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The Oliver Evans Mill, aka C. J. Fell & Brother Spice Mill

In Thomas Scharf’s 1888 “History of Delaware,” Mill Creek Hundred chapter, Scharf mentions several dozen mills in Mill Creek Hundred, either still in use in 1888, no longer in use, or even “forgotten” (Forgotten? Then how did he even find out about them?)

The next two paragraphs are taken directly from Scharf’s writings, and are just part of his list of the mills in the very aptly named Mill Creek Hundred.

Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania from 1712 to 1726 bought of William Battel, sheriff, September 5, 1725, four hundred and seventy acres of land, lying on both sides of "Christina" Creek, and November 16th the same year, two hundred acres on the same creek. He also purchased two lots containing respectively fourteen and a half acres and ten and a half acres, on one of which was a grist-mill. On February 3, 1726, he bought of Howell James two hundred and fifty acres of land on Christiana Hundred. All of these tracts he conveyed, February 22, 1726, to John England, who, October 6th following, bought of Toby Leech six hundred acres on the north side of White Clay Creek, resting also on Muddy Run. The six hundred acres were part of a larger tract originally located by John Guest. Upon it, as late as 1820, a grist-mill was run by Joseph England, probably a descendant. It was above the James Espy tract and probably joined it, separated only by Pipe Creek.

The excellent mill-sites afforded by the streams of this hundred were conducive to the erection of mills at an early date. The assessment list of 1804 contained the following names as mill-owners: Joshua Johnson, fulling-mill; John Armstrong & Samuel Meteer & Co., paper-mill and saw-mill; James Black's estate, grist-mill; Henry Brackin, grist and saw-mills; Joseph England, grist and saw-mills; William Foulk, grist and saw-mills; Caleb Harlin, Sr., grist and saw-mills; Isaac & Benjamin Hersey, grist and saw-mills; Robert Johnston, grist and saw-mills; John Marshal, grist-mill; James Mendenhall, grist and saw-mills; John Phillips, grist-mill; Robert Phillips' estate, grist and saw-mills; John Recce's estate, grist and saw-mills; John Robinson, grist-mill; Andrew Reynolds, grist-mill; Thomas Stapler and Joshua Stroud's estate, grist-mill j Jacob Wollaston, grist and saw-mills; William & Abraham Barker, saw-mill; Ephraim Jackson, saw-mill; William Little, saw-mill; Thomas McDaniel, saw-mill; and David Morrison's estate, saw-mill. Some of these were built at a much earlier period, and mills are now on the sites occupied by them. Others have fallen into decay and disuse, and a few have been entirely forgotten.

Borrrrring! And that's only about half of the list.

So, I'm going to try to dissect those lists and we’ll see what we can dig-up about as many as possible. Some have remained fairly well know, and some have disappeared completely into obscurity. The rest are in that fuzzy area where we might uncover information, and we might not. We’ll find out which are which together.

I’ll do it randomly, as I uncover the information and, because I’m a miller and because Oliver Evans is the father of modern mills, we’ll start with his mill on Red Clay Creek, which forms the eastern edge of the Mill Creek Hundred.


The Oliver Evans Mill, aka Fell Spice Mill

In 1782, Oliver Evans and two of his elder brothers, John (1846-1798) and Theophilus (1753-1809), purchased part of their father’s farm in Red Clay Creek, Delaware, to build a grain mill. There had been a mill on the excellent mill-site since about 1749. Oliver was put in charge of overseeing the construction of the new mill. When it opened in September 1785, it used a conventional grain milling approach.

The age-old system of setting up a grist mill was similar to this. All the movement of the grain and flour was done by hand.

Over the next five years, Oliver began to experiment with ideas to reduce the reliance upon manual labor for milling. Evans’ first innovation was a bucket elevator to facilitate moving wheat from the lower floors, up to the top of the mill to begin the process. Chains of buckets to raise water was an ancient Roman technology that was still being used. Evans had seen diagrams of their use for marine applications and realized with some modification, they could be used to raise grain, so he came up with little cups (buckets) that he fastened to a vertical, endless leather belt, that would move grain and flour from one process to the next.

Another labor-intensive task was that of spreading the meal, which came out of the grinding process warm and moist, needing cooling and drying before it could be sifted and packed. Traditionally the task was manually done by shoveling the meal across large floors. Evans developed a devise he called the hopper boy, that gathered meal from a bucket elevator and spread it evenly over the drying floor as a mechanical rake would revolve around the floor space. This would even out newly deposited meal for cooling and drying, while a gentle incline in the design of the rake blades would slowly move the flour towards a central chute, which directed it down to a sifter. As Evans later recalled it, to make a machine that would “both spread and gather at the same time then seem absurd, and caused months of the most intense thinking, for the absurdity always presented itself to baffle and deter me.”

Oliver Evans visited the four Ellicott brothers mill on the Patapsco River above Baltimore, who were very progressively minded Quakers. They readly adoped Evans' system and in exchange for propetual use of his elevators and hopper boy, they agreed to allow him to use an idea of theirs, the screw-conveyor. Theirs was a horizonal auger that had a continuous metal blade wrapped around a ]arge, center dowel. It worked well for moving grain or corn, but it tended to cake-up when moving freshly milled flour. Evans modified the idea by replacing the blade with a series of small paddles close together in a helical row. This worked much better, but the principal was still the same.

Used in conjunction, Evans’ innovations saved many hours of labor, reducing the number of mill workers from three or four to just one. It also greatly reduced the risk of contamination and even two hundred and thirty years ago, people didn’t like to see specks of they didn’t know what in their flour. If properly managed, Evans's mill also increased the amount of flour obtained from a given amount of grain.

However, there was not much innovation in the 18th century. Millers were ‘stuck in their ways’ and tended to do things the way they had always been done. And, as “Lippincott's Monthly Magazine” once put it; “Poor Oliver was known to the fat millers of [the Brandywine Valley] as the inconvenient person who was always wanting the loan of a thousand dollars to carry out a new invention. The "thinking men" among them sagely argued that his improvements would benefit the consumer, by increasing the supply of flour and making it cheap—a clear detriment to the interest of capital."

By 1790 he had perfected his process and when the new United States Patent Office opened that year, he was granted the third U.S. patent, signed by president George Washington and countersigned by Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State. Washington was quick to pay royalties to Oliver Evans so that he could adopt the system in his mill at Mount Vernon and Jefferson presently did likewise at Monticello.

For whatever reason, but probably financial, the Evans Brother’s mill was seized by Sheriff Thomas Kean and in 1792 it was sold to David Nivin. In 1793 Oliver Evans moved to the metropolis of Philadelphia. His system was eventually adopted throughout the United States, and grist milling became, and long remained, one of the nation's most important industries. By 1870 it was the nation's leading industry by value of product.

David Nivin sold a one-third interest in the mill to Charles Anderson, who, March 15, 1795, sold it to William Foulk. Foulk purchased the remaining two-thirds from Nivin on February 24, 1798. After Foulk’s death the property passed to his seven children and on May 9, 1820 his son John purchased all of the remaining interests. From this family the community is known to this day as Faulkland. (Notice the change in the first vowel.) John Foulk retained ownership until May 28, 1828, when it was purchased by Jonathan Fell and turned into a spice-grinding establishment. Fell Spices had a world-wide reputation and were shipped to all the principal cities.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The following information is gleaned from the well researched and written:

“Two Mills on Red Clay Creek in the 19th Century,”

by Carroll Persell, Jr., published by Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc. in 1964, and edited by Robert E. Wilhelm, Jr. in 2019. The entire text is available on-line.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

About 1766 John Dixon, an English born Quaker, established a mustard manufactory in Philadelphia about 1766. The modest enterprise prospered at its Front Street location, and when Dixon died in 1810, he was succeeded by Jonathan Fell, Jr., who “purchased the entire stock and utensils belonging to that concern” and promised that “every reasonable exertion will be used to merit a continuance of . . . confidence and custom.” The following year, when Fell added the manufacture of chocolate to that of mustard, the enterprise gave every indication of growing even larger.

The technology involved in grinding mustard, chocolate or any of the other condiments later processed by the Fells mills, was basically like that of grinding wheat or any other type of hard seed. While the quality and purity of the products may certainly be questioned, it is clear there was no great difference in the way they were processed.

With the death of Jonathan Fell on July 15th, 1815, the spice business, including both the Philadelphia establishment and the recently acquired mill on the Red Clay, it was taken over by the sons of Jonathan. Courtland J. Fell, being the oldest, gave his name to the firm which until it’s dissolution late in the century was known as C. J. Fell & Brother. The firm was operated as a partnership and ground spices were sent, by 1832, to “most of the seaports of the United States.” The water-powered mill on the Red Clay, valued that year at $12,000, employed three men, two girls and “one child,” who worked by the hundredweight.

The amount and variety of spices produced was quite large, being refined, in 1832, from 100,000 pounds of cocoa, 800 bushels of mustard seed, 200,000 pounds of race ginger, 50,000 pounds of black pepper, 5,000 pounds of cassia, and 1,000 pounds of other spices. A large part of these materials, of course, were necessarily imported, but the mill also advertised locally for barley, indicating that this grain was also among its products.

The death of Courtland J. Fell in 1848 left the family spice business in the hands of Franklin fell, his younger brother… The death of Thomas Jenks Fell, a junior partner in C. J. Fell and Brother, in 1836, made it desirable for Franklin enter the family business to help his brother Courtland, who then moved to Red Clay to give personal supervision to the spice manufactory.

July 5th, 1866 - The Daily Republican

When Courtland J. Fell died in 1848, Franklin became the sole partner in the spice business. Dividing his time between Faulkland and Philadelphia, he continued his varied interests in both places and, at the battle of Gettysburg, he traveled to the tragic battlefield to offer his services to the wounded and dying.

Under the direction of Franklin Fell, from 1848 to 1867, the spice business grew even farther from its origin as a combination shop and single-horse mill on Front Street. A steam engine appears to have replaced the faithful horse at the Philadelphia mill, and by 1857 the Red Clay mill was running nine pairs of stones to grind the various products of the company. By this date also the firm was making hominy, said to be “so prepared by a new process, that it resists the effects of any climate and keeps sweet and good for years." They also appear to have begun roasting of coffee at about this same time.

Disaster Strikes

Franklin Fell retired from mercantile life in 1867, turning the direction of the firm over to his son, William Jenks Fell and nephew Joseph E. Taylor. That same year the first of a series of disasters struck at the very heart of the enterprise, the grinding mill on Red Clay creek. About 5 o’clock on a Monday evening, September 9th, 1867, a small fire was discovered near one of the sets of French burr stones.

September 13th, 1867 - Delaware State Journal and Statesman

The fire in the main mill, which started early in the morning of the 10th, was still burning on September 11th. A millrace was diverted and pipes were laid to throw a stream of water on the burning wreckage.

The loss was estimated at $26,000, [equal to almost half a million dollars today] divided between buildings ($6,000), machinery ($10,000), merchandise ($10,000), of which there was a large stock in anticipation of the Fall trade. Only $16,000 was covered by insurance.

The fire worked a double disaster. Not only did it weaken the financial position of C. J. Fell and Brother, perhaps fatally, but it also destroyed the mill which had been the scene of Oliver Evans' first experiments. There is no evidence of the exact size and construction when he sold it, but a detailed survey two years before the fire shows it to have been, at that time, three stories high, with an attic and built of stone, 90 by 35 feet.

Against the north wall of the mill had been a brick building with wrought-iron rafters and corrugated, galvanized-iron roof. This building contained a revolving sheet-iron cylinder in which corn was dried and coffee roasted. Adjoining this building, also on the north side, was a small barley and hominy mill. The main mill, and perhaps the smaller attachments, were driven by two large water wheels, each 18 feet in diameter and 16 feet wide.

It was two years before the old spice mill was replaced by a new one “much larger and more commodious.” (Wilmington Daily commercial, Sept. 13, 1869)

The Fell Spice Mill at Faulkland, 1873 (from a woodcut by Van Ingen, in "Wilmington and it's Industries," Lippincotts Magazine, XI (April 1875), 369-388.)

The spice mill had apparently weathered the storm and could look forward with justifiable optimism to even larger and more efficient operations. The transportation problems gave promise of solution when the long-debated Wilmington and Western Rail Road was finally projected to run up the Red Clay from Wilmington to Landenberg. In September 1869, Franklin Fell was elected vice-president at a festive Harvest Home and Railroad Meeting at Hockessin.

The new C. J. Fell and Brother mill

Fell was an ardent supporter of the new line, but it did not stop him from bargaining with the railroad company. He was able to extract a promise on their part to build a “neat and substantial depot building” at Faulkland, at which no alcoholic beverages were to be sold or used. Furthermore, all trains were to stop at the station. Ground was formally broken for the road on July 8, 1871, at Faulkland, [and] the railroad was opened officially on October 19, 1872. The opening of a post office at Faulkland a month later… further improved the business facilities of the spice mill. The Faulkland mill had less than two years to enjoy these new advantages before another disaster struck, this one fatal to the whole enterprise.

At one o’clock on the morning of March 17, 1874, a fire was again discovered in the main spice mill. As before, it spread with such rapidity that efforts were concentrated in saving the out buildings.

March 19th, 1874 - The Morning Herald

After the 1874 fire

May 21st, 1874 - The Daily Republican

The loss from this second fire was figured at $33,000, of which all but $5,000 was covered by insurance. By the beginning of April all the rubbish was removed from the burnt mill, and the turbine wheels removed to “the adjoining building” where “the spices and mustard mill will be running by the 10th of May.” It was announced in August that the large mill was to be rebuilt, but notice was taken that “the matter of paying the insurance money is yet to be settled.”

Fell Spice mill from bridge 1895

The crowning calamity was only a year away. On [August] 10, 1875, Franklin fell died.

August 10th, 1875 -

His only son, William Jenks Fell, inherited not only his father’s fortune, estimated initially at $100,000, but also a firm that had little chance of survival. Early the following year Fell offered for sale or rent a large stone building.

January 19th, 1876 - The News Journal

This building, known as the Franklin Mills, had been used for years by C. J. Fell and Brother to grind their own brand of self-rising flour. At the same time, he offered for rent only, “a second power grist and merchant flour mill, machinery all new and of most approved description” at Faulkland. This was no doubt the same secondary mill pressed into service after the fire of 1874.

The spice mill on Red Clay was leased to J. M. Purvis and Co. of Philadelphia, who soon had reason to regret their action. On October 30, 1878, the mill was for the third time utterly destroyed by fire.

October 30th, 1878 - the News Journal

The fiery end to the history of spice milling on Red Clay did not lift the [nightmares] of failure from the shoulders of William Jenks Fell. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1882 that he must pay rent to the assignees of C. J. Fell and Brother for the three pieces of commercial property that remained to him from the old firm: a store on 120 South Fourth Street in Philadelphia, the Franklin Mills at Newport, and the small grist mill at Faulkland. Rent on all three was in arrears. In 1884 an attempt was made to “RENT – THE GRIST MILL WITH ALL the water power at Faulkland, with quite a large custom."

As late as 1894, however, the Delaware State Directory carried the listing: “Faulkland, Fell, W. J. Flour Mill.” Thus after more than a century of continuous use the Faulkland mill site was once again what it had been when Oliver Evans came to the Red Clay – the scene of local grist milling for custom.

March 29th 1894 - The Daily Republican
Ruins of the Fell Spice mill from bridge - 1895

And, as if William Jenks Fell and company had not suffered enough bad publicity, yet more indignities were to come...

August 7th 1898 - The News Journal
January 31 1898 - The News Journal

Many thanks to Scott Palmer for the black and white pictures of the Fell Mill from his blog: The Mill Creek Hundred History Blog. If you want to know anything about the

Mill Creek Hundred, his blog is an excellent place to start.


Next week I think we'll go to the Greenbank Mill, the next mill downstream along the Red Clay Creek.


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