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Visit the Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair with me

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

I volunteered to represent the Mid-Atlantic chapter of SPOOM, (the Society for the Preservation Of Old Mills) at the 2023 Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair this past Sunday, Oct 22nd. The Grain Fair was held next to the historic Peirce Mill, in Washington D.C,'s Rock Creek Park. Built in 1829, Peirce Mill is the last working gristmill in Washington, DC, and one of the last remnants of the city’s agricultural history. More about the history of Peirce Mill after the Grain Fair information.


They couldn't have picked a more perfect location for the Grain Fair. There are hiking and biking trails through Rock Creek Park that pass right by the mill, and many people using them expressed a genuine interest in the Grain Fair's activities.


Peirce Mill (NPS)



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2023 Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair


At the Grain Fair, visitors could stop by the Friends of Peirce Mill tent in the mill yard to try grinding and sifting grain by hand! They also provided grain-based crafts. Visitors could make Native American corn-husk dolls and they used ink stamps to make a flour-sack print.


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Tim Makepeace in the orchard at Peirce Mill, 2019. Courtesy of Friends of Peirce Mill

Tim Makepeace, an orchardist and artist, gave tours of the orchard, located just behind the Peirce Barn. Planted in 2012, these trees grow some of the same varieties the Peirce family once cultivated. Tim also explained how he uses grains, and other plants, as cover crops in the orchard.





Peirce Mill orchard.

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FRESHFARM FoodPrints embeds gardening, cooking, and nutrition education at 21 DC public school partners across the city. Their team shared hands-on lessons at the Grain Fair to get kids excited about growing, preparing, and enjoying fresh, local whole-grain foods.

FRESHFARM exhibit
This is a cool counter-top device that makes fresh rolled oats. Just pour in a cup of oats, turn the crank and out comes your morning breakfast.
Freshly-made rolled oats

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Grapewood Farm, located in the historic Northern Neck of Virginia, proudly offered "Virginia Grown, Virginia Ground" organic small grains and superior stone-ground flour for customers in the Mid-Atlantic region. They showcased a variety of local grains, and demonstrated how grain is grown, harvested, cleaned, and winnowed.

David Sachs of Grapewood Farm (Rt)

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"edible Blue Ridge" was there to celebrate the food culture of Central and Southwestern Virginia. Their excellent magazine, "edible Blue Ridge" brings you their latest food news, recipes and beverage recommendations.

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Vanessa Bolin, an indigenous farmer, artist, activist, and teacher, shared her wisdom and showcased her beautiful dried corn, wild Indigenous rice, amaranth, quinoa, and beans. Vanessa also discussed the importance of growing Indigenous grains and their practical uses and health benefits.


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Cooking

There was a Tortilla-Making Demonstration by “Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas,” a nonprofit Latino arts and culture organization that seeks to support, promote, and increase public awareness of the richness, beauty, and diversity of Latin American cultures and their roots through performing and visual arts, and dynamic education.


Tortilla-Making Demonstration

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Solar Household Energy,” demonstrated their amazing solar cookers. SHE is a D.C.-based non-profit that strives to unleash the potential of solar cooking to improve social, economic and environmental conditions in sun-rich areas around the world.

Solar Cookers shown by “Solar Household Energy”

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Milling

“Deep Roots Milling” operates out of historic Woodson’s Mill in Nelson County, Virginia. Built in the 1790s, Woodson’s Mill has been in continual operation throughout most of its history. Today, the mill uses renewable waterpower to turn locally grown grain into high-quality products packed with flavor and nutrients.


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Representing the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, Mid-Atlantic chapter” aka SPOOM-MA, I brought along my model of part of the "Oliver Evans System," that helps demonstrate how material is moved through a grist mill. It was very popular with children and adults alike, many of whom said that they now better understood what they've just seen in the mill. I also gave away copies of "Old Mill News" to anyone that showed an interest in SPOOM, as well as registration forms for SPOOM-MA.

It was a very gusty, breezy day and during the afternoon, while I was talking to a group of visitors, a sudden gust picked up the canopy we were under and flipped it into another group of people. Thank goodness the only injury was to the canopy, which I'm afraid was terminal. (It belonged to the NPS.)


If they hadn't already been there, visitors then could then walk over to the mill (right behind me) to see the machinery in action. In the mill, the National Park Service and volunteers offered milling demonstrations and interpretive tours for most of the day.


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Showing how you could convert a wide-variety of local grains into freshly-milled foods for baking, cooking, or enjoying raw, Mark Woodward and Paul Le Beau demonstrated how tabletop stone mills can be used to make luscious flours and coarser meal from whole grains of all description.


Tabletop Stone Mill

Another Tabletop Stone Mill and some of the grains that it could grind.

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Music

Carly Harvey, an award-winning D.C. based singer combined blues, jazz, soul and an American roots style.

"Carly Harvey"

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Devil in the Mill,” trio Meghan Mette, Julius Bjornson, and Kai Knorr, livened things up at the Grain Fair with Appalachian music, ballads, fiddle tunes and traditional pieces reimagined.

"Devil in the Mill"

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History of Peirce Mill - www.nps.gov

Isaac Peirce (1756-1841) was born to Quaker parents in Pennsylvania. He married a woman named Elizabeth Cloud in 1778. In 1788, Isaac and Elizabeth left Pennsylvania to make a new life for themselves and their young family in Maryland. Isaac originally purchased 150 acres of land along Rock Creek. This included 10 acres which already included a mill and a few other structures. This would become the heart of his large property holdings. Isaac's estate eventually grew to include almost 2,000 acres of land, a large family house, distillery, mill and miller's house, springhouse, cow barn, potato barn and carriage barn and several other out buildings of unknown use. Peirce Mill was built in 1829. It is constructed of blue granite that was quarried along Broad Branch Road. It uses an Oliver Evans system which allows the mill to operate continuously and made labor in the mill easier. The 1829 mill was built as an investment to improve returns from those leasing it and to increase production.


Isaac was not a miller and didn't run the mill himself. He leased the mill to others who operated it for him. Milling was a lucrative business in the Washington area during the 1800s so the building of the mill in 1829 was a good investment at the time. It is believed that the previous mill, built by William Deakins in the 1790s, had used an Evans system and that Peirce transferred it into his new mill when it was built. Peirce Mill operated as a merchant and custom mill. It had three sets of mill stones and ground corn, wheat and rye. Two or three men could keep the mill working and grind an estimated 150 bushels of grain per day. Though earlier records have not been discovered, records from 1870 indicate that Peirce Mill produced 40 bushels of wheat flour, 150 barrels of rye flour, and ground 4,075 bushels of corn for animal feed for market. The same census records indicate that the mill custom ground 3,000 bushels of corn and rye flour, 632 bushels of animal feed, and 3,375 bushels of meal and flour. This was produced over the course of eleven months by two men who earned $500 in wages and had a production value of just over $5,000 (Historic Resource Study, pg. 38) The next census in 1880 indicated that Peirce Mill was being operated by three men; Charles and Alcibiades White, who paid $600 to operate the mill and a laborer they employed for one dollar a day. They ran the mill year round and was half-custom, half-merchant grinding. The value placed on the grinding was $8,250. They primarily ground corn meal (480,000 pounds of it) and animal feed (127,900 pounds) (HRS, pg 39).

The federal government began buying land to create Rock Creek Park in the 1890s. The mill, carriage barn and springhouse were purchased from the descendents of Peirce Shoemaker, who had died in 1891. When the government purchased the mill, they made an agreement to allow the Whites, Charles and Alcibiades to keep their lease of the mill and continue to operate it. The Whites continued to lease the mill from the federal government until 1897 when the main shaft broke. The government assessed the damage and determined that it would cost more to repair the mill and keep it operating than was being generated from the lease. The decision was made to keep the mill closed.

The mill was located along Peirce Mill Road just below where the Peirce Mill Bridge crossed the creek. The road (which would eventually be renamed Tilden Street NW and Park Road NW) had become a main east-west route across northwest Washington City. The location made the structure a candidate to be turned into a tea house and refreshment stand in the new park. In 1905 an enclosed porch was added where the water wheel had once turned and the Tea House opened it's doors with a succession of managers until 1934.

In 1934, the new superintendent of National Capital Parks, C. Marshall Finnan proposed several restoration projects within Rock Creek Park. These projects would be funded through a public works project. The proposal for the mill project was approved by Department of the Interior secretary Ickes at a projected cost of $19,250. The enclosed porch was removed and a new water wheel was put on the exterior of the building. The inner workings of the mill, replicating the old Oliver Evans system that had run during the 19th century was also re-installed. When the project was completed in 1936, the total cost of restoring the mill to it's pre-Teahouse appearance was $26,614. Robert A. Little, a veteran miller, was hired to run the mill, which began operating on October 27, 1936. Meal ground at the mill was taken to cafeterias run by the Welfare and Recreational Association of Public Buildings and Grounds. It was also sold on site to members of the public where prices were advertised as "higher than in the stores."

The mill was operated through World War II and continued to provide meal to government kitchens, but it was never a huge money-maker. It ran sporadically until 1958 when operations came to a full stop. Problems with machinery, an inability to find trained millwrights, fluctuating water levels in Rock Creek were all contributors to the stop in operations. In 1967, there was interest in re-starting the mill. Research showed that the undershot wheel that had been installed during the 1935 restoration was an inaccurate representation. A new over-shot wheel was installed to be more in-sync with historic authenticity. Another improvement to the mill was the use of municipal water used to move the wheel. Skilled millwrights were located and in 1970 the mill once again ground corn under the watchful eyes of Robert Batte and then Brian Gregorie. Tropical storms in the 1970s damaged the equipment yet again and the mill ran sporadically until 1993 when the mill experienced a catastrophic failure with the main shaft. Peirce Mill re-opened as an operating mill in 2011 with the help of a not-for-profit group called "The Friends of Peirce Mill." This organization helped raise funds, secure grants and assisted the National Park Service with getting the mill restored to the point that it could once again grind corn. The mill now provides an opportunity for visitors to see and hear what life in the mill was like during the 1800s and the mill's hey-day and school groups learn about engineering and local history on field trips to the site. Projects to continue the restoration of the mill are ongoing.


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