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.
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.