Grist Mills: the Early “Economic Engine” of the Roland Run Valley

Calming bucolic pictures of old grist mills surrounded with ageless willows on pastoral ponds and placid streams adorn calendars, country magazines and are seen to represent America in a less hurried time. In fact, mills were a very active, innovative and productive part of rural life. Here the fruits of the farmer’s field were turned into useful food products that fed not only his family, but provided a saleable commodity that could be used to purchase other necessities and improve the quality of life.

Mills required a major investment and skilled artisans to construct. Not all farmers could afford to have their own milling operation. Usually an enterprising farmer would see the opportunity in a growing area. Once in operation, the mill would process the grains for neighboring farmers with the operator keeping a portion of the product as payment.

Baltimore Country lies on the fall line where streams flowing from the Appalachian plateau drop to the coastal plane create the opportunity to harvest water power. Many mills were constructed early in the county’s history along Jones’ Falls and its tributaries to harness a stream’s power. A mill was constructed with a dam and a mill race. Water was channeled to the mill race from the dam to flow over the water wheel. Then the power was harnessed through a series of ingenious gears to the grinding stones. There were usually two large circular stones 3 to 4 feet across and 6 to 8 inches thick lying vertically on top of each other. The lower one being stationery (bedstone), the top stone (runner) turning. The raw grain was fed into the center hole of the top stone through a funnel (hopper). The tolerance between the two stones was slight so as to pinch the grain as it passed through and was ground. The stones could not touch or grit particles would contaminate the product. Centrifugal force pushed the processed grain out through the stones to a catch basin and the now flour was packaged for shipment or local use. This was the heart of each operating mill.

The Ruxton – Riderwood community had several mills used to grind gain into meal and flower. Surplus beyond what the farmer required was sold in Baltimore or exported through the port. Having a sustainable surplus of food is the first requirement of any people who wish to advance.

Our local grist mills included Nicholas Haile’s mill located at Joppa and Thornton Roads constructed in 1742 and the Bowen mill built prior to 1798. There maybe more but they are now lost to the ages.

Haile’s mill was operated until 1780 when it was sold to Charles Ridgely of William and then in 1824, to Edward Rider Sr. After many years, the now Rider mill became obsolete as technology made such operations insufficient to meet growing demand. When it closed, the mill stone was moved to the home of Harrison Rider where it remained until recently recovered. Development of the Joppa-Thornton Road corner has erased any remnants of Edward Rider’s mill.

Through the generosity of Mr. & Mrs. Kurt Kleis, current owners of the Harrison Rider home, the stone was recently donated to the Greater Ruxton Area Foundation. It will be placed in the Ruxton Road Park as a memorial to our early history.

The Bowen mill built by the three Bowen brothers, Solomon, Nathan and Benjamin served their 500 acre farm, Samuel’s Hope, and their neighbors for many years. It later became a storage facility for the Bellona Gunpowder Mills before falling into disuse. The remains of the Bowen Mill and mill-race lie in the woods between Charles Street and Bellona Ave. on the Towson Branch stream very much undisturbed.

The five mills of the Bellona Gunpowder Company (1799 -1850) were located on the southern bank of Jones Falls where it now enters Lake Roland. These mills served a different purpose: to grind to specification the three components of gunpowder: charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur. These ingredients were combined in the packing house which, unless you had a death wish, you didn’t want to work due to the volatile nature of the final product as many workers learned over the years.

Ruxton Riderwood grist mills were a center of early community activity and helped produce a surplus food which enabled the community to grow and prosper. The miller or millwright was a highly regarded citizen and usually did well in his trade. A successful milling operation could be called in today’s lingo a “cash cow” but not to be confused with the farmer’s dairy operation.

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