Friday, March 27, 2015

John Harvey Beach and the Biggest Mill in the State

A 1839 portrait of John Harvey Beach.

Beach’s Mill (1830-1857) Port Byron

Anyone who has picked up any history of Port Byron has seen the description of Beach’s Mill; “In 1828, Mr. Beach settled in the place, purchased the water power on the Outlet, and built a raceway, two miles in length, thereby securing a head of twenty feet. Mr. Beach put up a mill with ten run of stone, capable of manufacturing five hundred barrels of flour per day. This was at that time, and for a number of years thereafter, the largest and best constructed flouring mill in the State. The building was 120 feet long, fifty wide, with a store-house attached, 80 by 40 feet, and an overshot wheel 22 feet in diameter. It was situated on the west side of the Outlet, and on the south bank of the canal, and had a branch canal under a portion of the store-house, which afforded great facilities for loading and unloading boats. The building cost $60,000, and employed 20 to 30 hands. A cooper shop, built of stone, 200 feet long, was connected with it, and supplied a part of the barrels used by the mill. The employment which this enterprise furnished, and the traffic it built up, was of great importance to the prosperity of the village.” As a Historian, I wanted to know 1) Who was Mr. Beach, and 2) Was his mill the largest and best constructed in the State? Here is what I found.

John Harvey Beach was born about 1784 in Connecticut. He was trained as a lawyer, but becomes a miller by trade. In 1809 he moves to Auburn and begins a long career in public service. In the War of 1812, Beach rallies the people of Auburn to march west to defend the homeland against a rumored British attack. By 1814, he joined into a partnership to open the first cotton mill in Auburn. In 1815, he was the local representative to the New York State Assembly and helps to incorporate the village of Auburn. In 1816 he aids in the establishment of the Auburn prison and in 1817, he helps to organize the first bank in the village. During this time he also helps to start schools, gives money to build the new Theological Seminary, opens more mills along the Owasco Outlet, builds other businesses, and sits on a board to investigate the construction of a Owasco and Auburn Canal between Port Byron and Owasco Lake.

At the same time, John’s brother, a General Ebenezer S. Beach was buying land in northern Cayuga County and in Rochester. In 1827, E. S. Beach and Thomas Kempshall opens a large flouring mill in Rochester. This mill was six stories tall and has room for sixteen run of stone, although it appears that only ten run are installed. This mill is the first in Rochester to use a elevator system to unload wheat directly from the hold of a canal boat. The mill was capable of turning out five hundred barrels of flour per day. It is not known (at this time) what became of the land he purchased in Cayuga County.

In 1830, John Beach spent $11,000 buying land in Port Byron. Some of this land is located on the bank of the new Erie Canal and next to the Outlet, which today would be across the creek from St. Johns Church. Beach also buys easements to many parcels of land south through the valley for the construction of a two-mile long canal headrace. He built the large flouring mill as described above on the south bank of the Erie Canal. Included is a slip for boats to dock while being unloaded or loaded. About a year later, John Beach and Company (Henry Kennedy, Thomas Kempshall, and E.S. Beach) buy land just to the west of the mill, near the canal lock. (The canal lock was the first lock built in Port Byron, not Lock 52 that can be seen today.) Here they built a large cooperage that made barrels in which was packed the finished flour. Somewhere between seventy to eighty men found work in this enterprise, which consisted of the saw mill and cooperage.

To understand the large mill, one needs to understand the nature of milling at this period of history. The romantic idea of a mill might be a miller bent over a turning stone, slowly pouring the wheat from a sack, grinding it into flour. This might have happened at one of the smaller mills in town. These were typically known as a custom mill, where the farmer traded a portion of his wheat to the miller in return for grinding the rest of his crop. But Beach’s Mill was a merchant mill, designed to process large quantities of wheat into flour. A mill such as this was highly automated, with the wheat being unloaded by an elevator, moved by screw type conveyors and gravity, cleaned by air blown by large fans, ground by many stones, sifted and packed, all without the touch of human hands.

All this machinery was run by the power of a large waterwheel. This is mentioned in the description, where it states that the wheel was twenty-two feet high. What is missing is the width of the wheel, but similar sized mills used wheels eighteen feet wide. The water to turn this wheel flowed through the canal that began two miles up the valley, south of Hayden Road. This canal can still be seen today as it follows the west side of the valley between Port Byron and Hayden Road. The beginning of this race can be seen just south of where Hayden Road intersects with Route 38. (Look just downstream from where the power lines cross the valley.) At this point Charles and Amos Parks owned a dam that impounded water and increased the amount of head to the mill. This dam also served Hayden's Mill which was built right at the intersection of today's Hayden Rd and Route 38. 

The question raised by the period description quoted above is “Was Beach’s Mill the largest and best constructed mill in the state?” It appears not to be totally true, nor is it a complete falsehood. John’s brother Ebenezer had built his mill in Rochester in 1827. His mill was at least as large as the mill in Port Byron, with ten run of stone, six stories tall, and a more reliable source of water, that being the Genesee River. Both brothers used the canal to transport wheat to their mills and to ship flour out. Ebenezer was the first to use an elevator to unload the boats, although this was something already invented years before by a Millwright named Oliver Evans.

An article in the paper states;
A Mammoth Mill- The American Miller of the 8th inst[ant], describes Beach’s Mill, at Port Byron, as the largest in the State. It consists of ten run of stone, propelled by five overshot water-wheels, driving two run of stone each, with the necessary bolting and cleaning apparatus. This mill was built for the late Gen. Beach, by Robert M. Dalzell, Esq, assisted by the Messrs. Jewells of Rochester. Those gentlemen are widely known as most skillful millwrights. The mill is capable of turning out about 800 barrels of flour per day, and of consuming 3,500 bushels of wheat every 24 hours. (The Auburn Daily Advertiser, Monday November 17, 1851.)

Beach’s Mill was capable of turning out five hundred barrels of flour per day, but only if all the stones were running. What we don’t know is the size of the stones used to grind the wheat, and this would make a huge difference in these calculations. One barrel of flour weighs one hundred ninety six pounds, and it takes two hundred seventy two pounds of wheat to make one barrel. An average size (about four feet across) stone can make two plus barrels of flour in one hour, so if all the stones ran for twenty-four hours, the mill should produce five hundred twenty eight barrels a day. This would take one and half boats or about seventy-five tons of wheat. So while the period descriptions of the mill might be correct, there seems to be a tad bit of hyperbole involved.

In 1911, the Auburn Semi-Weekly said that the flour produced by the mill "maintained a reputation amoung New York City bakers for producing the best flour for cake baking of any of the up-state mills."
John Beach never settled in the village. He lived in Auburn. One of his partners, a Henry Kennedy, ran the business. Kennedy also began the process of laying out new streets in the village and seems to be a driving force in the expansion of Port Byron. Beach and Company bought large parcels of land in the village, seemingly planning for large-scale growth. Beach dies in 1839 and his son assumes John’s ownership of the mill.

In 1855, the mill is sold to Messrs Bradfield and Roberts. It is an odd time to buy such a large mill. By the 1850’s, the bulk of the milling business had shifted to the much larger city of Rochester. And in the 1850’s, talk of changing the route of the canal in the village threatened the mill and other businesses that relied on the waterway. A court battle raged between those who wish to move the canal slightly north and those who wish to see it enlarged along the old route. in 1857, the canal was shifted north, however, the State did allow the old canal to remain open to serve the mill. But this short dead end section was never deepened to the enlarged dimensions, so it was useless for canal transport.  In 1857 the mill burned. The Auburn paper states that the fire was started in the "smut Machine" and spread quickly, but that the origin of the fire was unknown. In 1906, John L. Davis told the Port Byron Chronicle that he was told that the fire was started by a night watchman who had left a candle burning in the grain room.  By this time, only twenty seven years after it was built for $60,000, the mill was insured only for $13,000. The loss of this large business and the non-related death of Henry Kennedy hurt the prosperous outlook of the village. In 1922, E.H. Kerns stated that “…Port Byron ceased to grow.”

Today Beach’s Mill is just a mention in our history books. The dams and millponds that once fed the water into the mills are all gone. Beach’s raceway remains only because it was used to feed water into the enlarged Erie Canal until 1917.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Beach's Mill Race and the 1876 Feeder Map

One of the largest remains of our village past can be found south of Port Byron, running up the valley of the Owasco Outlet. It is the old Beach Millrace, a two mile long power canal that carried water from Hayden to the village. Built in 1830 by John Beach, it started at Parks Dam just south Hayden Road, and followed the west bank of the Outlet until it reached a point opposite where St John’s Church is today. The mill wheel it powered was 20 feet in diameter and it was all part of a four story stone mill built by a group of men from Auburn and Rochester. The mill was built to use the old Erie Canal to bring in grain and ship out barrels of flour.

The mill, once called the largest in the State was quickly surpassed by mills in Rochester that used the much larger Genesee River to power their wheels and machinery. By 1857, the mill was gone, burned, perhaps in response to the moving of the Erie Canal in the village. But the millrace lived on.

Canals are artificial rivers, and rely on natural sources of water in order to fill and replenish the water needed to float the boats. From Jordan to Montezuma, a fairly short section of canal, the water came from Skaneateles Lake through a feeder that joined the canal to the Skaneateles Outlet at Jordan. There were a couple other smaller feeders; one at Putnam Brook in Weedpsort, one at Centerport, and another at Herring Brook, just east of Port Byron. But these were very small and limited in quantities, proving water measured in hundreds of cubic feet, where larger feeders provided thousands of cubic feet. So the canal relied on Skaneateles Lake to fill and operate sixteen miles of canal. And when they turned on the canal tap, the water in the creek dried up and the mills went quiet.

The lake was able to keep up with the first small canal, but with the canal enlargement that took place from 1836 to 1862, the canal was doubled in size and now two locks did the work of one. Skaneateles Lake was in trouble.

There was another source of canal water. That would be the Owasco Lake and the Owasco Outlet that flowed under the canal at Port Byron. But with the Beach’s large mill and other mills along the Outlet, the State did not take the water. Why they didn’t take the water is a question, and why the water could not be turned into the canal once it passed over Beach’s wheel is not known or ever discussed. In 1863, the Rochester paper reported that the “extravagant demands” of the mill owners kept the State from taking the water. In 1866 the Skaneateles Democrat asserted that the State was playing favorites. Their lake was drained, the mills were silent, and the people unemployed. Meanwhile in Port Byron, the mills had water. It had been nine years since the old mill had burned, and although smaller mills were still in business along the Owasco Outlet, the water flowed under the canal instead of into it.

However, 1866 was the turning point. With Skaneateles Lake drained, the State had no choice but to tap into the Owasco flow. Since the canal was higher than the creek in Port Byron, the old mill race was looked at and ultimately used. From its ending spot up on the hill, a wooden flume was constructed that carried water overhead to a spot in the canal near River Street. 

By 1871, the flume was leaking badly. The State engineers asked to have money to replace the old wood structure. A iron pipe was suggested, one that could be buried underground and be somewhat protected from the elements. Pleas for money went on for a couple years and in 1875 the State finally gave money. In October of 1875, the Auburn paper reported that teams were busy drawing stone from Auburn to the new feeder. By 1876, the new feeder was in use and this color map was drawn to show the work.

More work was done over the years. The mill race was enlarged and a new gate house was added at Hayden. I wrote a piece about the dam at Hayden and you can find it here.

Because the old mill race was used until 1918, it's remains are still fairly intact and it is the largest structure left from our history. However, over the years, I have watched the old iron pipe fade away. It is getting really hard to see these days.

You can walk along parts of the old race, as I did a couple years back when I took these photos.

 Here is the canal dug into the hill side with a path that was large enough to allow work animals to safely walk along it.

 Hard to believe but there was once a four story stone mill located here.

This is a end of the race and the beginning of the iron pipe. You can see the old school in the back ground of the wide angle view. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shop Local!

The downtown of Port Byron has certainly had its up and downs. The old photographs and postcards show stores, restaurants, and garages, and all the needs to serve the local population. But it is safe to say that prior to 1920, the local stores were well patronized as they really were the only option. However, once the trolley line started service between Port Byron and Auburn, or even to Syracuse and Rochester, the locals had many more choices as to where to shop. And at the same time, automobiles were becoming more accessible, and the roads were getting better. Hence, we have a push by the local shops to get shoppers to shop local. These ads certainly reflect that push. The top ad is from Christmas in 1922. Need a last minute gift? Don't run to Auburn, shop here!

I ran the two page ad in another post, so you may have seen it before, but not in this context. It comes from 1932. Port Byron, like the rest of the world, was in the grips of a depression. This amazing spread shows almost every business and shop in the village, and lays it out; "Let's All Get Together and Boost Port Byron".

The struggle of the small local business to survive in a much bigger world has been going on for 90 years.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Octagon Cabins

 These photos have been kicking around for a long time, but I never tire of looking at them. Thanks go to Bill Hecht for cleaning them up.

In case you don't recognize these, they are the waiting rooms from the old Rochester, Syracuse and Eastern Interurban trolley line.  You can see the location of the stops still attached to the two that are being moved. The top cabin, Stop 2, was from the Auburn and Northern line. From the look of the area, it looks like the pull off area about half way between Port Byron and Throop. Off in the bushes, you can see an old trolley car being used as a house. The second photo was taken on West Brutus. (It is a bit blurry) You can see the downtown area of Weedsport in the background.

 This set of two photos show the stops in place as cabins. Remember that Route 31 was the main drag before the Thruway, so these were right on the main highway. Looking at the photos, it does appear that the cabins were right on the highway. There isn't much room between the road and the buildings. And where did people park their cars? The upper photo shows the office and store.

After I wrote a short piece on these cabins back in 2009, Mrs. Hitchcock said that the cabins were located right where her house was today; at 105 Rochester.

 The Auburn paper carried a 1940 story about seven of the old stops being purchased at auction and being reused. It appears that the first owner was Fred Thrush. Later papers called these the Octagon Cabins, ice cream stand and gas station. The owner was Sam Harnden. In the late 1950’s Mr. Harnden runs ads selling the business. So what happened to them?