Tag Archives: Colvin Run Mill Historic Site

Cracked Shaft Stops Grinding Temporarily At Colvin Run Mill

Update:  April 20, 2015


The official grand re-opening of the mill was held on April 19, 2015, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place next to the mill while corn was being ground.

Colvin Run Mill is Grinding Again

Site Manager Mike Henry says visitors often ask why it took nine years, 1802-1811, to build the massive mill that still grinds today at Colvin Run Historic Site. He’s quick to answer that it took us over 40 years to reconstruct it.

Colvin Run Mill today is as close to its historic origins as it has ever been.

The broken shaft discovered last year has been replaced. The final phase of reconstruction, which started in 2014, is complete. And this marvel of history is grinding once again.

The official grand re-opening of the mill was held on April 19, 2015, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place next to the mill while corn was being ground. The long-planned restoration is complete, and Colvin Run Mill is ready to run at full capacity for the first time in decades.

Colvin Run is part of a rare group of historic sites. Normally a visitor to a historic site looks and sees what was there. But at Colvin Run Mill, you can experience the exact same smells, sounds and sights that people of 200 years ago experienced. This was American industry and American life in the 1800s.

Colvin Run Mill is at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls, Va.

Grinding takes place at the mill from noon to 3 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of each month, April through October.



UPDATE: February 6, 2015

A new main shaft was delivered to Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

A new main shaft was delivered to Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

It is a beautiful piece of wood. Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry says the white oak that arrived at the park on Feb. 3 is perfectly straight and doesn’t have a knot in it.

The tree was felled in New York State during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. It’s finding a second life as a main shaft at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. It will create its place in history this spring, and site staffers hope to have the mill grinding again in April.

The replacement was needed after Miller Mason Maddox found a crack in the old shaft during a routine inspection. When the old shaft was removed, Henry said staff learned that wood rot fungus had taken hold where moisture had penetrated the wood, so the crack was a timely discovery in a shaft that had limited life remaining.

Henry said the new shaft will be kept under wraps and out of the weather while given time to acclimatize to its environment. Millwright Ben Hassett has braced the mill’s water wheel, and removed and supported the greater face gear in the gear pit. Metal gudgeons will attached to the ends of the new shaft, and metal bands will wrap around the shaft to keep the gudgeons in place.

Fingers are crossed, but the massive project that began last year at the mill is still on track for a scheduled April 19, 2015, gathering to celebrate the completion of a long-planned restoration that will have the mill running at full capacity.

Broken Shaft


The staff at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site was hosting a lunch for its volunteers and was planning to unleash its waters for a spin of the big wheel and the grinding of some flour when miller Mason Maddox delivered the bad news. He’d found a crack in the axle of the mill’s main water wheel.

The water wheel can’t spin on a cracked shaft, which leaves no way to capture any power from the water flowing through the millrace. Tours and interpretation continue at the mill, and a smaller system at the historic site can be used to grind flour for sale, but there will be no grinding with the mill’s big stones for several months.

The 6,000-pound shaft that cracked was made from the trunk of a single white oak tree and was installed as part of an update at the mill in 2001 when the existing water wheel was built. Its demise was not unexpected. Although some last longer, the lifespan of woodwork like this is typically 10-to-15 years, and it’s been 12 years since this wheel was installed. In addition, the wood had a fungus growing on it, and it had become infested with woodborer beetles.

There’s work ahead to determine how long the mill will be sidelined. The water wheel will be disengaged and the broken shaft removed. Colvin Run’s Assistant Site Administrator Ann Korzeniewski says that, in a perfect world, a new shaft simply would be slid in place, although that’s not a simple operation. In addition, the spokes and the wheel were also installed in 2001, and those spokes are attached to the bug-infested axle that broke.   Until all the parts are removed and analyzed, staff won’t know how much of the mechanism will need to be replaced.

The Park Authority is researching options for funding the project, estimated to cost approximately $83,000. There may be limited funding available because the current restoration that is taking place at the mill appears to be coming in under budget.

There is good news in the midst of the problem. Because millwright Ben Hassett is already working on a restoration project at the mill, arranging a time for B.E. Hassett-Millwrights, Inc. to take on the new project may be just a matter of adding time to the current project. Pending any further setbacks, replacement of the cracked shaft would likely take about 75-90 days. In addition, there is another white oak tree trunk immediately available at a lumber yard. That alone will save a year of time finding a suitable tree, felling it and curing the wood.

The restoration project to restore the second grinding stone at the mill, already well under way, will continue. That project will allow the mill to run at full capacity for the first time in decades, however that new installation cannot be tested until the water wheel shaft is replaced and the big wheel is turning again.

Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry says “There are a lot of wild cards in this mix,” but he is hopeful that with a little luck the historic site still will be able to hold its planned April 19, 2015 ceremony to celebrate the completion of a long-planned restoration that will have the mill running at full capacity.

October 19, 2014 is Friends of Colvin Run Mill Day at Colvin Run Historic Site. Any visitors at the mill that day who sign up to join the Friends group will receive a free Four Floor tour – a rare chance to see the entire mill, including areas not usually open to the public.

To help fund the mill restoration and repairs, contact the Fairfax County Park Foundation at 703-324-8582 or email.

Author David Ochs is the manager of stewardship communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

What’s Going On At The Mill?

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When the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site first opened to the public in 1972, it was the culmination of over four years of exhausting preservation, restoration and recreation efforts.  Thanks to the hard work and craftsmanship of many individuals, the mill proudly featured an operational pair of millstones capable of grinding grains. Now, some 42 years after that date, the rest of the mill is being restored.

Based on the designs of the mechanical genius Oliver Evans, the Colvin Run Mill Restoration Project will complete the work started during the Nixon administration. With functioning grain elevators, wooden line shafts, grain cleaners and product sifters, the fully restored mill will stand as living testament to America’s industrial infancy, all the while producing wheat flour and cornmeal as it did over 200 years ago. The massive oak timbers and hand-crafted gears of the mill will once again provide a working link between the past, present and future of Fairfax County.

Leading the team on this monumental project is Ben Hassett, America’s only classically trained millwright (mill restoration specialist). Together with our miller, Mason Maddox, and the rest of the mill’s professional and volunteer staff, this expert assemblage has but one common goal – to make Colvin Run Mill the finest working example of federal period technology anywhere.

Funded in part by a Partners in Preservation grant from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this exciting work started in January and has an anticipated completion date of November 2014. During that time, special tours featuring not only the history of the mill but also the restoration work in progress will be given.

Author Mike Henry is the site administrator for Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. The mill is supported by the efforts of the Friends of Colvin Run Mill.

Keeping Promises At Colvin Run Mill

Colvin Run Mill Historic Site

We made a promise last spring.

About six months ago, Colvin Run Mill entered a contest to win grant money through
the Fairfax County Park Foundation. We sought help, asking you to join the site’s supporters and cast votes through social media outlets on behalf of the mill. You met the challenge, in the manner of the old political joke, by voting early and often. The result was a fourth-place finish among 24 historic sites in the contest and a $75,000 grant for Colvin Run Mill, the largest grant in the site’s history.

Colvin Run Mill has actually been spinning slightly out of sync over the years – a bit like playing guitar with one string inappreciably out of tune. Inside the mill are two giant, horizontal power shafts called counter shafts. They are key parts in the system that turns the runner stone, a French buhr stone used for fine grinding. The runner stone is the top stone that turns above a stationary bedstone when the mill grinds grain. At Colvin Run, the first of those counter shafts connects to the second one through a metal attachment, sort of like railroad cars locking together. That second shaft powers the ‘country’ stone, a style of stone often used to grind corn.

At Colvin Run, that first shaft is slightly warped and thus unable to turn the second shaft. There wasn’t enough money designated to fix that problem when the mill restoration began in 1968, so Colvin Run has been turning only one millstone over the years.

We promised that if we earned some money from the Partners in Preservation contest that we’d use it to fix that and some other issues at the historic site. That would free up bond money that had been designated for mill repairs for other needs.

Now, we’re keeping our word. The Park Authority hired HITT Contracting, who turned to Ben Hassett and his Lynchburg company, B.E. Hassett-Millwrights, to lend a hand in the repairs at Colvin Run. Hassett-Millwrights specializes in repair, maintenance, restoration and reconstruction of wind-and water-powered agricultural and historic sites. The company has worked on historic mills in California, Maryland and Virginia, and will endeavor to preserve as much of Colvin Run’s original material as possible.

Hassett first removed the shims that locked the gears in place on the shaft, and then suspended those gears so that they hang freely. That allowed him to remove the estimated 800-pound counter shaft from the mill and take it back to his shop. It will be used as a guide for the creation of a new counter shaft that will be fashioned out of white oak, matching the material used in the original mill. The selected tree is at Hassett’s shop and was chosen with consideration for its growth pattern so that it is unlikely to twist and can withstand the torque it will endure in the mill. About 100 pounds of metalwork on each end of the counter shaft will be removed, re-milled if needed, and reused on the new shaft.

The next step is the one that has the staff at Colvin Run Mill excited. The new shaft will be attached to the second counter shaft and, with the warp removed from the system, that second counter shaft will turn the country stone. That stone has never turned at Colvin Run. The grinding station at which it will sit has run at least one time in the past, but no stones were in place at the time. The country stone will grind corn because its pattern does not produce flour as fine as the French buhr stone’s product.

Colvin Run staff and Hassett are documenting the process step-by-step with photos of the work along the way. That will preserve a record of the repairs being made now and provide a guideline for any future work the mill requires.

This current project, which continues the mill restoration that began in 1968, will last until late 2014. The current phase of work on the mill’s first floor is expected to be completed by spring so that public tours during the mill’s prime season won’t be affected. Subsequent work is planned on the building’s second and third floors. That will include designing and installing grain cleaning equipment, completing the mill’s system of flour delivery, completing an internal rope hoist, and changing some fittings to a more period-appropriate design.

So once again, thank you. The mill will soon be tuned and grinding again. With the help of county residents who cast votes in the Partners in Preservation contest, the Fairfax County Park Authority is able again to protect resources.

We work and play well together, and our parks are better off for it.

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Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications in the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Puzzling the Past

History has a bad reputation. It is perceived as memorizing dates, dead rich guys, and dusty artifacts under glass. It is not dynamic and is seen as having nothing to do with our lives.

Historians are still unraveling mysteries at Historic Huntley in Alexandria.

Historians are still unraveling mysteries at Historic Huntley in Alexandria.

Yet that is very far from the truth. History is exciting, full of adventure, romance, tragedy, and comedy. When you visit any one of the Park Authority’s historic sites, you’ll discover all the excitement in history.

One way to look at history is that it is mystery. Historians and archaeologists are detectives trying to piece together what happened from clues. Our evidence is what people left behind. Sometimes our clues are documents, letters, diaries, and other written accounts. Other clues are objects like pieces of pottery, tools, trash, and even entire houses. None of these clues tells the entire story. What we know of the past we know by piecing all these little clues together. Yet we will never have enough clues to get a perfect picture, so sometimes we have to make educated guesses.

You can look at history like a jigsaw puzzle, one of those giant 32,000 piece 3-D affairs. Some of the puzzle pieces are still in the box, other pieces are under the bed or between the couch cushions, a few may be still at the store, and some may be missing altogether. Once we have collected as many of the pieces as we can find, we have to figure out how they all fit together. We may find some more pieces in the future to give us a more complete puzzle, but many of the puzzle pieces will always be missing.

Artifacts help archaeologists and historians understand the past.

Artifacts help archaeologists and historians understand the past.

Despite this, historians and archaeologists do what they do because solving that mystery or putting that puzzle together helps us all understand where we came from, where we are, and (in part) where we’re going. History is so important because it is who we are, and it connects us to a larger story. It is the story of us, and you, and me, and them. History roots us to place, and that is particularly important in a region like ours.

Examine history through your eyes

It is amazing to ask visitors to consider how the lives of their ancestors differed from the lives we live. Our historic interpreters engage visitors by asking them to help solve the mystery or put the puzzle together. We ask visitors to:

  • Consider how their lives would change if they lived in a different time
  • Examine the clues in a historic house to uncover how the family lived and built their home
  • Fire a bow and arrow and think about what the Powhatan ate, what games they played, and how they farmed
  • Make biscuits in a colonial kitchen
  • Solve (or piece together) how our ancestors do the things we do

 There are ways we make history come alive and make it personal. These questions challenge kids and adults. They make history fun.

Come to a park historic site, or look around your home. What mysteries and puzzles can you uncover around you? What mysteries are you leaving behind for future historians?

Written by Geoffrey Cohrs, historic interpreter and site coordinator, Huntley Meadows Park

Find more information about Fairfax County Park Authority historic sites, Historic Huntley, and historic rental sites.

Millers Gather at Colvin Run Mill for Special Workshop

Millers came from across the country to learn about Colvin Run Mill.

On a muggy morning in early May, a dozen millers from six states gathered around Mason Maddox at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site to learn about the historic gristmill. Maddox, the site’s miller for the past 15 years, shared his intimate knowledge of the mill with the group which was in town for a two-day workshop on running and preserving antique gristmills.

Manager Mike Henry said, “I’m sure you’ll find this hard to believe, but courses in how to run an 1811 gristmill aren’t being taught at most venues of higher education.”

This was the third consecutive year Colvin Run has hosted a Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM) workshop. The comprehensive class, billed as “All hands-on. No lectures!”, covered operation of an overshot water wheel, milling on horizontal stones, handling and cleaning grains, packaging, storage of grain and milled products, lubrication, cleaning/housekeeping/pests, conducting tours and interpretation, safety precautions, grits separation, milling on a Meadows Mill, belting machinery and belt splicing, and wooden gearing/machinery. Attendees earned credits toward SPOOM Miller Certification, which verifies their expertise in the craft of operating antique mills.

Miller Mason Maddox discusses the inner workings of the mill.

In his laid back, friendly manner, Maddox spoke with enthusiasm about the mill and shared anecdotes from his experiences over the years. Attendees listened intently and asked questions and pointed out similarities and differences between Colvin Run Mill and their mills. Gary Hobbs, a miller from Beck’s Mill in Salem, IN, noted that his mill uses a pitchback water wheel (the wheel rotates in the opposite direction as Colvin Run’s wheel) and uses under runners (the bottom stone turns while the top stone remains still). Colvin Run’s overshot water wheel was built of oak in 1970 to reproduce the water wheel that powered the machinery in the c. 1811 mill.

The millers attended the workshop for a variety of reasons. Myron Short, also from Beck’s Mill, said, “I’m here to learn the different styles of milling.”

“I’m more interested in the grits,” stated Hobbs, as he explained that his main reason for attending the workshop was to find out how to increase grits production. No matter why the millers came, they left with a better understanding of Colvin Run Mill’s inner workings and how the Fairfax County Park Authority interprets the site for the public.

Colvin Run Mill is a restored c. 1811 gristmill.

Colvin Run Mill Historic Site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Landmark. The park also holds a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark designation from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The public may attend grinding demonstrations from noon to 3 p.m. on May 20, June 3 and 17, July 1 and 15, and August 5 and 19.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer