FLX Edible History: When the Grist Mills Were Grinding

There was a time when New York could boast the most flour mills in the nation and buckwheat was king. The Finger Lakes Region, including young Schuyler County, was home to many mills, including the “largest in the world.”
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–         Spencer Hungerford is at Mecklenburg Mills in the Town of Hector in this undated photograph from the Schuyler County Historical Society collections. Hungerford regularly hauled flour to Ithaca using his mule-drawn wagon.

There was a time when New York could boast the most flour mills in the nation and buckwheat was king. The Finger Lakes Region, including young Schuyler County, was home to many mills, including the “largest in the world.”

By Glenda Gephart, Schuyler County Historical Society

Take a look at 1800s maps of the Finger Lakes Region and find a major stream. Follow the line of the waterway and you’ll see notation after notation for mills. Sawmills. Shingle mills. Grist mills. In 1857, more than 50 mills dotted the streams across the young Schuyler County, just under three years created.

Grist mills using local or imported grindstones turned the region’s grains and corn into flours and meal, foundational ingredients for foods for people and livestock. By wagon, canal barge, railroad and motor truck, the barrels and bags of product moved from our region across the United States and to Europe.

Rochester in the 1830s was known as “Flour City” and was declared the largest flour-producing city in the world in 1838. As the turn of the century neared, New York State still had the most flour mills in the nation, and their buckwheat flour production was believed to be the highest, according to a late 1880 issue of The American Miller magazine.

Provided by the Schuyler County Historical Society

The magazine lauded the newly opened Seneca Lake Steam Flouring Mills in Watkins as the “largest buckwheat mill in this country, or, for that matter, in the world.” The mill used a “modern” roller system instead of grindstones. 

The last couple of decades of the 19th century were the heyday for mills in our region. In Schuyler County, grist mills in Watkins, Burdett, Tyrone, Catharine and Mecklenburg were among those taking in hundreds of thousands of bushels of buckwheat, spring wheat and winter wheat from farmers each year.

“The Seneca Lake Steam Flouring Mills of Sackett, Ransom & Co. made a continuous run of the entire mill last week of 144 hours without a single intermission. Is there any mill in the country that can beat it?” gushed the Watkins Democrat of Dec. 13, 1882.

But, 14 years later, the lakeshore mill was closed. Mills in the Northeast were struggling to compete against mills in the Midwest and West.

In Mecklenburg in eastern Schuyler, one mill persevered for more than 100 years. While operated under multiple names and owners, Mecklenburg Mills is perhaps the most acknowledged name. The mill opened in 1812-13 after Taughannock Creek, flowing through the village, was dammed to create an 11-acre pond and the mill’s water-power system. Arthur T. Kelsey, the last owner to offer roller milling services, used colorful and creative flour bags, some of which he trademarked in 1923. Three of the bags are displayed at the Schuyler County Historical Society’s Brick Tavern Museum in Montour Falls. Kelsey sold the business after World War II.

The American Miller magazine in late 1880 wrote about the new Seneca Lake Steam Flouring Mills in Watkins. This drawing accompanied the story that described the mill as the “largest buckwheat mill in this country, or, for that matter, in the world.”

The ruins of mill sites can be found across the region, some of the most dramatic being along the Keuka Outlet Trail in Yates County. But the art of grinding local grains into flours is not lost. Farmer Ground Flour in the Trumansburg area is a notable example of the process revived. Wide Awake Bakery, located just inside Schuyler County in the eastern Town of Hector, partners with Farmer Ground for the production of its breads and other products. 

Glenda Gephart is the executive director at the Schuyler County Historical Society, located at 108 N. Catharine St./Route 14, Montour Falls. Learn more at schuylerhistory.org.

Edible History Lesson is a monthly column by a Finger Lakes historian. It uncovers a historical topic relating to the region’s foodshed that is still relevant to this day.

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