The Grist of the Story
Historic Delaware Mills Tell the Tale of Early Industry

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.

Upstairs, Inglee points to a finger hole in a floorboard. Under that board, she says, was the owner's safe.

The museum, intimate and volunteer-dependent, stages special events just about every weekend. This fall and winter, visitors can learn about homemade games that the new Americans played and the food that was available in the newborn country.

On Sunday mornings, you can visit another type of early-19th-century mill at the Hagley Museum and Library, less than five miles away. On the banks of the Brandywine River, E.I. du Pont began making gunpowder in 1802. Today there is a 235-acre historic site that includes restored mills, the du Ponts' Georgian-style mansion and meticulously kept French gardens. Visitors are bused from the extensive visitor center to the machine shop and past the powder yard to the steam engine house and family home.

"This was one of the first industrial districts in the United States," says David G. Menser, an interpreter at Hagley and president of a Brandywine Village revitalization group. He explains that there were paper mills, textile mills and flour mills throughout the area. "We tend to forget how important bread was to the 18th century. This was the breadbasket of Colonial America."

Flour was a major export to Europe and the West Indies, Menser says.

The Hagley Museum and gunpowder mills are a fancier and larger-scale operation than Greenbank Mill. The former was a factory of death, ultimately killing many workers on-site; the latter, a factory of life. Together they provide a vivid backdrop of post-Colonial ways.

And when you have had enough of early America, you can get back in the car and return to the here and now. Along the way you might stop at a Borders bookstore in Wilmington or Newark and pick up a cup of coffee, think about the progress -- and lack of it -- the country has made, and maybe take a magazine from the shelves to read.

The New Republic, perhaps.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company