The Grist of the Story

Wilmington's Greenbank Mill show the machinery of a young republic.
Wilmington's Greenbank Mill show the machinery of a young republic. (Courtesy Of Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

To hear K.B. Inglee tell it, Greenbank Mill on the bank of Red Clay Creek is the coolest thing since before sliced bread.

The mill, now a nonprofit historical center in New Castle County near Wilmington, Del., "is one of the few New Republic sites in the country," educational interpreter Inglee says, adjusting her short red gown and long white-and-blue-checked cotton skirt. With grayish hair, silver wire-rims and a subtly theatrical manner, Inglee is convincing in her role as a young miller's wife in a young Delaware.

When we think of Delaware, we usually picture DuPont's chemical engineers in lab coats inventing Kevlar and neoprene and other strange stuff. But this is also the First State -- in 1787 it became the first to ratify the Constitution -- and if you know where to look, you can find a few signs of a newborn country and Delaware's industrial origins. There's the Colonial town of New Castle, with the Academy, a private school built in 1798; the old Town Hall; and several historic homes such as the 1801 George Read II House and the 1730s Amstel House. There's also the Hale-Byrnes House, a Georgian brick home south of Stanton, where, in September 1777, George Washington oversaw a war council, then led his troops to meet the British at the Battle of Brandywine. And there is the Greenbank Mill, just west of Wilmington.

On this Saturday morning: a timeless gray sky and relentless fog. The stone-and-wood buildings -- the millhouse and now a clothing factory -- sit in a bucolic spot with sloping hills and a quietly flowing creek.

Open Fridays and Saturdays, Greenbank Mill is a representative working farm and flour mill that operated roughly from just after the Revolutionary War to 1830. "This is an industrial engineering museum, too," says Inglee, asserting that the United States won political independence not just with war but with economic independence through enterprises such as this.

Historians believe that there has been a mill at the site since 1677. The first known enterprise was called Swede's Mill. Ninety years or so later, a gristmill was built on the creek. A merchant exported the flour made there until 1790, when he sold the land and building at auction. Robert Philips bought the mill and ran it for 40 years. It is this period that the museum showcases today.

An interpreter guides visitors through three main sites -- the mill, the clothing factory and the farmhouse that Philips built in 1794. There is also a barn and a muddy hold where Delaine merino and Leicester long-wool sheep are kept.

Standing in one of the mill rooms, Inglee explains the way flour was made. The endeavor was backbreaking, time-consuming and tedious beyond belief. In 1793, Philips hired Delaware inventor Oliver Evans to automate the mill.

According to research by the site's historians, Evans received one of the earliest U.S. patents for his milling system, which used a clever series of bucket elevators and screw conveyors. Evans was a rock star in the post-Rev industrial boom. In 1795, he published a book called "The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide" that showed all millers how to capitalize on new technologies. His innovations, Greenback Mill interpreters will tell you, laid the groundwork for society-shifting inventions such as the high-pressure steam engine.

Inglee shows off some fancy machinery. She twists a steering device and diverts the creek's flow into the waterwheel. "I like it to run slow because it's prettier," she says.

Next to the mill is the Madison clothing factory, built by the prospering Philips family during the presidency of James Madison. Inglee speaks as she spins the wool. Then she shows how it is threaded onto a large loom and woven into fabric.

She climbs the steps to the stone house -- this part of the site is not particularly handicapped-accessible -- which sits higher on a hill, away from the prone-to-flood creek. The rooms are dark. You can sit in a chair if you want and try to sew by lamplight. It's a hands-on museum. And feet-on -- you can stretch out on a rope bed on the second story.

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