The Big Spring has a number of historic mills – buildings used for grinding grains or producing different products to sell or trade with the local community.
The McFarland Mill has one of the most diverse and interesting production history of the mills along the Big Spring. It began operations as a flour mill, changed to a paper mill during the Civil War and became a knitting mill at the turn of the century.
It was originally built by Patrick and John McFarland who operated it from 1765 until 1827 when it was sold to Jacob Myers. It changed owners a number of times between 1850-1857, when it was then purchased by Daniel Ahl. Daniel transitioned it from milling flour to producing straw board paper.
The Ahls were an important family in the Newville area and the brothers, Cary, Peter, Daniel and John Ahl had many business enterprises. In the beginning, they sold mules to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas during the Mormon War of 1856 and by the end they had amassed real estate holdings as far west as Minnesota. The brothers entered the iron trade during the Civil War and at one time they operated the Antietam Iron Works in Maryland. They had large holdings of forest land in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and dabbled in railroads. Peter Ahl was one of the directors of the tollroad known as the Big Spring Turnpike, which ran from Newville past the McFarland, Irvin, Piper and McCracken mills to Stoughstown, where it joined the Great Road (Rt. 11).
In 1898, the Ahls sold the McFarland Mill to the Newville Knitting Company who converted it to a knitting mill manufacturing women’s underwear. Sometime later a fire on the premises destroyed the upper structure of the building but left the stone walls of the ground floor. A roof was added to these walls and what remained of the old McFarland Mill was used as a pumping station to supply the new knitting production mill on Broad Street.
In 1943, Miss Henrietta Sharp gave the mill structure and its land to the Presbyterian Home of Central Pennsylvania (presently Green Ridge Village Retirement Center) and what remained of the mill was dismantled in the 1950’s.
The McCracken Mill was the most important and powerful mill on the Big Spring. Located at the headwaters of the Big Spring, it was able to take full advantage of the water volume and this along with the 7 ½ foot dam that was constructed allowed it to produce approximately 35 horsepower.
This mill was probably built shortly before 1784 as local records show Mr. McCracken being taxed for a gristmill at Springfield (the settlement on the hill above the headwaters) in 1785. It was originally a two-story structure and changed hands 10 times in its 175 year history. McCracken and later on his partner, Samuel Finley, operated it until its sale to Robert Peeble in 1809. Three years later the mill along with 90 acres of woodland was sold to Robert Kanaga and in 1816 Mr. Kanaga sold it to his son-in-law and wife, Jacob and Frances Keller. The Kellers remodeled the mill and added a third story in 1826 and it is recounted that “four and six horse teams moved the flour as far as Philadelphia and Baltimore.” (Kressler, Robert A., History of the Mills of the Big Spring, 175th Anniversary Borough of Newville.)
In 1861 Jacob and Frances Keller’s son, William, bought the mill but soon sold it to Abram and John Manning who operated it for 15 years. Their tenure as millers is historically important because in 1877 they filled a New York City brokerage based order for 50 barrels of flour that was ordered and sent to Queen Victoria of England. Queen Victoria liked the flour’s quality and placed another order for 100 further barrels.
The mill was then purchased by George Stewart and later Peter Ahl who with his brothers owned four of the six mills operating along the Big Spring at one time or another. The Ahls sold it to Senator Samuel C. Wagner in 1883. It was Senator Wagner who made major improvements to the Mill when he installed an eighty-barrel roller mechanism in 1884 making the mill faster and more profitable with a higher grade of flour. Senator Wagner sold it to G. Arthur Rea in December 1898 who operated it until the end of World War I when it was purchased by Harrison Felix and George Lindsay. They operated it together until 1937 when Mr. Felix took over sole operating responsibilities until 1939.
The McCracken Mill’s final sale occurred in 1939 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is recorded that, “The Commonwealth purchased eighteen acres of land which contained the mill, the house and several barns for approx. $9,000.00.” (Kressler). In 1960, the State demolished the Mill.
The Ginter Mill was constructed during revolutionary days by Gabriel and Alexander Gleim. The Gleim family operated it until the Civil War when it was purchased by the Ahls.
In April 1869 it was purchased by Joseph and John Lindsay with Joseph becoming sole proprietor in 1888. It was during Lindsay’s ownership that the mill was converted from burr (millstone) to roller production. Only one other mill along the Big Spring, the McCracken Mill, had rollers and these two mills were then able to out-produce the other four.
In 1904 James Ginter bought the mill and operated it with his son until it ceased operations in 1935. In 1906 Mr. Ginter made extensive changes amounting to over $3,000 when he replaced the old water wheel with two new ones. It is reported that one wheel was used for the production of dairy feed while the other wheel was used for making flour. In 1922, the Ginters also built a new dam of concrete to replace the existing stone structure, which resulted in a waterfall of six and one half feet.
It wasn’t until 1935 that mill operations finally ceased and the son of Mr. Ginter sold the property around the mill to Mr. Donald Kennedy in 1956. Part of the Mill’s foundations still stand next to the Big Spring.
This Laughlin Mill is the oldest mill along the Big Spring and was built between 1760-1763 by William Laughlin. Water fall at the dam was six and one half feet and it generated 15 horsepower.
Laughlin Mill was originally a three-story structure and is distinguished by the fact that it had the longest single ownership of all the mills along the Big Spring. The Laughlin family operated it for three whole generations. Sometime after 1890 the Laughlin Mill like the Piper, Irvin and McFarland mills felt the pressure of increased production at the Ginter and McCracken mills after their installation of rollers for flour production. These four mills simply couldn’t keep up and their business changed or suffered.
In 1896 the mill ceased production of flour and the Laughlin family sold it to the Newville Water Company. The milling machinery was removed and a new water wheel was installed and its horsepower used to pump water through the mains of the town of Newville.
Historical photographs show this mill with different additions; however, it is known that a log structure was the first building type at this mill. The structure that we see today is a restoration, undertaken by Miss Ethel McCarthy after 1916, and the water wheel was later restored by two members of the Big Spring High School faculty and operates in a non-functional capacity. (Photo to the right shows the mill in present-day).
The Piper Mill was built between 1763 and 1770. From the start, it was a low production mill with water fall at the dam measuring four and one half feet creating only eight to ten horsepower (contrast this with McCracken Mill’s 35 horsepower). “Small mills such as the Irvin and Piper Mills could produce only 18 barrels of flour daily, while the McCracken mill at the head of the spring could produce 75 barrels daily.” (Kressler, Robert A., History of the Mills of the Big Spring, 175th Anniversary Borough of Newville.
From construction and for almost 90 years, this mill was operated by the Piper family and then sold to the Hurshes who maintained production for the next 26 years. Andrew Oyler took over for a brief period in 1890-1893 and the mill passed to its last owner/operators, the Bakers, who had it for 59 years. “Like so many mills along the Big Spring, after 1900 the Piper Mill ceased to grind white flour but continued to grind corn meal, whole wheat flour and buckwheat flour.” (Kressler).
The mill structure was taken down in the 1930’s.
Also on this site: The first commercial fish hatchery along the Big Spring was constructed here when Albert Baker sold the rights to the mill ground to Mr. Colin Thomas. Mr. Thomas established the Green Spring Trout Company that began operations in 1953-54. The State acquired this property in 1968 and remnants of a dam and fish tanks remain.
The Irvin Mill was another low volume mill with a water fall of only four feet producing eight to ten horsepower, but its location on a major crossroad made it a popular meeting place and gave it prominence as a mill.
James and Samuel Irvin built the mill and operated it until 1850 when they sold it to Emanuel Barhart whom in turn sold it to the Ahl brothers in 1856. The Ahls only held it for four years and in 1860 Jacob Leehy bought the mill and operated it with partners for 36 years.
In 1897 James and Joseph Koons purchased the mill and ran it on a part-time basis until 1920 when Henry Hazel bought the property. Mr. Hazel sold the Mill in 1924 to Harry Keck. Mr. Keck was the last owner of the Irvin Mill and he operated it until 1935 when he finally shut down production. It was Harry Keck who took on the difficult job of dismantling the Mill in 1940. “An old German mill builder by the name of Bergstresser was believed to have built the original mill. Limestone was used in the foundation of the building and the 22 inch thick walls complicated the job of tearing it down. At times, Mr. Keck had to remove one stone at a time although the walls contained no cement. A mixture of clay, sand and hair was used for mortar.” (Kressler, Robert A., History of the Mills of the Big Spring, 175th Anniversary Borough of Newville.)
The mill had a reputation for its excellent corn meal that drew farmers from as far east as Harrisburg and as far west as Chambersburg. The grinding stones within the mill were especially adapted to the processing of corn meal. Millstones were imported from France and made from hard flint called French burr. There were three such sets of stones. The original set of eighteen inch stones had worn down to a thickness of nine inches by the time the mill closed . One inch was worn from the stones on the average of every sixteen years. The weights of the stones were approximately three tons per set.” (Newville Valley Times, 1940) In fishing journals and other literature, this location is sometimes referred to as Keck’s Dam.