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William Lea & Sons' New Flour Mill

Updated: Jan 29, 2023


The following is taken from the January 13th, 1882 edition of The Daily Republican, a 19th century newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware.





The New Flour Mill of Wm. Lea & Sons

About Completed and Ready for Active Work

A Description of the Building, Machinery, etc.

Word was telephoned to the REPUBLICAN offices yesterday that the flour mill of William Lea & Sons was about completed, and that a representative of this newspaper would be shown through it if he so desired. Accordingly, one of the reporters shouldered his note book and made his way over Market street, south of the Brandywine creek. After piloting his way through the mud, of which there was plenty in this vicinity, the mill was reached. After a short conversation with Mr. Preston Lea. One of the firm, the reporter was introduced to Mr. Taylor, who showed him through the new building and explained thoroughly all the machinery and other things of interest to be found in this imposing building.

Before entering into a description of the mill, it would be well to give a short sketch of the firm, which will add more interest to the article.

The business now carried on by this widely-known and influential firm, was originally started almost a century ago by the firm of Tatnall & Lea. They occupied two mills, one on the south side and one on the north side of the Brandywine. The former was erected as far back as 1762 and the latter in 1770. They were located at the head of tide water, built of stone in the most substantial matter, equipped with the best appliances of their kind to be had at that time, and for many years were the most complete as well as the most extensive flour mills in the country. The business operations of their proprietors were even more notable by reason of the enormous amount of grain annually handled and the extent of country covered by their trade. The operations of this one firm were so heavy that they controlled the price throughout a wide extent of country. During the war of the Revolution the American army was very largely supplied with flour from the Brandywine mills.

When these mills finally came into the hands of William Lea and son, the immediate successors of the original firm, many important alterations and improvements were made in order to adapt them to the newer and better methods of milling that had been invented since they were first built, and they are at the present time completely equipped with modern and efficient machinery and appointments, and the high grades of flour and meal they produce are unsurpassed by many mills in this country. In 1880, the business of the firm having so far increased, they deemed it advisable to erect a new mill and New Castle as the site. Here they erected a large and imposing structure, especially adapted for the production of the finest grades of patent flours. It is constructed in the most thorough manner, is especially modern in every respect, every floor being equipped with speaking tubes, signal bells and steam apparatus, and the building connected with the Brandywine Mills in this city [Wilmington] -seven miles distant-by telephone, a private wire passing under the Christiana river by cable. New and improved machinery, for the treatment and manipulation of grain, in order to its conversion into superior grades of flour, was put into this mill.

The present owners and proprietors of the Brandywine Mills are Messers. Preston and Henry Lea, doing business under the name of William Lea & Sons. Although Mr. Wm. Lea, the senior member, died in 1876, the firm name is retained under which the house has acquired a reputation and so extended a demand for its productions. The operations of the original firm, one hundred years and more ago, were something remarkable for those days, but small in comparison to those of its successors.

The Messrs. Lea are known as practical, energetic, far-seeing men of business, thoroughly enterprising and progressive in their methods, public spirited withal, and pledged to every movement that looks to the advancement of the welfare of the city of Wilmington.

The demand for various grades of flour having far exceeded their production it became necessary to increase the production. For this purpose they have just completed the erection of an immense five-story building, immediately adjoining their old mill on the south side of Brandywine creek.

The building is a five-story structure with attic, more commonly called a four-story building with attic and basement. The first story is built of stone and the others of brick, covered with a tin roof and surmounted with stone coping. The dimensions of the building are 106 x 50 feet. Immediately adjoining the building is a one-story brick engine, boiler and wheel house, with a smoke stack 125 feet high, and a fifteen-inch whistle on top of the engine XXXX.

[Note-The copy of this story has a dark, black line down one entire edge, making that part impossible to read. I have resisted making guesses, so I have just inserted XXXXs. You’ll have to do the guessing yourself.]

In the boiler room are two large Babcock and Wilcox boilers. 125 horse power

Babcock and Wilcox boilers

each, with foundation and ample room for another when needed.

Immediately adjoining the boiler is the engine room, which consists of Jerome Wheelock Steam Engine Co’s celebrated Corliss engines, XX horse power, with an 18 feet flywheel with a 16 inch face; also a Knowles’ Steam pump and a I. B. Davis pump. This is known as a Syphon XXXer, and is designed to condense steam without the use of the engine XXXX a low pressure out of a high XXXX engine, when necessary.

Corliss Steam Engine

The next room is the wheel house, which contains one of Risden’s Turbine XXXX Wheels, about 110 horse power. Water is brought direct from the race by a large pipe, six feet in diameter and 106 feet in length, and runs XXXXrect on the main shafting. At XXXX, where this immense pipe reXXXXX supply, is built a stone wall XXXXment for the protection of the XXXX The wheel house also contains XX large water tanks, which are filled with water for supplying the XXXXX.

After the wheel house you enter the XXXXt of the main building, which has a solid cement floor, the first object to strike the

The only picture I could find of an Iron Hurst frame, probably not very representative.

eye is five iron Hurst Frames which are built on brick foundations.

Fourteen columns are erected XXXX department, on stone foundations for the support of the mill. The shafting is supported by iron XXX or chairs, which is quite an improvement to the old way of fastening them to the joist above. The basement also contains a Sturtevant exhaust fan, elevators, elevator boots and conveyors, one Kurth Cockle Separator, and one brush machine.

At the east end of this floor is a large bin, for the storage of grain. It runs full width of the building and above the third floor. It is built on a crip, which rests on its own foundations, has three compartments, and has a capacity of 30,000 bushels of wheat at one time. A conveyor runs from the street to the bin to receive the wheat brought by wagons. For the un-loading of vessels a dock-leg has been erected which will unload vessels by pumping the wheat out, at the rate of 2000 bushels an hour.

The first floor is fitted up in elegant style, and presents a novel appearance not often seen in a flour mill. Upon this floor are 14

1880s roller mills

pair of corrugated and 7 pair of smooth rolls. Which are used in reducing the wheat from its original state to the different grades. This room contains five Hursts, on which the mill stones, or burrs, rest; the burrs are four feet in diameter.

The Hursts are finished in the east lake style, with walnut trimmings and are quite fanciful. The middlings pass to the silent feeder through large glass globes instead of a hopper, which enables the miller to see just what kind of wheat is passing through and what condition it is in.

The department also contains one patent brush machine, receiving scales, improved flour packers, one Richmond bran duster, six Aspirators, shafting, gearing, etc.

All the machinery on the first floor is driven by the main shafting in the basement. All the woodwork on this floor is finished in oil.

On the second floor are sixteen improved bolting chests, seven purifiers, seven Kirk & Fender dust catchers, bins for middlings, shafting, gearing, etc. The third floor contains sixteen bolting chests, seven purifiers, with Kirk & Fender dust catchers on each. Two improved dust catchers, for the reception of dust from the sieves and roils, are also upon this floor.

Upon reaching the forth-floor you behold two Sturtevant exhaust fans.

ten bolting chests, two Kirk & Fender dust catchers, the necessary shafting, gearing, etc., also one Excelsior adjustable bran duster.

After a careful and thorough inspection of the lower floor, the attic is reached, and upon glancing out of the windows the beholder is struck with the magnificent view of the city, the creek, and of the Delaware river. At this point the mind naturally drifts back some twenty-years ago, and the vast difference between then and now, in the improvement of our city, is surprising.

In looking around the attic you behold the heads of the elevators, which run from the basement. Flanged pulleys are seen; also one Richmond Mill separator, three brush rolls with scalping sieves and three scalping reels.

The machinery in the mill is of the most improved and is constructed in the best manner. The power is conveyed to the main shafting from the engine by a 26-inch three ply leather belt. The turbine water wheel is geared direct with the main shafting in the basement. The machinery on the first floor is driven from the main line in the basement by belt, there not being an inch of shafting on this floor. On the second floor the numerous machines are driven by a countershaft run by a sixteen-inch belt from the main line, which runs purifiers, bolting machines, shafts, etc. From this floor, in the west end of the mill, an upright shaft runs to the attic, which supplies the necessary motive power to run the bolting chests and other machinery on the upper floors.

In the east end of the building, on the third floor, a counter-line shaft is erected to

Eureka Flour Packer

drive the elevators for storage bins, operates the Dock leg and runs one Richmond Mill separator in the attic. At the rear of the building, on the first floor, two Eureka patent flour packers, have been erected, which are used for packing the flour in barrels, preparatory for shipment. Closely adjoining these packers, is a set of patent scales, made expressly for weighing the flour, when put into the barrels; the platform is even with the floor and the barrel is rolled onto it without any trouble, and the platform, with barrel on is raised from the floor to a sufficient height to enable the weigher to get the correct weight. The scales being in good trim the writer jumped upon them and tipped the beam at 155 pounds, equal to over three fourth of a barrel of flour. The mill is heated throughout by steam, lit by gas; lard oil being used for the lanterns carried by the millers.

A signal bell is placed on the first floor, in a conspicuous place, which communicates by wires to all parts of the building, so that is anything happens to any part of the machinery on the upper floors, the workmen immediately pulls the signal bell, which calls a man on the first floor to the speaking tube, which also communicates to each floor, and thus the engine can be stopped in a remarkably short time.

This firm have also made ample provision for the protection of their building in case of fire. A three inch stand pipe in the western part of the building, runs from the basement to the attic, on which is attached a sufficient hose, for the protection of each floor. A number of fire axes and buckets have been placed in convenient places about the mill.

One of the most noticeable features of the improvements on the inside is, the protection of the machinery. Every piece of machinery, that would be likely to cause an accident to anyone walking through the mill, is so protected that it is almost impossible to become entangled therein, unless you are unusually careless.

The mill is one of the largest and most completely equipped mills in the country, and is so pronounced by the millers and millwrights who have seen it.

The workmanship in the mill, is of the best, and the carpenter work cannot be surpassed; every mortise, joint, etc., is joined together with perfect neatness and without an opening wherein you could place a finger nail, and much credit is due these workmen for the completeness in which the building is finished. The whole work was under the supervision of the firm. The machinery was put in motion yesterday, and as far as could be seen, worked admirably. The mill is so arranged that it can be run by water of steam power and it is wonderful what force water can be brought to. The question was asked Mr. Lee, if the water is of sufficient force to run all of the machinery in the mill at the same time. He replied, “Yes, indeed,” and with sufficient power to do the necessary work.

The capacity of the new mill is about five hundred barrels per day. Five different brands of flour can be made at one and the same time.

The old mill of this firm, which adjoins the new structure, will be used exclusively for grinding corn.

In a short time a branch of the P., W. & B. Railroad [Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore] will be extended from the mainline, along the Brandywine to Augustine Mills, which will pass directly by Messers. Lea’s new mill, giving them ample facilities for receiving grain and the shipment of flour, both by water and rail.

Wilmington is growing in prominence, and this mill adds another building to its handsome structures that are rapidly being erected.

A large portion of the machinery used in this new mill is manufactured by the J. Morton Poole Company, of this city, and is pronounced the finest in the country.

Many years ago a mill could be bought and fitted up at a comparatively small sum: but those of today are much more costly, and the one just described, cost a large sum as it is complete in every particular.

The Daily Republican, Wilmington

January 13, 1882


Lea Mills - 1932 - Delaware Public Archives
Lea Mills - May 20th 1933 - Delaware Public Archives
Lea Mills - May 20th 1933 - Delaware Public Archives


If there any questions about this story, or any of the above named equipment, leave a comment below and I'll try to answer it next week.

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