Restoration brings history to light in Rock Creek Park
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, Oct. 26, 2012
If you’re over the fall festivals, the ghost tours and the apple picking, Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park offers something different Saturday night: A historical candlelight tour of the mill.
The mill, which reopened last year after closing in the 1990s because the water wheel broke, also offers daytime weekend tours, as well as group tours during the week, where visitors can see how the centuries-old mill once worked.
The stone walls, wooden floors and a couple of the mill stones that would spin and grind corn are original to the building, which dates to 1829.
On tours, visitors learn about the milling process throughout the four-story building. Wheat and corn journeyed up and down the grain shoots, powered by the water wheel outside, as the grain went through the 15-step process. In the basement, the grain was first filtered to separate it from dirt, while in the attic, something called a “hopper boy” stirred the grain to dry it.
In 1794, Isaac Peirce bought the 150-acre tract that stretched from where the National Zoo sits today all the way north to what is now Chevy Chase. On that land was a mill that dated to the late 1700s. (No evidence of that mill remains.) Peirce decided to build his own mill nearby during the 1820s. His workers milled mostly corn and wheat for local farmers, grinding and crushing the grain to make it into something new.
The mill was one of eight along Rock Creek at the time, and it stayed in the Peirce family until 1891.
(Don’t let the alternate spelling of Peirce on the sign by the bike path confuse you. Pierce Shoemaker, who was related to Isaac Peirce, was the last person to own the mill before the creation of Rock Creek Park.)
Inventor Oliver Evans perfected this system of milling in 1795, long before Peirce Mill opened. He automated the movement of grain so that it no longer required 12 people to move the grain up and down stairs. Peirce Mill required only two or three people to grind about 70 bushels a day. Farmers would line up their wagons full of wheat outside the mill and wait to have it ground.
Peirce Mill was first restored in the 1930s. When it reopened last fall, the water wheel had been restored and a parking lot and a comfort station removed in order to make the mill look more authentic. Inside, the old mill is dark and dank, but windows look out to the beautiful and colorful Rock Creek Park.
Peirce Mill’s annual candlelight tour will take you up and down the wooden mill stairs inside, and then out and around the mill to the water wheel, where hopefully a bright night sky will guide you around the gravel path. A chilly fall evening by candlelight among an old mill and a gurgling creek could provide for a lovely historical evening in Rock Creek Park.