Milling in Ohio first began around 1790, around the time of the Greenville Treaty, with the first mill built in Washington County near Marietta. The first gristmills were constructed under hazardous conditions and with great difficulty because of the constant threat of Indian attacks. However, the settlers needed the mills so urgently that many persisted in building the mills, despite the abundant danger. Not until General “Mad Anthony” Wayne defeated the Indians did the construction of mills keep pace with the advance of pioneer settlements and millers were able to safely grind corn into meal and wheat into flour.
Due to the tremendous influx of people moving into the Ohio valley with its pleasant streams and fertile forests, water powered gristmills in the state numbered almost 2,000 at one time. These early gristmills contributed a vital chapter to the history of the frontier.
Built in 1849 by Gabriel Baer, Bear’s Mill is one of the last operating water-powered mills in Ohio today. The site of the present mill, as well as the water rights, was granted to Major George Adams by Presidential Deed by President James Monroe in 1824. Bear’s Mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
While another mill flourished on this property prior to 1848, it was at this time that Mr. Baer, a prominent Pennsylvania miller, purchased the land. At the time Baer purchased the land, Moses and Manning Hart had already started construction of the present mill. Baer and his son, John, and his son in-law, Emanuel Hershey, completed the mill, including the millrace. The millrace, 800 feet long, 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep, was hand dug by school children for 50 cents a day. The mill began operation January 1, 1850 with Gabriel Baer putting his son and son-in-law in charge. They continued to run the mill about seven years, perhaps longer.
The millstones are the heart of Bear’s Mill. During the heyday of gristmills, a pair of good stones would cost as much as $6,000. Understandably, they were treated with care, and never allowed to become dull or out of balance as either one of these faults would cause premature wearing of the stone. Sharpening millstones was an art in itself and a ten-year apprenticeship was not uncommon. It took a two year journey to France for Gabriel Baer to bring the three French buhr stones to Bear’s Mill. Imported French buhr were much sought after by old world millers for their abrasive and porous qualities, which resulted in a slow, cool grinding process. This process prevents unnecessary destruction of valuable nutrients–something modern milling cannot claim.
The hand hewn timber framework of the building is still the original. The framework is exquisitely done with beams ranging from 12” X 16” and 50’ long without a single splice. The American Black Walnut siding was replaced with the same species of wood in 2001. The central bay has grain-handling doors on all four levels serviced by a water powered wench with cable from the peak. This is how all the grain makes its way upstairs.
The mill has a backdrop of mowed lawns and tree-covered knolls bordering both sides of Greenville Creek, which meanders freely through the property. The water from the creek still provides power that turns the underwater turbines (44” & 30.5”) which power all of the milling machinery. A large and small dam creates a two-mile lake area from which water is channeled to the millrace. A pair of water gates enables the stream water to be diverted into the race to impel the turbines. A second outlet gate (located under the mill) enables the race to be drained when it is necessary to perform maintenance work on the turbines.
In 1862, Jesse Tillman and John Townsend bought the mill for $8,000, but ran it only for a couple of years because it was feared the Confederate soldiers would invade the state during the Civil War and burn the mill. In the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, the mill passed through many hands. In 1884 the John Stoltz family sold their share to his partner’s son, Marcellus Cromer. M.R. Cromer operated the mill longer than anyone else has to date–65 years in one family until his death in 1947. Mr. Cromer must have been a colorful character as stories heard from old timers still abound about him!
Several years before Cromer’s death, he leased the mill to Charles Andrews, who later bought it outright in 1947. Andrews was a rare breed of a man in his time. One of the first environmentalists of his day, Andrews confronted the city of Greenville in the 1960’s when he said effluent from its treatment plant was contaminating the creek and reducing water flow needed to power the mill and heat his house. A firm believer in negotiating, he and his wife Flossie went to the city to discuss the matter, but came away disheartened, the city refusing to hear their plea. A legal battle then ensued with Andrews and his wife winning a decision eight years later, decided by the Ohio Supreme Court. The court decision was a landmark one in that it was one of the first in Ohio holding a city responsible in a pollution matter.
Charlie Andrews was also something of a health food advocate and one aspect of his business included development of a market for flours and meals ground from organically produced grain free from herbicides and pesticides. At one time during the 34 years he owned the mill, he had a good mail order business, shipping his products worldwide to such exotic places as Tahiti, Alaska, Jerusalem, and Norway.
Terry and Julie Clark purchased the Bear’s Mill property in 1978 and ran it independently for over twenty years. The Clarks came naturally as caretakers of Bear’s Mill. Terry, having a fascination for old buildings and their workings was immediately drawn to the mill, and Julie, a potter, found the natural rustic setting of the mill and property appealing to her artistic senses.
In 1999, the Clarks started a non-profit organization to keep the historic mill open for the public to enjoy. Bear’s Mill is now governed by the Friends of Bear’s Mill whose goal is to keep the mill open for touring and educational purposes.
For additional historic images of Bear’s Mill, be sure to check out the gallery on our Flickr Page.