As it meanders through western Ohio, U.S. Route 36 passes interesting sights like the historical marker in Saint Paris for A.B. Graham, the founder of 4-H agricultural clubs for young people; the Urbana home of John Hough James, a pioneer in the development of western banking and railroads; and the old Fort Piqua Hotel, built in 1891 and recently transformed into the new home of the Piqua Public Library.
One particular landmark on the National Register of Historic Places makes this leisurely drive no run-of-the-mill excursion: Bear’s Mill.
Gabriel Baer, a miller from Pennsylvania, built the mill in 1849, siding it with hand-hewn black walnut timber. Farmers brought Baer their grain to grind it into flour and meal. Using the barter system, they gave Baer some of the grain for grinding it, which he then sold to people who needed flour and meal for their pantries.
The mill’s source of power is nearby Greenville Creek. When the mill was built, schoolchildren were paid 50 cents a day to first dig by hand the channel carrying the swift current of water to drive the mill and then line the bed with stones. This was no small feat, considering that the millrace is 800 feet long, 10 feet deep and 25 feet wide.
Bear’s Mill doesn’t have the traditional water wheel that you might expect. Because the mill is located in a flat area, it uses turbines that are about 10 feet under the water. Dating from 1862 and 1870, the turbines sit on a concrete floor that has a hole under each one. They turn as the pressure of the water bears down on them.
Bear’s Mill is a gravity-fed mill. Corn, wheat and buckwheat brought to the mill for grinding are lifted from farmers’ wagons up through a fourth-floor door using an overhead pulley system. Then, the grain travels through a hole in the floor to a bin where it is stored before it is cleaned.
Elevator legs — long, thin wooden tubes with a system of cups and belts inside them — transport the grain to the first cleaning machine. Then, it’s scooped and carried to four more cleaning machines. As the grain passes over screens with various sizes of holes, it’s shaken, causing smaller pieces of grain to fall through the screen and down to a storage bin on the first floor. Oversize kernels, cobs and things the miller doesn’t want in the finished product are blown into metal dustbins above each cleaning machine.
Chutes channel the grain from the bins to the second floor of the mill, where it is ground using a set of French buhr millstones. While the top stone turns, the bottom one stays stationary. The grain is fed at a controlled rate from the storage bins through the center of the top stone to the space in between the two stones. It is crushed as it travels from the center to the outer edge of the stone. A paddle on the edge of the turning stone gathers the flour and channels it to a chute that leads to the bagger on the first floor.
Millers love the abrasive, porous qualities of buhr millstones because the slow, constant grinding process produced a superior product. If too much grain is fed through the millstones, it isn’t ground up completely; too little grain makes the two stones touch and overheat, making the grain smell burned. That’s why a miller keeps his nose to the grindstone, making sure that the stones are leveled and turning at the right speed.
Besides learning about the milling process, you can also see plenty of antiques at Bear’s Mill. For example, historic Darke County Fair posters and over 200 sale bills originally posted as advertisements on the mill’s door now paper some of the walls.
Milling takes place at Bear’s Mill on Saturdays, but every day the mill is open, you can buy cornmeal, soft whole-wheat flour, rye flour and cracked wheat ground there. Other products include pancake mixes made with the mill’s stone-ground flours, yellow cornmeal ground from locally grown yellow corn, whole wheat cake flour ground from locally grown soft red winter wheat, whole grain rye flour ground from locally grown rye, whole wheat bread flour ground from western hard red spring wheat, and whole grain spelt flour ground from locally grown spelt.
The mill’s store also carries gourmet foods, heirloom popping corn, coffees and teas, locally produced jams and jellies, and unique kitchen-themed gift items. Specialty baked goods are delivered to the mill weekly, including breads from the Bakehouse Bread & Cookie Company in Troy and other locally made items that use Bear’s Mill stone-ground flours and meals.
A first-floor gallery features rotating art exhibitions from regional artists and locally made pottery and jewelry. There’s even a special area for children to draw and read a copy of David Macaulay’s Mill, a classic picture book about the planning, construction, and operation of mills that were developed in New England throughout the 19th century.