JHS 100 years: A new mill for Conanicut Island
After the American Revolution, some of the people who had left Conanicut Island during the British occupation returned. Their stay was often short. The population, which had dropped from 571 to 323 in the early days of the war, returned to more than 500 shortly after it ended, but soon fell to 450 and continued to drift downward through 1865 when only 349 people lived on the island.
During the hopeful period of the 1780s and 1790s, islanders began to rebuild. With Newport in worse shape than Jamestown, the ready markets of the colonial period were closed. The Jamestowners concentrated on becoming selfsuffi cient – feeding and clothing themselves and their families.
Flour of some sort was a necessity. White-flint Indian corn grew readily, but it needed to be ground into cornmeal. Without a gristmill, Jamestowners either had to grind the dried corn kernels by hand – a grueling and time-consuming task; send the prepared kernels off the island for grinding – an expensive and, given the difficulties of transportation, risky choice; or build a mill.
There hadn’t been a gristmill on Conanicut Island since about 1750. Before the Revolution, however, the farmers weren’t concerned about a mill and concentrated on growing crops for export. Now, with money short, they had to find a way.
The first requirement was land on which to build the mill. Since the only natural power source on the island was the wind, the gristmill would be a windmill. The farm that had been confiscated from Tory Col. Joseph Wanton included one of the highest points on the island. The site was admirably suited for a windmill. The town petitioned the state to grant it that part of the Wanton property.
In March 1787, the General Assembly voted that one-half acre of the Wanton farm be “set off and assigned to and for the use of the inhabitants of Jamestown for a special purpose, and upon terms they erect and keep in repair a good windmill for grinding grain ... if the same is not erected within one year, or shall after the same is erected, become useless for two years, this grant is void, and the land is to revert to and for the use of this State.”
The mill and a cottage for the miller were built that spring in the spot on Windmill Hill where they still stand.
The Jamestown mill is of a type known as a smock mill. It is three stories tall topped by a domed cap – or bonnet – that can be turned so that sails on the vanes can catch the wind – much like a sailboat.
The grain is ground on the first floor between a turning upper stone – or runner – and a fixed bed stone. Having the stones on the first floor makes the Jamestown mill different from most other smock mills in New England, in which the stones and grinding mechanism are located on the second floor. The unusual weight of the stones – each weighs about 3,000 pounds – may account for their location on the ground floor.
The second floor was largely used for storage. From here, the miller fed the corn kernels through a trapdoor into a hopper and chute that directed the grain into a hole in the center of the runner.
The third floor houses the gears that transfer the horizontal rotation of the turning wind shaft, driven by the sails, to a vertical drive shaft that carries the power to the runner stone.
The first miller, Jethro Briggs, was hired on May 25, 1788. He later bought the mill from the town for 200 bushels of “good merchantable Indian corn.” The transfer authorized him to keep three quarts, or 3/32, of every bushel he ground. It took 30 to 90 minutes to grind each bushel.
Briggs sold the mill in 1795 to Nathan Munro. Munro ran the mill for 32 years – the longest serving Jamestown miller.
Twelve millers followed Munro. By 1882, when Isaac Potter sold the mill, its value and use had already begun to decline. Rolling mills, which quickly crushed grain between huge steel rollers, made stone-grinding mills obsolete. Railroads and steamboats moved corn and grain inexpensively, making local mills unnecessary.
The Tefft brothers, Thomas and Jesse, were the last millers. They closed the mill in 1896, although Jesse occasionally ground cornmeal in 1897.
The mill is now maintained by the Jamestown Historical Society.