THE LAST WORD: Old southern Indiana gristmill among Indiana’s many historical gems
Following a visit to the historic West Baden Springs Resort last weekend to get our first look inside the amazing domed hotel, my wife Beth and I decided to make our way home through Salem, 31 miles east of French Lick/West Baden via Indiana 56.
We had looked online for things to do in Salem and found a reference to historic Beck’s Mill. The route to the mill was a hilly, winding, picturesque, road heading southwest of town, and the seven-mile drive reminded us of our search for a historic stone church near Blooming Grove, which I wrote about in another column two months ago.
The road to the church was called Old Stone Church Road. The road to the mill was called Beck’s Mill Road. Road signs like that are as good as GPS.
The difference between the two historic sites is that the old stone church, once pastored by my great great grandfather, was in ruin and virtually beyond repair, while Beck’s Mill, which also deteriorated over the years, had been restored. Both, however, still stand as monuments to Indiana’s rich history.
Fortunately, the mill was opening at just the time we arrived, and we got to take the tour.
The Friends of Beck’s Mill volunteers manning the site, which is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, did a splendid job of recounting how George Beck and his family traveled from North Carolina in 1807 to take advantage of a government offer of land to all military veterans who had served in the Revolutionary War.
While George explored the southern Indiana territory that is now Washington County, one of the volunteers told us, he discovered a spring that he thought would be a perfect place for a gristmill.
He and his sons immediately began to build a 15-foot square building and secured a set of “buhr stones” with which to grind grain. They also dammed the opening of the spring, which came from the mouth of a cave, channeling the water through hollow logs to a paddle wheel that powered the mill stones to grind corn.
The first corn was ground on Aug. 28, 1808, attracting settlers from nearby Pigeon Roost. And business grew as people kept coming through the following year. In fact, the volunteer said farmers usually sent their oldest son to have their wagon-load of corn ground at the mill, and they often had to wait up to three days for it to be completed as the mill worked its orders in order of arrival.
A fort was built just across the road (the cornerstone is still there), and a saw mill was added to the gristmill that first year, also powered by the stream.
The addition of new equipment due to the booming business required a larger log mill, which was built in 1825-1826. The present frame building was constructed in 1864 after a fire, and a carding machine and wool picker were added to the second floor network of cowhide belts and gears powering all the machinery.
The mill remained in operation until about 1950 but eventually couldn’t sustain itself and fell into a long period of deterioration. It was placed on the list of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana’s 10 Most Endangered historic places in 2005 and 2006. But it resumed its former place on the National Register of Historic Places the following year.
The capstone of a long process led by the Friends of Beck’s Mill toward its restoration was a donation of more than $1 million in 2007 from billionaire philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook of Bloomington. Bill just happened to be busy at the time with the restoration of the French Lick and West Baden hotels.
Beth and I were fascinated with a video of the restoration process that required monumental efforts beginning from the inside of the spring’s cave to dismantling the 16-foot diameter paddle wheel and turbine and all the other machinery, to lifting the mill from its moorings and restoring its foundation stones and replacing deteriorated and missing siding, rotted beams and roof.
The end result is a working mill with the original machinery and grinding stones from the 1864 construction, with a renovated site on which visitors may hike and explore. Restoration was completed in 2008.
Beck’s Mill is the only surviving mill in Indiana that used only grindstone milling in the entire milling process. The mill, said to be one of the most famous and historic landmarks in Indiana, is the only one of 65 mills that operated in Washington County still standing. And fewer than 20 still stand in the entire state of Indiana.
The Beck’s Mill grinding stones are still turning, so we brought home two bags of corn meal ground there.
Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.