The Millwright’s Apprentice

Goals & Research
06
Jun

Goals & Research

I want to take a quick break from our “Tools of the Trade” series to discuss goals and research with you.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives around the world, and Newlin Grist Mill is no different. Since the site closed to the public, work on our water wheel has stalled. Because of this, we haven’t been able to provide updates on progress (which was one of the original goals of the blog). This is why we’ve shifted focus to the “Tools of the Trade” series, so that once we get back in to work on the wheel, we’ll be able to discuss all of the tools and techniques without much explanation.

What I can update you on is the research that we’ve been doing behind the scenes since the project started. I’d also like to let all of you in on a little secret museums generally don’t like to share: we don’t know everything.

Researching early- to mid-18th-century water wheel construction and millwrights has made this painfully clear. There are few original sources that detail the trade, and so far we haven’t been able to find much in the way of personal accounts, inventories, or tax records from millwrights. This has made it excruciatingly difficult to pull together anything better than educated guesses about this trade that we’re trying to recreate.

But not knowing something just means we have to keep searching, so let’s take a look at where much of our research begins: newspapers.[1]

These are some of the most useful sources of information on millwrights in Pennsylvania (in fact, they’re some of the only sources on them). Newspaper clippings often form the basis for further research, giving us names, locations, and time frames to look for more concrete evidence about millers and millwrights.

Here are some highlights of what we’ve been able to find in the Pennsylvania Gazette:

From September 12, 1751, this clip gives an interesting insight into the life of one millwright, Michael Dardis, who left his wife and home in Dublin to come to Pennsylvania to find work.[2] Irish millwrights seem to have been relatively common by the 1750s and 60s.

Dating from April 10, 1746, this is another clipping detailing spousal separation, but, as opposed to the previous one, here the wife Johanna is actively avoiding life with her husband John.[3] First, the immediately useful information for our own research: millwrights occasionally moved, and John Holder was operating out of Darby in Chester County by the 1740s, this means we might be able to find more information about him.

But aside from our millwright research, there’s a story hidden in this short clipping. Who was Johanna, and why was she fleeing from her husband? What made her so unhappy that she was willing to risk being destitute to escape? There are hidden stories like this behind every scrap of evidence we find and these glimpses of people’s lives are what makes research so fascinating.

Another reference to a millwright appears in the February 21, 1765 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. This one is tragic and rather long, so I’ll paraphrase: On the 6th of February, the house of George Brown, a millwright in Kennett, Pennsylvania, burned to the ground. Two young women died in the fire–they aren’t identified, but it’s possible they were servants. George Brown broke out a second-floor window and, hanging out of it, handed his three children (who had been inoculated against smallpox and were bedridden when the fire started) down to safety and helped his wife to escape. Two of his apprentices jumped from a high window, injuring themselves; the other two escaped through the door. [4]

Again, if we took this only for its value as research into millwrights, we learn that there was a millwright named George Brown active in Kennett Township in the 1760s, who had at least four apprentices. This not only tells us that Pennsylvania millwrights took apprentices, but now that we have a name, we can also look for apprenticeship and tax records or family papers.

But approaching this only in terms of what research we can gain from the story is somewhat callous. Rather, we should also consider the human tragedy that the story tells. A family’s life was shattered by losing two members of their household and their home. Research often gives us only a brief glimpse into people’s lives, at best a snapshot. We are left asking, what happened to the Brown family? How did they ever recover from the loss of their home and belongings? Who were the two young women who perished in the fire? What happened to the apprentices? What did they go on to do in life? Hopefully, more research can bring these answers to light, but for now we have to accept that we simply don’t know.

Researching 18th-century milling, millers, and millwrights is certainly no simple task, but I’m often amazed at the stories that come to the surface.

I hope you enjoyed this brief respite from the “Tools of the Trade” series. I’ll be adding more research updates as we move forward, and hopefully before too long we’ll get some updates on the wheel again!

As always, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!

If you’d like to take the next step and get involved in the shop once this has all calmed, please contact us at:

Email: info@newlingristmill.org

Find us on Instagram @newlingristmill1704

Look for us on Facebook @newlingristmill

Notes:

[1] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

[2] Catherine Dardis, request for information regarding her husband’s whereabouts, Pennsylvania Gazette, September 12, 1751. Accessed May 28, 2020, https://www.newspapers.com/image/39401611/

[3] John Holder, warning against providing credit to his wife Johanna Holder, Pennsylvania Gazette, April 10, 1745. Accessed May 28, 2020, https://www.newspapers.com/image/39548037

[4] Philadelphia, February 21, Pennsylvania Gazette, February 12, 1765. Accessed May 28, 2020, https://www.newspapers.com/image/39402772

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