Blaker’s Mill is no run-of-the-mill gift, even to a large university, so when
WVU was given the now 209-year-old mill-to-beat-all-mills, the institution was determined to take good care of it. It’s a story that is just about as perfect as a mill seems
perfect--doesn’t it? Isn’t a mill just a perfect thing? I’d be willing to admit that we may
have idealized mills too much at some point in the past--perhaps sometime around the
barbershop quartet era--if I hadn’t seen Blaker’s Mill. It is
Robert Hockman Blaker of Wilmington, Delaware gave it to West Virginia University so
that they would preserve it for future generations. His ancestors had built it in Greenbrier
County in 1794, and his family had run it for several generations. He must have
known that WVU already owned a mill (Cummins Jackson’s second mill) that couldn’t
be made operative because of structural weakness in the building. Engineers performed
tests and determined that vibrations from the huge stones necessary to grind grain would
weaken the building further, so it was made the Jackson family and milling industry museum. WVU still didn’t have an operative mill, and they were hoping to acquire one, because they already had the perfect historic property for it, the state conference center at
In the 1940s, the university had bought another mill, the Johnson family’s, which they
moved from Barbour County, but it was 3.5 stories high, with a 2.5-story wheel and a
water race 300 to 400 feet long, too large to be used for replacement parts for other mills.
Its parts are now on display in Cummins Jackson’s mill (the mill-working museum). I
don’t know how many mills there are still in West Virginia, but I’m beginning to think
that WVU may end up with all of them at Jackson’s Mill. I wouldn’t mind at all having a
mill village just 30 miles down the road.
Volunteers dismantled Blaker’s Mill, numbered and diagrammed every piece, and
reconstructed and restored it, along with all its yellow poplar machinery, wooden nails,
and stone foundation walls. I’m thinking that this feat of restoration is as fantastic as that
of Philippi’s covered bridge! (Bear in mind that this thing runs--on water yet!)
Our guide tells us that he can grind more grain in an hour than Jackson’s Mill Visitors
Center can sell in a year. Since grain is perishable, they can’t run it but for special
occasions. My, how I’d like to see it in operation!
I don’t know why mills thrill me like they do. Perhaps I long to return to a simpler time.
Maybe a fragment of a classic English novel has lodged in my brain where digital
appreciation is now supposed to be. Did I play too much with Tinkertoys? The Ferris
wheel I made? The elevator? Whatever, I think that mills are just too perfect for words.
Yes, they belong in pictures.
I want to see those tiny wooden cogs set huge stones whirling, just as they did 200 years ago. Several different levels of machinery with their whittled wooden parts, all moving in
succession--wheels on three levels whirring . . . and it comes out here! Simple.
I step down a half-flight of stairs to a sunken plank walkway between mechanisms, now at shoulder level, and I feel as though I’m in Santa’s workshop--maybe a Scandinavian version in yellow poplar, well-oiled with linseed and beeswax. A few steps back up here and another level there—elves would have to be nimble to feed it there and catch it here (when it comes out here!). To add to our contentment with this folk industry, water would be flying, foaming from the whirring wheel beneath us. I must go down and see.
"There’s a certain slant of light," explained Emily Dickinson, and I think I hear her "cathedral tunes"!
The stonework is so satisfying that I comment on its beauty, and our guide tells us that a
Russian immigrant reconstructed the foundation walls from the same stones that supported Blaker’s Mill when it was originally built in 1794 in Greenbrier County. The place still looks like Santa’s workshop to me.
But we have yet to find the outside connection. It is a little disappointing--no big
wheel that I can see, no spraying brume dancing in sunlight. I fail to understand just where the water comes in, but this mill is somehow different.
I’m not sure that a complete understanding of the mechanism is essential to enjoying a day at the mill, but seeing it working with water swooshing and "elves" scampering all around would certainly add to my appreciation of this folk trade. I live nearby, so I’ll return for one of those special occasions when it’s running. Today, at least I’ve had a glimpse into the folk industry that characterized the prenatal "state born of the Civil War."