Lancaster County Water-Powered Mills

Lancaster County’s mills were an extremely important part of the commerce of the county in the early days. An 1840 census showed 383 mills in the county, which amounts to one mill for every two and a half square miles. They were hubs of the local economy. The location of the mills often dictated the formation of the county road networks. Today, the approximately 100 that remain stand as testaments to a bygone era. Two of the mills in the county are set up as museums and are worth a visit.

The first mills in the county were typically one- and-a-half story structures, sometimes constructed of logs or as a frame building on a stone foundation. It was an expensive proposition to build a mill. It required someone with engineering experience to find a suitable location for the mill, construct the dam and excavate the head and tail races. The builder would need to employ stone masons and carpenters to build the mill and a mill wright to install the waterwheel and construct the wooden gears. The builder would also have to purchase the mill stones from Europe and have them shipped and delivered to the location. These early mills had just enough capacity to serve the local community. The miller would receive a share of the grain or flour in payment for processing the farmer’s grain (the miller’s toll). Later, if the mill was successful, it would be expanded to serve a wider area.

Some of the information on these pages is taken from the book “Water-Powered Grist Mills, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania” published in 1993 by Arthur C. Lord, supplemented by information from the Lancaster Newspapers archives and a few other sources. The photography is mine except where noted.

Brownstown Mill
Brownstown Mill

The Lesson of the Water Mill

Listen to the water mill,
All the live-long day
How the clicking of the wheel,
Wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind
Stirs the greenwood leaves
From the field the reapers sing,
Binding up the sheaves
And a memory o’er my mind,
As a spell is cast –
The mill will never, never grind
With the water that is past.

Take a lesson to yourselves,
Loving hearts and true
Golden years are fleeting by,
Youth is passing too.
Strive to make the most of life,
Lose no happy day
Time will never bring you back,
Chances swept away.
Leave no tender word unsaid,
Love while love shall last
The mill will never, never grind
With the water that is past.

- Sarah Doudney