The Fairfax County Park Authority is taking part in the National Park Service’s (NPS) Preservation 50 celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s protection of America’s historic places by posting a series of blogs about county historic places on park land. The National Register of Historic Places, a part of NPS, was established in 1966. This series is based on information that appears in each FCPA site’s nomination to the National Register. The nomination forms give us a chance to look back and learn why the sites were considered to be significant historic places.
Want to see how the third patent ever issued by the United States Patent Office was put to use? That patent was issued to Oliver Evans, a man with intelligence as sharp as a French buhrstone. And it was his invention that improved the design and manufacturing of millstones so they could be balanced and sharpened to grind any size of grain. His work gave a huge boost to American manufacturing, and he later became known as the “father of mechanized flour milling.”
Today, 218 years after his patent was issued, millstones are still grinding grain at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site in Great Falls, Va.
Colvin Run’s application for the National Register of Historic Places was submitted on August 16, 1977. The application noted all the basics – “a four-story brick and frame structure constructed between 1810 and 1820 and repaired and restored between 1969 and 1975,” although today we know that the construction took place between 1802 and 1811. The nomination noted that the mill was rectangular at 50 feet, three inches long – 41 feet, eight inche wide – and 47 feet, six inches high. At the time, more than 125,000 of the 200,000-plus bricks used in the building were original, and the replacements had been made by methods used to make the originals.
The Park Authority acquired the mill, a miller’s house, an old shed, and the remains of a millrace in 1965. Shortly thereafter, the decision was made, according to the nomination, “to restore the mill as a representative sample of the pioneering work of Oliver Evans, the inventor and technologist who helped bring the idea of the production line to America.”
Evans published a book in 1794, The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide which became a manufacturing milestone. It showed that a single, continuous, automated process could grind grain. Flowing water provided the power. A machine doing the work of people. At the four-story mill, the waterwheel is on the first floor, the millstones are on the second, the boulting chest where flour and meal are sifted is on the third, and the freshly ground meal cools on the fourth floor. Conveyor belts and hoists, powered by the waterwheel, move the flour from floor to floor.
When the Park Authority acquired the mill, much of the structure was deteriorated and had to be replaced. Nearly every major subsystem was specially constructed according to Evans’ instructions, including the types of wood – oak for high stress areas, redwood and cypress for areas that touch water, maple for pins and cogs.
During reconstruction, the mill foundation was reinforced because researchers learned that the original west wall had collapsed. The nomination notes that collapse occurred in the mid-1800s, but we’ve since been able to date it to the early 1900s. The building had been constructed on a soft clay, so it was unstable to start, and vibrations from the moving machinery were transmitted through a wooden frame that touched the wall. The rebuilding of that wall is where most of the 75,000 new bricks sit and, of course, the new cog pit framing doesn’t touch the wall.
Colvin Run’s nomination for the National Register also notes the park’s two-story house, which architectural historian Blaine Cliver described as “early nineteenth-century style” and said probably was built around the same time as the mill. The park’s offices are in the house today. An old dairy shed was adopted for use as a carpentry shop and an interpretive area. The 1890 Cockerill general store at the site today was moved to the park in 1973. It originally was across from the mill on Colvin Run Road.
Flour-milling was a critical part of Virginia’s economy in the late 1700s well into the 1800s. Look at all the Northern Virginia roads named after mills. Tobacco, the major Virginia product in colonial days, exhausted soils, so corn and wheat became farming staples, and the merchant mills arose. Millers began grinding grain not just for local use, but for shipping to other places. Flour was cheaper to transport than grain, and the mills appeared along turnpikes that reached west to the Shenandoah Valley and that had easy access to ports along the Potomac River. Colvin Run Mill saw its most prosperous years under the ownership of Addison Millard and his family from 1883 until 1934.
The restoration of the mill received much acclaim. In 1973, the Washington Metropolitan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects presented a first-place award to Colvin Run “for achievement of excellence in historic preservation and architectural design.” Two years later, the American Institute of Architects presented the Park Authority with an Honor Award for Craftsmanship “in recognition of the distinguished accomplishment in preservation craft technology in the program of restoration of the Colvin Run Mill.
The mill, established on the success of that third U-S patent and now safeguarded by the Park Authority, continues to grind grain and sell its flour today.
The Fairfax County Park Authority acquired Colvin Run Mill in 1965. It is located at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls. More information is on the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site website.
As part of Preservation 50, visitors to the Fairfax County Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax can see an exhibit case in the building’s lobby. The exhibit, a partnership of the Fairfax County Park Authority and the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ), showcases some of the 59 county properties and districts that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Park Authority and DPZ host two symposia this year on the impact of the National Historic Preservation Act on Fairfax County. The first, “Setting the Stage for Local Preservation,” will bring together historic preservation professionals who have played roles in the National Historic Preservation Act on a federal and/or state level. It will be held on April 16, 2016, at the James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Road in Falls Church, Va. The second symposium will explore grassroots results of how the Act has affected local historic preservation. The date and place of that fall symposium are not yet confirmed.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.