Behind the Marker
Gristmills dotted the countryside in colonial Pennsylvania. Well into the 1800s, a trip to the mill with father was a great joy for children. The churning of the big water wheel, turning grindstone, and the transformation of wheat into flour was a marvel to young visitors. The mill was also essential to the entire community, for it ground the flour used to make bread at home or sold for the cash farmers needed to buy those necessities they didn’t grow or make themselves. Farmers in colonial Pennsylvania grew more wheat than agriculturalists in any of the other the thirteen colonies, and many people throughout Great Britain’s far-flung overseas empire depended on flour grown in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Thus, milling was a major industry in the colony. Pennsylvania was the breadbasket of the thirteen colonies and there were hundreds of water-powered gristmills that ground wheat into flour. One of those mills to have survived to the present day is Laughlin Mill, located near Newville in Cumberland County.
Wheat is not indigenous to North America. Native Americans raised corn and ground it to make flour which they then used to make small cakes that the Europeans often referred to as “Indian bread.” European settlers ate little corn, preferring grains that they had eaten back home. They brought wheat and other cereal crops like buckwheat, barley, oats, and rye with them, which they grew and used in bread, beer, porridge, and animal feed. Of these different grains, wheat was generally the most popular for bread among Europeans. So one of the first things that early settlers to Pennsylvania did was to locate an appropriate site on a creek, river, or stream and build a gristmill.
The Swedes were the first to build water-powered gristmills in Pennsylvania, constructing the first one in 1643 for the governor of New Sweden, Johan Printz. The English claimed the Delaware Valley region in 1664, and after William Penn received a charter for Pennsylvania in 1681, more Europeans came to the region and they built more flour mills. Wheat became Pennsylvania’s principle crop and flour its most important export. Ships took wheat, flour, and “biscuit” (also known as “hard bread” or “ship’s bread”) out of Philadelphia, Chester, and Wilmington to Europe, the Caribbean islands, and Africa. Mills dotted creeks and streams throughout the colony. In 1760 there were well over 150 flour mills in Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester counties alone. In 1765, Pennsylvania exported 367,222 bushels of wheat and 18,714 tons of flour and biscuit – approximately 85 percent of the colony’s exports.
It was around this time that William Laughlin built a three-story log gristmill on the Cumberland County frontier. In order to generate power to turn the grindstone, he built a dam with a six-and-a-half-foot head, which provided water power equal to that of fifteen horses to turn the waterwheel. Laughlin’s was the first mill on Big Spring and it ground wheat and other grain for the people in the surrounding countryside. It didn’t take long, however, for other enterprising settlers to build their own mills on the swift-moving stream. By 1770 there were three gristmills on the Big Spring; by 1784 there were five. Still in operation a century later, two of the mills were refitted by their owners Ginter and McCracken with rollers that could produce flour more easily and quickly.
Laughlin’s mill continued to produce whole wheat flour until 1896, when the Laughlin family sold it to the Newville Water Company, which removed the milling equipment and installed a turbine to drive hydraulic pumps that supplied the town’s municipal water mains.
More about the history of the Mills of the Big Spring
Historic Big Spring Mills