Located just a mile away from Chesapeake College, Old Wye Mill is one of the oldest continuously operated grist mills in the United States. This historical site played a role in the Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution. At Old Wye Mill you don’t just have to imagine what history could have been like; you can see, hear, smell and even taste it. We had the chance to talk to Hal Van Aller, the president of the Friends of Wye Mill, to learn more about the history of the mill, their upcoming Ancient Grain Festival and more!
Prior to joining the mill, Hal worked for the state as an engineer inspecting dams. While inspecting a dam right next to the mill, Hal thought, “This a neat place; I could volunteer here when I retire.”, and that’s exactly what he did. Hal says he has always had an interest in the “old ways of doing things,” like how they do at the mill.
The mill that stands today was built in 1682 just 50 years after the first European settlements in Maryland and nearly 100 years before America became an independent nation. During the Revolutionary War, Old Wye Mill supplied George Washington’s Continental Army with wheat and flour. Mills from the Eastern Shore supplied most of the flour to feed the army, leading some historians to dub the Eastern Shore the “Breadbasket of the Revolution.”
Shortly after the war, the Mill was automated by inventor Oliver Evans, an important early step in the Industrial Revolution. “Typically, five or six people were required to operate a mill. It was all manual, and they had to carry grain all the way up to the attic,” Hal explained. Evans created a system using pulleys and ropes to elevate grain to the top of the mill, meaning a mill could now operate with just one person. For his work Oliver was granted patent No. 3, the third patent in U.S. history. While Old Wye Mill was one of the first to be automated using this method, it was not the very first.
The mill is the oldest operational one in Maryland, and one of the oldest in the country. Why did it survive while so many others were destroyed? The mill was commercially operated all the way until 1953, when the property was sold off to the State of Maryland. The pond next to the mill was to be turned into a fishing spot. Just two years later, hurricanes damaged the mill and destroyed the pond, dashing the State’s plans for a public fishing pond. It was then repaired and turned over to a preservation group.
If you want to see the history we’ve talked about come to life, stop by Old Wye Mill’s Ancient Grain Festival on August 19th from 10AMto 3PM. The festival will feature locally grown produce, grass-fed beef and other tasty and rustic agriculture products. You will also get to see the mill in action, processing less commonly used “ancient” grains like einkorn, emmer and spelt. Einkorn is of particular note for having a relatively low gluten content, meaning some with gluten sensitivities can enjoy it.
If you would like to learn more about Old Wye Mill, you can go to their website at: https://www.oldwyemill.org/. There you can read a more in-depth history of the mill, watch how grain is turned into flour, see wheat and grit products for sale and more. Hal says that they only have “two and a half” millers right now and are looking for volunteers to help with the process. They are open from Wednesday to Saturday 10AM to 3PM and on Sunday from 1-3PM, April through October.