Sunday, March 13, 2022

Challenges of Researching Local History: The Grist Mill at Cooper’s Falls

Cooper's Falls

Tracking down documentation of historic sites can be a real challenge, especially so here in the Adirondacks when the historic site may be little known or perhaps the site even lost in enveloping forest growth.

Some time ago I was approached by friend Evelyn Greene. Evelyn is a daughter of the famous Adirondack environmentalist, Paul Schaefer, and is a great explorer of the local woods. Evelyn told me about an abutment near a picturesque waterfall on the North Creek stream, about 3.6 miles upstream of where the steam enters the Hudson River at the village of North Creek. She wondered if I knew anything about it and wondered if there had ever been a mill there. Despite all my research on 55 historic sites in the Town of Johnsburg for my first book, Echoes in These Mountains, I replied I knew nothing about it.

In the spring of 2021, I received a message from Richard Stewart, long time resident of the town. Richard said that Evelyn told him that without documentation we could not assert there had been any mill there.  Richard offered that the falls were locally called Cooper’s Falls and that a grist mill had been there owned by a fellow named Montayne. Years later, after the mill had been abandoned, he said two local families had removed the millstones to preserve them and used them as lawn decorations. I immediately went to my copy of the 1876 Beers & Co. Atlas of Warren County, Johnsburg section. There was no notation of a Montayne residence. Even stranger, there was no reference to any mill at the site.

That struck me as most unusual. Grist mills were crucial to early settlers; exceeded in their importance only by sawmills. Initially settlers might quickly raise up a crude log cabin, but for more permanent dwellings they needed cut lumber. Initially hand cut, they soon were cut by a local sawmill; usually the first mill established in any community. Sawmills were constructed where rushing or falling water could be used to power the mill. Grist mills soon followed.

To better understand grist mills I did some online research. Thomas Kelleher, curator at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts was particularly helpful and offered me some insights.

With few roads and grist mills scarce, farmers initially had to haul their grain through the woods to a distant gristmill; first over their shoulders in bags of grain that might weigh as much as 75 pounds. As the trail widened perhaps they would use a hand sled. Hopefully, before too long, crude roads would be built so that the grain could be brought by ox-cart.  With access to a nearby grist mill, farmers cleared more land, extended their fields and planted more crops, increasing their productivity and improving the well-being of their entire community.

There were many types of grist mill designs: the horizontal Norse wheel, the breast wheel, and the pitchback. It all depended on the head or vertical drop of the site, the variation in the rate of flow, and the choice of the millwright.

Grist mills were most often of two different types. The “Undershot wheel” used swift running streams to push the wheel counterclockwise (when facing the mill) to generate power. The “Overshot wheel” turned clockwise as cascading water from a higher elevation, usually a dammed-up stream or pond, fed into the mill’s waterwheel along a sluiceway. The concept of the “overshot wheel” was particularly clever. Once the milling work for the day was complete, the water could be shut off to the wheel by closing it off at the sluiceway. Overnight the water in the pond would refill, stored energy if you will, and then provide plenty of waterpower the next morning when the sluicegate was re-opened.


A millstone at Goose Pond Inn, Main Street, North Creek. Photo by Glenn Pearsall

Millstones varied in size and weight.  They could be as small as 2 feet in diameter and up to 7 feet in diameter and about a foot thick when new. The larger ones, which spun at slower speeds, could weigh up to 3,500 pounds; smaller lighter millstones might spin up to 125 revolutions a minute.  The torque could pull apart a building. For this reason, the waterwheel and millstone machinery were usually mounted on a hurst frame, separate from the foundation for the building. if there was a grist mill at Cooper’s Falls it was likely a smaller variety of millstone.

Grinding grain and running a mill was a relatively skilled job, requiring ongoing diligence and continual minor adjustments. The mill operator had to repeatedly check that grain was flowing properly through the hopper and dispensed to the whirling millstone by a vibrating “damsel”. The opposing millstone was stationary. Both featured opposing grooves which cut the grain like a pair of scissors. The operator had to set these to exact distances; too tight a fit and the grain would scorch; too loose it wouldn’t cut.  Despite the rumblings of all the machinery, a good miller could tell how much grain was between the millstones by the sound the millstones made.

Cut grain would be sifted on a long slightly rotating cloth covered tube called a “bolter”. Sections had progressively coarser cloth to sift the meal into different grades of flour. The bran, a protective shell of the grain rich with minerals and vitamins, was removed before milling and discarded or fed to livestock.

A “miller’s toll” would be paid to the mill owner, a return on his investment in the mill itself. In Colonial New York it was typically 1/10th of the hard grain to be milled.  Whole grain was the medium of exchange rather than the flour since flour begins to spoil as soon as it is ground. It was the mill owner who received these payments for his investment in the grist mill and its construction, not the mill operator. The actual operator of the mill was not well paid and today the mill operator’s job would likely be classified a minimum wage job.

With limited hard specie, raw grain was often used as currency in a barter economy. Taxes could be paid in grain or in labor to the town. Even ministers often received their pay in grain. All the grain the minister received was not just for the personal use by him and his family; he in turn, might dip into his stash and pay his bills with it.

The stream in Johnsburg where John Thurman built his mills was originally called Beaver Brook. As mills were added its name changed to Mill Creek. According to Warren County (New York): Its People & Their History Over Time, published by the Warren County Historical Society in 2009, although some wheat, barley, rye, and oats were grown locally, it was buckwheat that was the most popular choice in northern Warren County. Buckwheat is a short season crop that does well in the low fertility and acid soils of the Adirondacks. It establishes itself quickly, suppressing weeds, and was important to those farmers who kept bees and  produced high quality buckwheat honey. Once harvested with long handled scythes, the buckwheat grain would be ground into a yellow-colored flour for rich yellowish-brown pancakes, then covered with locally produced maple syrup, a north country staple.

So, if grist mills were so important and there was supposedly a grist mill at Cooper’s Falls, why didn’t it appear on the 1876 atlas?

cooper's falls

Drop in stream just above Cooper’s Falls.
Photo by Glenn Pearsall

An exploration of the actual site clearly suggests an ideal location for a small scale water-powered mill. The North Creek stream drains a large watershed so water year round would have been reliable. The elevation drops creating a good sized cascading waterfall. A series of stone wall sluices exists in the short distance between the stream and a dirt road; it seems logical to suggest there was a mill of some type here.

After physically inspecting the site of the possible grist mill, my next step was a visit to Deana Hitchcock Wood, our Town Historian. Deana pulled a file on “Cooper’s Mills”. Unfortunately, it contained only a half dozen scenic pictures of the site. On the back of one of the pictures, however, was a notation in pencil that the property of 55 acres was assessed to Joseph Wakley in 1855.

My son, Adam, is an excellent online researcher. I asked him to look though Warren County deeds for a Montayne or Joseph Wakley that might reference a grist mill. Understanding the location and likely Great Lot identification, Adam went to work. Took some doing, but he uncovered a reference to “a survey of the Twelfth Township of Totten and Crossfield’s Purchase on a plot heretofore known as the Horace J. Hack Sawing and Grist Mill property” (Warren County Book of Deeds 130, Liber 514). Also, in Book 104, page 392 is a reference of a transfer from Wakley and Moynihan to Seneca Smith dated 1905 that notes that Charles Noble as Executor of the Estate of Horace Hack sold the property to Wakely and Moynihan. Still earlier, in 1877, there is a deed from Gilbert Sheffield and wife Joanna selling the “North Creek Grist Mill”, formerly known as “Samuel Somerville Mill” to Horace Hack. Unfortunately, the search dries up there. No legible entries could be found of Gilbert and Joanna purchasing the property nor any Somerville sales to Sheffield.

cooper's fall stonework

Some stone work between falls and the road. Photo by Glenn Pearsall

A search of the files at the Town of Johnsburg Historian’s office and the local historical society failed to reveal any additional information on Hack or his grist mill.

Chuck Severance, who lived near Cooper’s Falls and was a state forest ranger for more than three decades. In 1991 he published Recollections of a Country Boy, a personal memoir of his growing up and living in the area. Unfortunately, there are no references to Cooper’s Falls or a grist mill there in his book.

But what evidence is there that it was a grist mill?  I was told that several decades ago one of the local families rescued the mill stones from the site so next I went on a search for them. I followed up with one family who told me that their mill stone was made into a table by their father. The house was sold on the father’s death, but when it was taken by the heirs in foreclosure the mill stone table was gone. I tracked down the second, opposing, mill stone to a family in North Creek. Although they were clearly interested in the story, the second mill stone was not found there.

There is an old mill stone in the front yard of the Goose Pond Inn in North Creek. It is 48” in diameter and 5-10“ thick, but local lore indicates that mill stone is likely from an old grist mill off of Bird Pond Road, just across the Hudson River from North Creek in the Township of Chester, not from Cooper’s Falls.

I was unable to share with Richard Stewart my limited findings. Richard’s obituary notes that he was “conceived, born, lived and died age 80, on the family farm in Sodom” October 9, 2021 – just a mile or two from Cooper’s Falls. Unfortunately, his book, Recipes on Life (2014) also makes no mention of the falls or any grist mill in that area.

Cooper’s Falls lies just off Peaceful Valley Road on the east side of the Back-to-Sodom Road, about 3.6 miles south of the village of North Creek. It is within the “forever wild” private lands of the Preserve Development.

Hopefully, in time, more information on Hack’s Sawing and Grist Mill at Cooper’s Falls will come to light; perhaps from someone reading this article.

Photo at top: A section of Cooper’s Falls from below. Photo by Glenn Pearsall

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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

6 Responses

  1. Mary Lou Giuliano says:

    A very interesting article! My husband and I own a property in Hope that we’re pretty sure had a mill….Care to take on a new challenge? I poked around a bit with a historian in Northville but she had no knowledge of it. We’d love to know what took place years ago on our property!

    • Glenn L. Pearsall says:

      Mary Lou, Sounds exciting! You might first check “History of Hamilton County” by Stella Abers, et al to see if there is a reference to a mill on your property. Also, Beers 1876 Atlas of Hamilton County. Both should be available in Lake Pleasant. Even better, try to work back your deeds – best documentation if there is a reference in an early deed of a mill on your property. Good luck! Glenn

  2. Terry DeArmas says:

    Glen, I was surprised and saddened to learn that Richard Stewart had passed away. I never got the news or saw his obituary. When I was writing my master’s thesis on the Adirondacks, Richard was a treasure trove of information. We kept in touch sporadically by phone but I had not seen him in a while.

  3. James valastro says:

    Excellent article and information!

  4. louis curth says:

    Hi Glenn, What a great article about an area that we both hold near and dear.

    The north country is so lucky to have someone with your dedication and writing skill, who is willing to share your research into interesting nooks and crannies of our local history being lost save for the efforts of caring people like you.

    Thanks to you and thanks to the Almanack for providing this venue so we can all read of your findings. Best to you and Carol and take good care of my favorite mountain.

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