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Who was Oliver Evans?

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Who was Oliver Evans?

Until the late 1700s the milling of grains into flour was a very labor-intensive process. Grist mills (mills that ground grain into flour) usually had three or four floors. First, the bags of grain had to be carried or hoisted up to the top floor and manually dumped into a rotating grain cleaner. It then fell as needed down a chute to the millstones on the ground floor. The millstones ground it into flour and it fell down another chute to the basement where it was bagged and hoisted up to the second floor. There it was spread out onto the floor to cool before it was swept into a hole in the floor that dropped it down to a rotating sifter called a “bolter”. As it came out of the bolter the flour was either bagged or packed in barrels for delivery to the market.

As you might imagine, not only was this process a lot of work but it also left a lot of opportunity for contamination of the flour, and even then, people didn’t like having specks of they didn’t know what in their flour. However, up until then there was not much industrial innovation. People tended to do things the way it had always been done. “That’s the way I was taught to do it!”

Enter Oliver Evans, who was born and raised in Newport, Delaware not far from where

the Wilmington & Western Railroad station is today. In 1783, at the age of 28, he oversaw construction of a grist mill that two of his older brothers were building. Over the next five years he began experimenting with some labor-saving ideas that he had and his first was an elevator to carry the grain up to the attic and another for the flour. His elevators consisted of an endless leather belt with small buckets attached that was housed in a pair of narrow vertical wooden boxes. Another was a screw conveyor that moved the flour horizontally. He didn’t event these devices, but nobody before had thought to use them in a grist mill.

Something that Oliver Evans did invent was called a “Hopperboy”, a rotating rake-like contraption that gathered the flour as it came out of an elevator, spread it out on the floor and continuously turned it for cooling. It then automatically fell down a chute into the bolter on the floor below. By 1790 he had perfected his process and when the new United States Patent Office opened, he was granted the third U.S. patent, signed by George Washington himself. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson paid royalties to Oliver Evans so that they could use his labor-saving inventions in their mills.

Abbotts Mill has one of the best examples of Oliver Evans’ milling inventions that you are likely to find anywhere in the country. While we don’t have the staff to actually grind any grain, we do demonstrate how the

machines work using water power. We also demonstrate the operation of Ainsworth Abbott’s auxiliary diesel engine. The mill is open for 45 minute tours on the 3rd Saturday of each month from March through November, on the hour from 1 to 3 P.M. Tours are free for Delaware Nature Society members and $5 for all others. During these Covid times reservations are required and we are limited to groups of 4 people. And of course, masks must be worn.

Reservations can be made by calling 302-422-0847.

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1 Comment

Rick Schuman
Rick Schuman
May 30, 2021

I have to wonder if the "specks of they didn’t know what in their flour" was what initiated home kitchen sifting. (the world's first flour sifter, patented by Jacob Bromwell in 1819).

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