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Major industrial mills dominated Bridgeville between 1825 and 1850

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 2:15 p.m.

Last week's column, which dealt with Bridgeville history between 1825 and 1850, mentioned two industries that were established in this area in that time period, but lacked space to discuss either one properly. We will try to make up for that deficiency this week by discussing the Schaffer “fulling mill” and Fryer's grist mill.

The fulling mill was located on the east side of the Washington Pike between what is now Bank Street extension and Station Street. It was built by John McDowell around 1830 and then acquired by Andrew and David Schaffer. This was a major industrial facility that employed 30 to 40 workers. Farmers brought wool that they had sheared from sheep to the mill and sold it as a cash crop that provided them with the income needed to purchase the things they couldn't grow or produce themselves.

The wool was cleaned, then “carded,” producing long strands of wool that were then spun into yarn. The next step was weaving the wool through cotton or linen (warp) threads, producing a fabric that was much too stiff for any practical use. The final process, fulling, which gave the mill its name, consisted of soaking the material in water, spreading it out on a table of ridges and grooves, and then working it into the grooves. In addition to eliminating the stiffness, this process also broke down the yarn strands sufficiently to fill in the spaces between them and to interlock them with their neighbors, producing the soft, continuous woolen fabric with which we are familiar.

John L. Poellott described the mill in a letter to Jimmy Patton in 1933. He reported the first floor contained four looms, dye vats, fulling vats, the twisting machine, and the boiler room, which provided steam to power the mechanized equipment. Also on the first floor were the office and the receiving room. The second floor held the blanket loom, the carding machines, and the spinning jack.

The Schaffer family lived in a house just north of the mill. Andrew and his wife had four children, three of whom died in their teens. He was a rabid abolitionist. David was a bachelor; he served in the Civil War with the “Cavalry Company from Bridgeville.” During the War, the mill office was a gathering place for the neighborhood men to discuss politics and war news.

Two of Leonard Fryer's sons – William and Samuel – operated a grist mill on McLaughlin Run, just upstream of the place where the run crosses Baldwin Street today. We believe the mill was originally constructed by John Herriot, then acquired and operated by the Fryers. Although it eventually was converted to steam, it was originally water powered. To achieve the necessary height to drive a water wheel would have required damming McLaughlin Run, producing a long, narrow impoundment perhaps 1,000 feet long.

Grist mills were a necessary part of life two centuries ago. Grain, especially wheat, was an important food stock. Farmers grew wheat and took the grain to grist mills to have it converted into flour. The wheat grain essentially consists of three parts — its shell (bran), the wheat germ, and the endosperm (the source of flour). The milling process separates the three constituents and then grinds the flour to the desired fineness.

Milling originally was a manual process, with equipment much like a large mortar and pestle. This method was replaced by placing grain on a serrated stone and sliding another serrated stone over it to break up its shells. The next technological leap was to a system in which one circular mill stone was rotated relative to a stationary stone.

By the 1800s the circular mill stone approach was mechanized. The upper stone was stationary, with a hole in its center to permit feeding grain into the narrow cavity between it and a lower mill stone that was driven by a vertical shaft. This shaft in turn was driven by a pin gear on a horizontal shaft attached to a water wheel, which was driven by water falling eight or 10 feet.

The complete process required screening the bran and germ from the ground flour and then grinding the flour even finer. The miller retained a portion of the product as his fee for grinding the grain.

The establishment of these two mills in the Bridgeville area in the early 1800s was a necessary step in the transition from the pioneer society of the previous century into a prosperous agricultural society with the necessary technology for processing the farmer's products into useful household goods and foodstuffs.

John Oyler, a columnist for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 412-343-1652 or

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