RICHMOND — Several history buffs heard last spring that there was a forgotten gristmill in rural Madison County, built about 1865. One knew the property owner, so he got permission to visit. What they found inside was shocking.
"We walked in and said, 'Oh my God,'" said Jerry Nichols, a Lexington electrician. "Except for the steam engine, it was all there. It was all there!"
Behind weathered siding, buried in decades of filth and junk, most of the machinery was intact: iron and steel cogs, rods and wheels; wooden bins and chutes; even wide leather drive belts that last turned in the 1930s.
"It's so rare to find a mill with the machinery," said Nancy O'Malley, a University of Kentucky archaeologist and anthropologist whose expertise includes early Kentucky mills.
"The frame mills just didn't last," O'Malley said at the mill last month. "They burned down. They got salvaged. They got rid of the machinery. From a preservation standpoint, it's beyond anything I've seen."
The mill shows up on two state historic surveys since 1980, but it's among the last of several hundred that once dotted Kentucky's landscape.
Kentuckians started building gristmills in the 1780s, soon after settlement. Farmers needed them to grind corn, wheat and other grains to make flour, cornmeal and whiskey. Soon, mills and distilleries began exporting goods down the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
Each Central Kentucky county had dozens of gristmills in the 1800s, said O'Malley, who has excavated at many pioneer sites, including Evans Mill at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.
Most Central Kentucky mills were built along creeks. Flowing water turned wooden wheels that turned millstones that ground grain. Some were big operations.
Kentucky's 1850 manufacturing census reported that Jonathan Bush's four-story mill on Lower Howard's Creek in Clark County produced 400 barrels of flour and 3,000 bushels of meal annually. The mill's ruins stand in the Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.
Fayette County's milling heritage lives on mainly through the names of roads that once took customers to them: Parkers Mill, Clays Mill, Bowman Mill and many others. Grimes Mill on Boone Creek, built in 1807, has been headquarters of the Iroquois Hunt Club since 1928.
A few preserved mills remain in Kentucky, most notably at Mill Springs near Monticello, where the circa-1877 mill has a huge 40-foot wheel to draw power from 13 natural springs. It is operated as a park by the Army Corps of Engineers. Wolf Pen Branch Mill in Jefferson County, owned by writer Sally Bingham, has been restored to working order by millwright Ben Hassett.
The Red River Museum in Clay City has a big collection of millstones and equipment. The Kentucky Old Mill Association has done considerable research on this aspect of Kentucky business and economic history.
Weisenberger Mill on South Elkhorn Creek near Midway is active, and its flour and meal are used in many of the region's best restaurants.
Six generations of the Weisenberger family have run the mill since 1865, when the German immigrants bought Craig's Mill. When the original early-1800s building became unsound in 1913, they replaced it with a concrete structure and converted the water wheel to electric turbines.
Water flow in creeks has always been unreliable in Central Kentucky, where the karst limestone geology allows water to move underground easily. Dams, channels, flumes and "mill races" often were built to increase water flow and speed.
"The engineering it took to make some of these work was pretty ingenious," O'Malley said. "Still, most of them could only operate a few months out of the year."
Western America's first steam-powered gristmill was built in Lexington in 1808. It was where South Hill Station Lofts are now, at the southwest corner of South Upper Street and Bolivar Street, which originally was called Steam Mill Street.
"Steam engines freed you from having water issues," O'Malley said. "A lot of the water mills converted to steam so they could run longer."
After the Civil War, roller mill technology and increased steel production put many country gristmills out of business. Roller mills could be built in cities, and they could produce more flour and meal faster and cheaper.
The 1880 manufacturing census shows that this Madison County mill operated year-round with a 35-horsepower steam engine and employed three people. It produced 500 barrels of wheat flour, 100,000 pounds of corn meal and 47,000 pounds of animal feed a year, O'Malley said.
The mill, run by the Miller family, continued into the 1930s. Once it shut down, the owners walked away. Except for the missing steam engine, its machinery was left in place. Iron and steel parts somehow managed to escape World War II scrap drives.
Nichols and the other enthusiasts don't want to publicize the old mill's location until they have finished cleaning and securing the building. A bigger challenge will be working with the owner to figure out a viable use that could pay for restoration and maintenance.
"At the least, we need a really meticulous recording of the building and how it's built and all the stuff in it," O'Malley said. "Somebody could have stripped out a lot of the stuff and put it to another use. But they didn't, and I think that's the interesting part of the story."