center until 1993, when rot severely damaged the main wooden shaft and the attached “pit gear” could no longer engage the gears that turned the millstone.
For years, the National Park Service, which owns the mill, could not find money to restore the equipment to operating condition, but a private group called Friends of the Peirce Mill raised $1 million from donors, including the Kiplinger Foundation and the Kiplinger Family Fund, run by the family that publishes the Kiplinger Agriculture Report. When Congress passed the Recovery Act in 2009, it included $2 million to finish the job.
On Oct. 15, park rangers and millers turned on the machinery and, for the first time since 1993, the public could see how milling worked in the 19th century when power came from water, and the gears were wood.
Today the mill is open to the public from Wednesday through Sunday, and the Friends of the Peirce Mill have taken on a new role of educating children in the capital region about how machines and farming worked in the 19th century.
In April, Park Service rangers and members of Friends of the Peirce Mill gave the North American Agricultural Journalists a tour of the mill in the company of Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Executive Director Dan Ashe and Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White.
Hayes said the restoration of the mill was a perfect example of the Obama administration’s goal of encouraging public and private groups to work together.
Park Ranger Tony Linforth explained how the mill equipment worked and how terms such as “grist mill” and “nose to the grindstone” came into use. He also noted that, while the mill’s operating system had its roots in antiquity, it was up to date for its time, incorporating an elevator system invented by Oliver Evans, a Delaware miller, who used belts and gears driven by a vertical shaft attached to the water wheel to reduce the need to haul bags of grain upstairs for grinding and carrying bags of flour up from the basement.
The mill also offers a window into Washington’s long lost agrarian past. As Steven Dryden explains in his book, Peirce Mill: Two Hundred Years in the Nation’s Capital, tobacco dominated the colonial economies of Maryland and Virginia but by the time of the American Revolution demand for American flour in Europe had begun to lure grain millers from farther north. In the two decades after the revolution, three men of Pennsylvania Quaker origins including Isaac Peirce established mill operations near the confluence of the Potomac River and Rock Creek.
By 1840, milling had become Washington’s dominant industry. In addition to building his mill in the 1820s, Peirce became a major landowner. By the time Peirce died in 1841, he operated a distillery, raised sheep, pigs and milk cows, and grew potatoes, wheat, rye and oats while relatives had a nursery for trees and shrubs, Dryden wrote. Washington became the nation’s capital in 1800, but it took decades for the city to grow and for people to realize that they needed Rock Creek as a green haven within the city.
The farm became known as the Peirce Plantation and the family used slave labor for five generations. In the 1860s, as many as 12 wagons a day loaded with wheat arrived for grinding, and a miller with a helper or two could grind more than 70 bushels a day on each set of buhrs, or millstones, according to a National Park Service brochure.
The Civil War and the end of slave labor brought major challenges to the Peirces, but technology and the movement west made the Peirce Mill out of date. Construction of the Cheapeake and Ohio Canal, begun in 1828, allowed merchants to transport wheat and flour from Ohio and other western points to American ports. The C&O Canal also created more water power to mills in Georgetown and made the Peirce Mill uncompetitive.
In 1892, Peirce Mill and much of the land surrounding it were incorporated into Rock Creek Park. The government allowed the mill to continue operating, but in 1897 the turbine machinery failed. The mill did not operate for 40 years until the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s New Deal program repaired the equipment in 1937 and made it the Park Service’s first historic educational project.
Now that the mill is back once again, Dryden is organizing tours for children, but said that the Friends of the Peirce Mill still needs more money to operate that program. Dryden said he also wants to bring school children to the park to plant trees like those that the Peirces and their relatives grew in the 19th century.
Dryden is also encouraging grain farmers, apple farmers and others to visit the mill and use its history as a way to connect with both policymakers and children who don’t know about agriculture.
“The Peirce Mill is the best location in Washington for farmers to make their case to the nation,” he said in an April 27 interview.
Peirce Mill and the adjacent Peirce Barn Visitors Center are in Rock Creek Park at the corner of Tilden Street (same as Park Road) N.W. and Beach Drive, and are open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Group tours are available.