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The Brandywine Mills

I came across an article about the mills on the lower Brandywine River, from the Morning News, dated January 24th, 1884. I found it very interesting, so I'm going to share it my readers.

The Brandywine Mills


An Institution That Once Controlled The Milling Trade of the Country


The Brandywine Mills, now owned and operated by The William Lea and Sons company, are among the oldest and historic flour mills of the country. They now consist of the “Old Shipley mill” at the south end of the bridge, used as a corn mill, and on the north side the A mill, 50 x 100 feet, five stories high, which was built in 1881 for the manufacture of flour by the roller patent process [roller mills] and fully described in The Morning News of January 16, 1882: [read it in next weeks blog] The old Tatnall mill of the revolutionary times, now used as a job mill, and the old corn mill which was torn out and completely refitted in 1883 and where kiln-dried corn meal is now made by the roller process. There is also a new warehouse connected by an elevated passage way with the A mill and close by a commodious two-story office completed in 1883. They also have a six-run steam mill on the Delaware railroad at New Castle, which is connected with the Brandywine mills by a private telephone wire, seven miles in length.

The first mill in Wilmington on the Brandywine was built by Oliver Canby in 1742. It was situated on the south side of the stream, opposite Orange Street, and at that time nothing but rowboats went above the old bridge. Grain in those days was brought to the mill in boats by the Swedes and other settlers of Delaware and New Jersey. The mill was run by an undershot water-wheel. The laws of the old colonial days forbade the erection of dams on the Brandywine on account of the complaints of the Indians that they prevented the shad from running up. Hence no overshot water-wheels were put up until 1762, when the first water power was condemned, and the mill still standing at the south end of Market street bridge was erected by William Shipley, who came from England in 1725. It is located at the head of tide water and the water power is very fine, as the Brandywine has a fall of 120 feet within the four miles above it, and it is so fed by tributaries draining a large scope of country, that it is less affected by drought than ordinary streams. The Shipley mill originally had water rights including half the stream or all that came down the south side race. They were afterward divided into seven rights and a waste right, all now owned by the city. Two were first purchased some years ago with the old James Canby mill, now occupied by Price and Phillips, four were purchased of James E. Price that had belonged to the old mills located below the city mill which were burned January 6, 1880, and the remainder were purchased of Tatnall & Lea with the old Shipley mill in 1883. The later mill is still rented and occupied by The William Lea and Sons Company.

The other half of the Brandywine constituted the north side water rights, of which it was originally supposed that the great mass of rocks jutting out Opposite Washington street would effectively prevent any utilization. The art of blasting rock was then comparatively unknown, and the difficulties of opening a race on the north side were deemed well-nigh insurmountable. James and William Marshall, however, undertook in 1770 to build a race on that side for the consideration of one-half the water that came down it, and commenced the erection of a mill on the east side of the Market street bridge, which was finally burned November 12, 1865. The Marshalls found the expense of digging the race so much larger than they had anticipated that they were compelled to sell their contract to Joseph Tatnall, grandfather of Joseph Tatnall of No. 1803 Market street, who completed the race and mill and withdrew his partnership with the Shipleys on the south side and engaged in milling on the north side. All the north side rights were owned by the Leas. Other mills afterward sprang up and the present job mill and the one-story hip-roofed mill occupying a part of the site of the present A mill were standing during the Revolution. During that war Joseph Tatnall dared to grind flour for the famishing Contenental army at the risk of the destruction of his mills.

Washington and Lafayette had their headquarters at his house, still occupied by his grandson, previous to the Battle of Brandywine. Supposing that the British, under Howe, would march directly on Philadelphia by way of Wilmington, Washington directed the removal of the “runners” or upper stones, to a supposed place of safety in Chester county, Pa. When the British changed their course, Thomas Lea, grandfather of the present generation of Leas and son-in-law of Joseph Tatnall, went to Washington to obtain an order for their return. The defeat of the Continental army gave the British possession of Wilmington, and the use of the Tatnall house was almost entirely usurped by the British officers for quarters.

In the early days of the independence of the colonies each State passed their own laws regulating commerce with foreign ports, and owing to the liberal enactments of Delaware and the more onerous laws of Pennsylvania a large commercial traffic sprang up between this port and the West Indies.

The corn meal ground in these mills has always been famous, and in those early times it was in great demand for the West Indian trade, but it was found impossible to transport it to that warm climate without spoiling. It was suggested that the corn be thoroughly dried before grinding and the experiment having been successfully tried in a malt house, a drying house similar thereto was build alongside the mills. It had brick floors heated by flues and only fifty bushels could be dried at one time. The grain was turned with shovels every half hour, and only 200 hundred bushels a day could be dried. In 1816 a man named Cook [or Crook] of New Hope invented the pan kiln and sold his patent to Tatnall & Lea. Three are still in use, two being six-pan and one four-pan. The larger ones can each dry about 2,000 bushels a day. No material change has been made in the pan drying process, except that made necessary by the substitution of coal for wood as fuel. For sixty years these mills held a monopoly on the manufacture of kiln dried corn meal and their production is always in demand at the highest market price.

Austrian Corn Kiln - (The best illustration I could find)

Evans patented Flour Press

Originally the flour was packed by hand, but afterward the long lever and

plunger was introduced [see illustration], which was succeeded by the hand-screw process since superseded by the improved flour packers now in use. Each of them can fill 300 barrels a day.. The grain was formerly hoisted to the upper floors in tubes, but the modern elevator was invented and perfected by Oliver Evans. Grain is now unloaded from [railroad] cars and boats and conveyed to every part of the mill without being toughed by hand, all impurities, dirt and metallic substances being removed in the transit.

During the early history of the mills they regulated the price of grain throughout the country, and great trains of Conestoga wagons, often thirty together, came down from different counties in Pennsylvania. Frequently they blocked the streets for squares, while waiting for their turn to unload. Grain was also received from the Peninsula and New Jersey in boats propelled by hand. It is now brought to its very doors by cars on the Brandywine branch of the P., W. & B. Railroad [Philadelphia Wilmington & Baltimore] and vessels from various points on the Delaware and its tributaries, and the manufactured articles are shipped in the same manner.

The great flood of January, 1839, destroyed all the historical papers of the operations of the mills during the Revolution, including the correspondence with Robert Morris. In 1800, the one-story hip-roofed mill was torn down by Thomas Lea, who, in 1801, erected in its stead a mill 50 x 100 feet. The later was burned October 24, 1819, and immediately rebuilt. It was finally torn down in 1880 to make way for the new A mill, where the patent process* flour is made under the supervision of O. H. Titus, one of the most skillful millers of the country. Every known improvement has been introduced, chilled iron rolls being used as well as the new system of bolting flour. A powerful new boiler was recently setup in addition to the two already in use, and steam as well as water power is used. Many carloads of grain are daily ground.

*Patent Process refers to what were then the new roller mills, or their product, which was "Pure, White Flour", as opposed to the old mill stones and their whole wheat flour.

The firm of Tatnall & Lea, formed in revolutionary times by Joseph Tatnall and Thomas Lea, was continued by their direct descendants under the same style until 1864, when the present Joseph Tatnall retired and the firm of William Lea & Sons, composed of William Lea and his sons Henry and Preston, took charge. The senior member died in 1876, but the business was continued under the same firm name until July, 1882, when William Lea and Sons company was organized with the following officers: President, Preston Lea; Vice President, William Lea Ferris; Secretary and Treasurer, John M. Taylor.

Source: The Morning News - January 24th, 1884


The [William Lea and Sons] Corn Mill is five stories in height and fifty-five feet square. It is provided with two sets of [roller mills] and one pair of mill-stones. The “Jog” mill, seventy feet square and three stories high, has four sets of [roller mills]. The two mills just described are used in the production of the “Brandywine Kiln-Dried Corn Meal.”

The “B” Mill, the most recently erected, five stories high, and eighty-six feet by seventy-two feet in dimensions, is devoted exclusively to the manufacture of fancy articles of white and yellow corn specialties, such as hominy, grits, granulated corn-meal, corn flour, etc., and is one of the most complete in the country. This large mill is equipped with eleven sets of [roller mills], and with all of the latest adjuncts for scientific milling, and the convenient and expeditious handling of grain. In addition, it has an automatic hoisting-machine which lifts the full barrels from the lower floor and delivers them into the [railroad] cars.

These mills have a storage capacity of seventy-five thousand bushels of wheat, and about one hundred and twenty-five thousand bushels of corn, besides ample storage capacity for flour, meal, empty barrels and packages necessary to the business. At these mills about two thousand five hundred barrels of flour and corn meal are manufactured each day, besides the specialties mentioned above. The brands of flour made at these mills are known as “Best,” “Clifton Mill FFF,” “Poutaxat,” “Kirk wood,” “Avalon,” “Occidental” and "Southern Extra,” and the corn meal “Lea's Brandywine Kiln-dried Corn Meal.”

Source: Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Delaware: 1609-1888. Phila: 1888


The New Wm. Lea & Sons Flour Mill

Next week I'm going to post another, even longer newspaper article that much better describes everything that was in the William Lea & Sons' new flour mill, completed in January, 1882. Any SPOOM* members should find it especially interesting, as it contains an excellent description of the equipment found in a large, late 1800s commercial flour mill.

-- *SPOOM is Society for the Preservation Of Old Mills --

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