Wilson House rolls out a treasure of Progressive Era tech: The Milburn Electric


A 1921 Milburn Electric car leaves the garage at the Woodrow Wilson House on Oct. 11. A similar car was used by Wilson and his Secret Service agents while he was in the White House. The car is part of a new exhibit at the former president’s home. (John Kelly/WASHINGTON POST)
John Kelly
Columnist October 11, 2011

There really is nothing new under the sun. Or so I decided Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson House as I watched Joe Alackness take the wheel of the next big thing, circa 1921.

It was a Milburn Electric, a snazzy little car built 90 years ago and powered by 14 batteries. The Milburn was the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf of its day. We should all hope to be as peppy at 90.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Joe is project manager at Pennsylvania’s Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, which loaned the Milburn to the Wilson House for an exhibit opening Thursday on science and technology during the Progressive Era: Victrolas, radios, Electro-Lux vacuum cleaners, that sort of thing.

Joe didn’t take the wheel, actually. The Milburn doesn’t have one. A tiller sprouts from the left of the driver, as does the throttle. When Joe gave it some gas (figuratively speaking, of course) the handsome little 84-volt car rolled silently from the S Street NW garage where the ex-president used to keep a different make of electric car. He also owned a Rolls-Royce, but wife Edith was fond of electric cars. Since starting one didn’t require muscling a heavy crank, they were perfect for ladies. At one point early in the 20th century, about a third of the cars in major cities were electric.

This was a ceremonial jaunt, arranged for the media, including a TV crew from China’s Xinhua news agency, but it was no less captivating for that. It was only the second time Joe had driven the car and Boyertown curator Kendra Cook scanned S Street nervously in case harm should befall her prize. “You could be the safest driver on the road, but there’s no accounting for other people,” she said.


Steve Bashore, manager of historic trades at Mount Vernon, watches as corn is ground at Peirce Mill at Rock Creek Park. The old mill has undergone a $3 million restoration and opens to the public on Oct. 15. (John Kelly/WASHINGTON POST)

Traffic backed up slightly as Joe drove the car up and down the street, the only sounds a pleasant hum and the squelch of knobby tires on pavement.

“The torque is instant,” Joe reported afterward. The Milburn’s top speed might get you honked at on the Beltway — 35 mph — but its range on a full charge should sound familiar: 50 miles, the exact same as the Volt.

There hasn’t been that much progress since the Progressive Era.

Big wheel keep on turning

Speaking of old technology: Peirce Mill is back in business. Last week it ground grain for the first time in 18 years.

There were once eight mills in Washington, producing flour and cornmeal for a hungry and growing city. Peirce Mill, at Tilden Street and Rock Creek, was the last one. It became a National Park Service attraction, but its big wheel stopped turning in 1993 after the main shaft broke.

It cost $3 million to repair the mill, and last week its fans were there to watch it in action. Water flowed, levers were pulled, shafts rotated and grain was shunted between massive grindstones.

On the floor below, powdery ground wheat — i.e., flour — poured from a chute. Gus Kiorpes, who with his partner John O’Rourke rebuilt the complex machinery, put his hand underneath and let it fall through his fingers. The grind was a bit coarse, he thought. “But we’re not going after product,” he said. “We’re just breaking everything in.”

There have been some changes since the old days. The mill’s gone from an overdraft wheel system to a breast wheel. And the main wheel is no longer powered by the flow of Rock Creek, whose waters are too unreliable: anemic one day, overpowering the next.

Instead, buttons are pushed and switches are thrown to release city water. That’s right: Peirce Mill is run by a giant tap. Because the water is chlorinated, it can’t be released into the creek. So it’s a closed loop, recirculated to power the wheel.

The mill needs only one thing: a miller. The Park Service has posted a job on the government’s official USA Jobs Web site in search of one.

You can see the mill in action this Saturday at its grand re-opening. There are events from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.— demonstrations, music, crafts — and then candlelight tours in the evening. For information, call 202-895-6070 or visit www.nps.gov/pimi.

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