For Ballston Spa Life
Gristmill was once a Milton Center mainstay
Milton Center was one of the most populous hamlets in the town of Milton during the early to mid-1800s. The large tannery operated by Samuel Haight provided jobs for about 150 people, and many others were employed in businesses that indirectly supported it. In 1870 the settlement had two hotels, a post office, stores, a Mission Chapel of Christ Church, an Episcopal Church, a sawmill, and a grist mill.
The tannery burned down in 1881 and was relocated to Ballston Spa. This event seemed to trigger a plague of fires as several houses and the remaining hotel were soon destroyed. By 1900 the only businesses left were the grist mill and sawmill owned by Edward Lewis.
Grist mills were a necessary part of every early settlement. A waterwheel would be set up on a nearby stream to turn a large grinding stone. Grain would be poured into a hole in the middle of the stone as it rotated against another stone. The grain would then pour out from the edges of the stones as flour. Corn was also ground into meal. Sometimes these mills are referred to as corn or flour mills.
Lewis purchased the Milton Center grist mill, sawmill, and land from the firm Brower & Sherman in January 1876 for $8,000. His business became so successful that he established another mill on Malta Avenue in Ballston Spa around 1890. His son David took over both locations in 1899, but the following year he also retired from active management. The grist mill in Milton Center was leased to business partners George Billings and Harry Aldrich. The two young men soon built up the business to its former capacity and were said to be generating high profits, aided by the service of the electric railroad that passed near the property.
A year later fire struck Milton Center again, completely destroying the grist mill and several support buildings. George Billings, who lived in a house next to the mill, was awakened by his wife at 2:30 am when she heard strange noises. He went outside and saw that the mill was engulfed in flames and beyond saving. A nearby barn and shed were also destroyed before he and the few neighbors that were left in the hamlet could react. A bucket brigade was formed to wet down the area to keep the fire from spreading any further.
The house that Billings resided in was saved, but all of the stock and the mill buildings were destroyed. The stock, which was not insured, consisted of 75,000 feet of dressed lumber, 40,000 shingles, and 100,000 feet of lath, all of which had been manufactured in the mill. Two tons of hay and a large quantity of tools were also lost. The total financial cost was estimated at $1,500. David Lewis, who owned the buildings and machinery, estimated his loss at $3,500, of which $2,700 was covered by insurance. His insurance policies with Beach & Son, George West Insurance, and Citizens’ Fire Insurance Company consisted of $1,000 on the house, $500 on the barn and sheds, $700 on the sawmill, and $500 on the grist mill. Since the mill was run by the water power of the Kayaderosseras and no fires were needed to operate it, the fire was thought to be caused by arson.
A 1914 article in the Troy Times stated that if tourists were in search of quaint old landmarks they should visit Lewis’ grist mill, which had been improved with up-to-date machinery but still used the traditional methods. “The guiding hand of the jolly old miller, D. Lewis, continues to direct the process that turns the red and yellow corn into old-fashioned meal out of which mother used to make the famous Johnny Cake.” A few years later, however, the Lewis mill would be no more as modern factories powered by electricity eventually replaced nearly all of the small grist mills that once dotted the landscape.
Parts of this article were excerpted from Timothy Starr’s book “Lost Industries of the Kaydeross Valley.”