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The Garrett Snuff Mill, Yorklyn, DE

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

Garrett Snuff Mills - Hagley Digital Library
No, he's not picking his nose. He's sniffing a pinch of snuff

Most of the old buildings of the Garrett Snuff Mill are still standing, located near the community of Yorklyn, just north-east of Hockessin and within sight of the Auburn Valley State Park. But first, let’s settle two possible questions you might have: What is snuff and How is it made? Basically, snuff is a very finely ground tobacco product, often subtly scented or flavored. Snuff is “sniffed” (or “snuffed”) up one’s nose, delivering a quick hit of nicotine.

Snuff use originated in Brazil and was first introduced to Europe, believe it or not, by the Franciscan friar Ramón Pané, who had observed it’s use in the Lesser Antilles islands during Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas.

Founder John Garrett, Sr.

John Garrett, William Cox, Henry Dixon, Edmund Butcher, and William Pullen formed a partnership on November 16th 1730 to build a grist mill. Above a horseshoe bend in the Red Clay Creek they constructed a fieldstone dam, just inside the 12-mile arc the arc that forms the Delaware-Pennsylvania state line and they hand-dug a 2,500-foot millrace to connect the dam with their mill. The mill opened about 1731, making it one of the earliest mills built on the Red Clay Creek. The mill proved profitable, which allowed John Garrett to eventually buy out his partners.

When John died on August 27, 1757, the mill was passed on to his son, John Garrett II. After serving as a captain in the 6th Delaware Militia in the Revolutionary War, John Garrett II returned and started building a nearby snuff mill. Perhaps he had witnessed the use of snuff during the war, but that’s only my speculation. His first product was “Garrett Scotch Snuff.” In 1803 his sons, Levi and Horatio took over the business. Horatio G. Garrett converted the grist mill to a paper mill because he couldn’t compete with the Brandywine grist mills, and Levi took over the snuff business.

In 1819, a Garrett employee patented a labor-saving device for making snuff and Levi Garrett, obtained a license to use the device, gaining a competitive edge over other snuff manufacturers. He opened a store in Philadelphia to sell their dry snuff and other tobacco products and accessories and his two sons, George and William, joined the business. In 1824 the company’s name was changed to “Levi Garrett & Sons.”

Antique Levi Garrett snuff bottle

Levi died in 1833 and George sold his shares to his brother William. In 1846 William built Mill #1, which was a large stone structure. The arched opening for the race can still be seen in the west end of the building. William’s sons, Walter and William Jr. joined the firm in 1857 and the firm’s name was changed to again, this time to “W. E. Garrett & Sons.”

Don’t forget William’s son, Walter Garrett. We’ll get back to him soon.

Another stone building, Mill #2, was built in 1860 adjacent to the first. In 1870 Garrett Snuff was issued one of the first ten U. S. trademarks by the U.S. Patent Office. On November 10th, 1877 a devastating fire burned the entire operation to the ground.

November 10th, 1877 - The Daily Gazette

However, within two months W. E. Garrett & Sons snuff mills was back in operation.

January 17th, 1878 - The Daily Gazette

A third mill was finished in 1884 and was the most architecturally detailed structure on the site. The four-story building was constructed of brick laid in running bond, with the segmentally-arched windows set into the wall between brick pilasters. The corners bear buttresses and the cornice rests on saw-tooth brick decoration. The gambrel roof was sheathed in slate and pierced by dormers with Gothic detailing. About this time mills #1 & #2 were given a Victorian touch by the addition of slate roofs and simulated dormers in the Gothic style.

Map of the W. E. Garrett & Sons snuff mills site, ca. 1950s - '60s

The manufacture of snuff was a very complicated process, but The National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Garrett Snuff Mill explains the process very well:

(Note - The Garrett mill was later acquired by the Helme Company.)

Tobaccos from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee have long served as the basis for all snuffs and the Garretts bought tobacco from all these states. After purchase, the tobacco was carefully aged, almost always in the hogshead [a very large barrel]. Before tobacco is made into snuff it ought to be two years old; that is, it should have gone through two summers' sweats and to have had all the sap or resinous matter in the leaf and more particularly in the stem sweated out so that the stem will break off short like a pipe stem. When partially aged tobacco, still in 1800-pound hogsheads, was shipped by rail to Yorklyn, it was unloaded at the platform. Trolleys inside the building ran down every aisle. This rail system carried a chain hoist and clamps to lift the big barrels of tobacco. The hogsheads were ricked (stacked) eight or nine high in long rows. This way, some 2 million pounds of tobacco could be stored in this building. This second aging lasted up to another year. An average of two boxcars were unloaded each week. Before the railroad reached the mills in the 1870s, horses and wagons carried the hogsheads from ports on the Delaware River.

Notice the ''hogsheads" of tobacco on the receiving dock

After the tobacco had aged sufficiently, the actual milling process began, and men removed the tobacco from the hogshead. This often proved to be an arduous task, because years of aging could turn the tobacco into a hard mass. At times workers had to break the hogsheads apart to get the tobacco out. After opening the hogsheads, workers selected the proper blend of leaves to get the proper taste. This blending process always remained a closely guarded secret. Some sources say that snuff formulas included tobacco stems, used to lower costs, while others advised the removal of the stems with a hatchet. However mixed, the blend of tobacco went next to the chopping machine on the first floor of the mill. Workers pulled or chopped the tobacco into "hands" or groups of leaves. Then they fed the "hands" into the "picker," a roller with teeth which chewed the leaves into two-inch pieces. Before machines were available, chopping was a slow process utilizing a hand axe. But as early as 1840, some companies had mechanical choppers. After cutting, workers sprayed the chopped leaves with a saltwater solution as they came out of the chopper.

When wet tobacco came out of the picker it dropped down a chute to the first floor and fell into rebuilt hogsheads. After these casks were capped, elevators raised the tobacco back to the top floors of the mills for storage, where it sat for seven to nine weeks in the hogsheads. Timing was crucial, because the goal was to cure the tobacco enough to be mild, but no so much that it lost its bite. "Experience and intuition counted most" in telling when the tobacco was ready. At least once, and as many as three times, workers removed the tobacco from the hogsheads, aired it, and returned it to the cask, sometimes after further moistening. This overhauling procedure was one of the worst jobs in the mill. The fermenting tobacco released a nauseating odor and a noxious gas. Curing remained an intuitive process. Benjamin Pearson, proprietor of the Byfield Snuff Company, said that he stops the curing process "when he feels it is right."

After curing, the chopped leaves were dried before grinding. The steam-heated dryer at Yorklyn consisted of long cylinders having interior worm screws to move the tobacco. Workers fed tobacco into a cylinder from a hole in the northwest corner of the fourth floor of Mill 2. The dryer inclined downwards along the north wall of the third floor, and then turned down the east wall. While worm screws moved the tobacco, a fan circulated heated air through it. After passing the dryer, the tobacco fell into hoppers on the second floor of the mill. Prior to the installation of the large dryer in Mill 2, three individual mills in Yorklyn had their own kilns for drying Those kilns were located in a brick structure called the pan house. Furnaces under the floor furnished the heat, and iron screens supported the tobacco in the drying chamber.

After drying, the tobacco was ready to be ground. The Garrett mills originally used two vertical stone wheels, mounted on a central shaft, revolving in a hollowed-out basin stone.

By the 1840s, "mulls" may have replaced the original edge mills at Yorklyn. Mulls were large pots, or mortars, inside of which three or four round rollers revolved. The tobacco was ground between the rollers and the mull's corrugated or ribbed lining.

Snuff mull

The earliest mulls were wooden, but cast-iron mulls were available by at least the 1840s. In each mill, the mulls were located along the southern wall of the second floor and occupied a space about 30 feet long and 8 to 10 feet wide. Initially, horizontal overhead line-shafting transmitted power to the vertical shaft which drove a set of four mulls. Large gears, turned by a cog on the central shaft, rotated peripheral shafts which turned the rollers in each pot. But early in the 20th century, Helme dismantled the line-shaft drive to the mulls in Yorklyn and drove the central shafts with electric motors. By 1950, one eight-hour shift worked the mills, and this pattern probably held for most of the mill's history. during a shift, each mull was filled three times with a load of about one and one half barrels of chopped leaf. In eight hours, each mull produced two-and-one-half bags of snuff flour, each weighing 130 pounds.

Loading the Mulls

Snuff flour from the mills was ready for sifting. At Yorklyn, bucket elevators carried snuff flour to a large cylindrical hopper on the fourth floor of Mill 3. A circulating agitator carried off small "bites" of snuff and pushed them down a chute to the third floor, where they fell into bolting reels similar to those used in flour mills. The snuff passed to the inside of rotating reels, slightly inclined, which were covered with a fine cloth or screen. Coarse snuff did not pass through the bolting cloth, it was tailed over by the machines and taken back to the mulls for more grinding. The snuff of sufficient fineness to pass through the cloth was carried by worm screws to a chute leading to a semi-automatic bagging machine on the first floor, where 130-pound-capacity canvas bags rested on a spring-loaded platform. When a bag was full, the spring compressed and automatically closed the chute. Men then carried the bagged snuff back to Warehouse A, where It aged three or four weeks before it was packaged.

Before the turn of the century and the take-over of the trust, packaging was one of the most labor-intensive aspects of the Garrett operation. Horses and wagons transported the snuff in bulk to Philadelphia where it was hand-packed into a variety of small containers designed to protect the snuff from moisture. In the 19th century, snuff companies such as Garrett hand-packed jars, bottles, ceramic crocks, animal gullets, and beef bladders. It was indeed a laborious task to pack millions of pounds of snuff into containers which held from 25 pounds to only a few ounces of the product. During the first decade of the 20th century, the snuff trust moved the backing operation from the Philadelphia warehouse to Buildings B and C in Yorklyn, and it installed semi-automatic machinery. After the snuff had aged in Warehouse A, men loaded hand carts with the 130-pound bags and pushed them to Building B. A hoist lifted the bags and dumped their contents into a large hopper at the west end of the structure. The packing machinery drew its snuff from this hopper and filled containers which had come into Yorklyn by rail. (The company manufactured its own labels, but no containers.) After labelling, the containers were packed and shipped.

Automated snuff bottling machines
Loading a boxcar with boxes of snuff

James Buchanan “Buck” Duke entered the tobacco industry in North Carolina that was begun by his father, Washington Duke. He acquired a license to use the first cigarette making machine and by 1890 he supplied 40% of America’s “pre-rolled tobacco.” That year he merged with four other manufacturers and formed the American Tobacco Company, giving him control of over 90% of the American cigarette market. They also got into the snuff business and soon began selling their products below cost in an attempt to drive other companies out of business.

Although the “W. E. Garrett & Sons” company had been very good for them, Walter and William Garrett, Jr. no longer had an interest in snuff production and, in 1895, William E. Garrett Jr. sold W.E. Garrett & Sons to three of his employees for a dollar. Within three years this company became the cornerstone of the Atlantic Snuff Company, bought out in 1900 by “Buck” Duke. You may have heard of a school named for his father. Trinity College received a large endowment from Duke in 1924 and is now a part of Duke University.

Buck Duke prospered, but the tobacco farmers did not. In 1907 Teddy Roosevelt and the U. S. Government filed suit against the American Tobacco Company for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Four years later, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Buck Duke’s tobacco empire and the American Snuff Company was divided into three smaller companies; a new American Snuff Company, Weyman & Burton (now U.S. Tobacco) and the George W. Helme Tobacco Company received the Yorklin mills. The American Snuff Company maintained the Garrett trade marks.

In 1912, Helme sold Mill 4, and in 1920, Mill 5. From that time until the 1950s, the company produced snuff only in mill buildings 1, 2, and 3. By the 1950s, the out-dated machinery in Yorklyn produced a product that could not compete in the marketplace, and Helme closed down the Garrett Mills. The Yorklyn plant had produced only 2 million pounds of snuff a year after 1945, or only 5 percent of the country's total. Its machinery dated to the 1880s and modernization was not considered. Helme stopped operations on October 1, 1954, laid off 75 men, scrapped the machinery, and sold all the structures.


Now, let’s get back to Walter Garrett. In 1872, Walter, a very eligible, 40-year-old Philadelphia bachelor, married a 22-year-old blond named Henrietta Edwardina Schaeffer. She was the daughter of poor German immigrants and she had dropped out of school in the 8th grade (probably because her family needed her help.) Walter had seen Henrietta scrubbing the stoop in front of her parent’s home and immediately fell in love with her.

After they were married Walter bought her a 3 ½ story house on South Ninth Street. Next, he bought the house next door for her family and had the two connected so they could visit no matter the weather. And, of course, he also provided a coach and horses, a coachman, a cook, a personal maid and a downstairs maid. He also bought her a rosewood piano so she could play the sentimental music that she so loved.

When Walter died in 1895, he left what remained of his estate to Henrietta, which was about six million ‘1895’ dollars. Walter had outlived his brother, William Jr., who had died childless. Henrietta had not had any children, she outlived all of her immediate family, and when she died in 1932 her estate was worth seventeen million dollars. thanks to wise investments by her financial adviser. She left no will, so it was up to the courts to decide what to do with all those millions of dollars.

May 4th, 1932 - The News Journal

As soon as the press got the story out, “relatives” from all over the world came out of the woodwork, like vultures to a dead animal. By the time it was settled, over 20 years later, over 25,000 self-proclaimed heirs had made a claim on the fortune that by then had grown to over $30,000,000. Every claim had to be investigated and in 1937 Henrietta’s body was even dug up to make sure she had not taken a will to the grave.

Genealogists wrote a report that filled three-volumes, dismissing relationships to all but three cousins that Henrietta had never met, distantly related through her mother.

In 1954, when it was all over, administrators decided that nothing in Henrietta’s house could be sold, lest it later be used to claim a relationship. Workers were ordered to smash everything she owned, haul the debris outside of the city and it was all burned, including the beautiful rosewood piano that Walter had bought for her soon after their were married, eighty years before.

Care to guess who got most of the fortune? Why the attorneys, of course. And Mrs. Garrett's financial adviser, Charles S. Starr, who got $1,015,000, more than anyone else.

So, the moral to this true story is;

If you don’t have a will, get one made now!

Then, when you die, at least your kids will be happy about something.


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