When the first settlers came, priority demanded a shelter and planting a crop to have adequate vegetables to last throughout the winter months. At first, the crops were planted on a small portion of the cleared land, but as time went on, more and more acreage was taken for field crops.
Corn and wheat were necessary but grinding by hand was a chore. The early settlers were pleased when a miller constructed a grist mill beside one of the rivers.
The Little Miami River was a prime location for a mill. The water could be directed to provide enough power to turn the wheel which in turn caused one of the huge mill stones to turn against the other, thus grinding the wheat and corn.
Owen Davis is credited with constructing the first mill in the county. He built a grist mill about 1800 near present Alpha. It is probable that the first mill was hand-operated and not driven by water. And then about 1805, he built a saw mill near present Clifton. He used the timbers made at the saw mill to build his water-powered grist mill.
The 1860 census indicated there were 22 grist mills in Greene County. Corn and wheat were not the only products produced in the local mills. Saw mills were very much in demand as well. The earliest of which were the “up and down” method of sawing wood. It was tedious, apparently, but certainly was better than the manual way of sawing logs with a cross cut saw. In this case, one man was usually in a pit with the sawdust falling into his face as he worked his end of the saw.
Mills were used to make woolen goods, paper, cotton fabrics along with distilleries making the mills the first factories in the county. The grist mill often served pioneers from as far away as thirty miles.
The surplus flour from the mill was often sent by wagon to Cincinnati, and then transported down the river as far as New Orleans. The wagons would then bring back necessary supplies from Cincinnati to Greene County residents.
The 1850 census of Greene County lists 11 millwrights, 67 millers, 7 distilleries, 7 stillers, 8 sawyers, one saw miller, 3 saw mill tenders, 17 wool manufacturers, and 11 paper making millers.
Farmers were able to bring their crops to the mill for grinding. The miller would keep a portion of the ground wheat in payment for services rendered then sell his share. About 1840, a barrel of flour sold for 33 1/3 cents. 82 bushels of bran sold for $5.12.
In 1930, W. A. Galloway produced a map of the water-powered mills which had been in the county from 1798 to 1875 on the Little Miami, he lists 1 grist mills, 4 distilleries, 6 saw mills, 1 paper mill, 1 woolen mill, 1 gun factory, 1 machine shop, 1 sythe and cradle factory and a clock factory. Glady Run boasted a total of 8 mills, Spring Valley had three mils. On Massie’s Creek there were a dozen mils for grinding corn, distilling spirits and sawing lumber. Three mills were on Old Town Run, five on Beaver Creek and three more on Shawnee Creek and two on Yellow Springs Branch. The water powered mill was a welcome addition to the community.
The James Leffel Company of Springfield manufactured a turbine which was put in use by Isaac Preston of the Clifton Flouring Mill and also Robert Ervin who owned the Cedarville Flouring Mill.
After the new equipment had been installed at Clifton, there was adequate sufficient power generated to allow an electric power line hook up to Cedarville allowing sufficient current for arc street lights.
In 1825, the proprietor of the Xenia Woolen Factory decided to sell one-third of the business.
The building is 80 feet long and three stories high, with machinery sufficient to manufacture 14,000 pounds of wool a year, all new and in complete operation, moved by a never failing water power with a stock of 10,000 pounds of wool on hand. Any further description is deemed unnecessary as whoever is disposed to purchase will call and see for themselves.” The Xenia Woolen Factory was located in Old Town, along with a grist mill and a clock manufacturing business.
One by one, these old mills have succumbed to the ravages of time. After water-power became unnecessary to operate a factory, some of the mills were used for barns or storage, but have been removed.
Only two remain in the county. Neither is used on a daily basis for grinding wheat and corn.
Clifton Mill in the village of Clifton is well known for its year around activities but especially for the Christmas lights which highlight the season for visitors. The other is the Grinnell Mill near Yellow Springs. It was constructed in 1813 by Robert Moody and was known as Moody’s Mill. Frank Grinnell purchased the mill in 1864 and the structure continues to bear his name. The mill closed in 1937 and remained vacant until Antioch College bought the property in 1948 as an addition to the Glen Helen Nature Preserve.
Students lived there for a few years and worked on restoration, but it was not until early in the 21st century when the structure was completely restored and renovated into a Bed and Breakfast. The gears and grindstones remain in place inside as a reminder of when the structure was in use grinding wheat and corn.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.