The Grist Mill (1857 - 1966)

The Grist Mill in 1959

Center for Lowell History - Elizabeth Foley Collection

Photo citation: Kheel Center, Cornell University

Lowell Daily Citizen and News, June 26, 1858

The following is an excerpt from Waterpower in Lowell: Engineering and Industry in Nineteenth Century America by Patrick M. Malone. The Johns Hopkins Press, 2009 (pp. 160 - 161) -

Before the new leases went into effect, most manufacturers were already improving their capability to use waterpower with the purchase of turbines. In January 1853, the Lowell Machine Shop and eight of the ten textile corporations had at least one turbine in their mill yards, although many breast wheels remained in use. When the Civil War began in 1860, only three textile corporations had any breast wheels left in their mills. There were then sixty turbines on the system, and most of them far surpassed the power of even the largest breast wheels.


Highly efficient turbines used less water for each horsepower they generated than did breast wheels operating under the same head. Francis was always seeking greater efficiency in water storage, water delivery, power generation, power transmission, and machine operation. He hated to see energy wasted. It must have been painful for him to watch water rushing over his dam in spring freshets, but that was nature showing him the limits of engineering control. Stopping leakage at the dam or through defective gates at the mills was a high priority in dry seasons. Occasionally his men had to spill water through wasteways to flush floating ice from the system, to keep proper levels in canals, or to supply extra demands by lower-level mills. He tried to keep that type of deliberate waste to a mini-mum. It is not surprising, then, that he turned his attention in 1857 to the one place on the system where waste had become standard practice: the end of the Merrimack Canal.


Since 1846, the Boott Penstock had connected the Merrimack and Eastern Canals; but the height of the Merrimack Canal was approximately thirty-three feet, while the Eastern was only nineteen feet. Supplementary flow of water to the Eastern gave up fourteen feet of head without producing any power.


Another issue that seems to have been on Francis's mind was the legal justification for the Pawtucket Dam. A series of "mill acts" in Massachusetts had determined that harnessing rivers for manufacturing was a public benefit. Locks & Canals had been a manufacturer from 1825 until 1845, when it sold the Lowell Machine Shop. Francis apparently believed that the canal company should get back into some kind of manufacturing to protect its rights. He asked for and received permission from the board of directors "to build and provide for the running of a mill" in 1857.


The gristmill that Francis built at the end of the Merrimack Canal was in one way an economy measure: part of the waterpower that had been wasted at this site could now do some work. In other ways, it was an extravagance and a pet project of the chief engineer. This was by far the most ornate building erected by Locks & Canals and one of the handsomest structures in Lowell. E. C. Cabot, a prominent architect who had designed the Boston Atheneum, produced the elaborate color-washed drawings. They reveal the care given to a small manufacturing plant that Francis said was simply a mill for grinding corn. Its function may have been prosaic, but the building's Italianate/Romanesque architectural style and its prime mover were state of the art. Francis installed a large wooden turbine of original design to drive the set of French burr stones, corn cracker, and elevator in his mill. Locks & Canals was a water-powered manufacturer once again. Recreational walkers who strolled under the spreading elms along Dutton Street could pause to admire the handsome gristmill at the northern end of the Merrimack Canal. Almost as important to Francis as good construction was the landscaping that surrounded his company's buildings and waterways. As we have seen in previous chapters, he was following a corporate tradition that began with Kirk and William Boott.


Article from the Lowell Sun, August 29, 1931 -

“I wandered by the brookside,

I wandered by the mill;

I could not hear the brook flow,

The noisy mill was still.”


Thus spoke the Poet Milnes of the mill of his thought, and thus, too, could many residents of Lowell speak of the old Grist mill at the foot of Anne street which stands as a lone reminder of the days when the mills of this type were numerous in the vicinity, but whose massive stone water wheels have long since ceased their daily hum. For no longer can the “brook be heard there, either, because the canal stream no longer surges through the old raceway under the mill, churning itself into foam against the revolving paddles to set in motion the wheels, the pulleys and the gears that sang the song of the “noisy mill.”


“Tis true, there is still activity in the mill, for it houses now a printing company and a crayon manufacturing company, both of which are highly industrious; but these are modern firms, with all the conciseness and lack of picturesqueness that characterizes the business of the day. New machinery has been installed, the old raceway has been blocked up, the remains of the stone wheels of the old days have been boarded up, and now, the old Grist mill is a grist mill in name only.


The outside view alone is the same as it was at the time the old building was erected by the Locks and Canals company in the year 1857. The massive grey stone blocks intermingled with bricks have stood the test of time well, and even after almost a century of exposure, lend to the structure a simple charm that is enhances by the natural beauty of the mossy banks of the canal on which the mill rests.


Pictures of the mill in the old days are rare indeed, but just by accident we came upon one not long ago in the gate house of the Merrimack Mfg. Co., which is just across the canal from our grist. The picture is given over chiefly to employes of the Merrimack Mfg. Co. shown coming from their work at noon, but still the Grist mill is shown in all the glory of its first few years at the extreme right of the old print, much the same as it is today, although the approaches to the old mill have changed somewhat since the time of the picture which is judged to be about 1865. We might say in passing that this same picture in addition to giving us an idea of what the cause of this story looked like in the “good old days” also furnished an almost startling revelation of “what the well-dressed mill worker was wearing” at the time. High hats and swallow-tail coats for the men, with here and there a rakish derby – and shawls and wide striped skirts for the ladies. Prosperity evidently reigned supreme at the time, too, for there are hundreds of workers in the group and they fairly fill the comparatively wide expanse of Anne street. In the background may be seen a horse-car and other reminders of another day, but the Grist mill-the mill itself, looks the same as the picture above this article.


The history of the old mill is not without interest and its origin marks another achievement in the life of that man whose name will ever be associated with Lowell’s progress in the field of hydraulic engineering James Bicheno Francis, who was agent and engineer at the Locks and Canals company at the time the mill was built.


Actual motives for the building of the mill by the company are not clearly understood, but it seems logical to attribute the beginning of structure to Francis’ far-seeing plan which resulted in making Lowell the first manufacturing centre of the country.


Weeks of careful planning on the part of the engineer and communication with contractors finally led to the starting of the enterprise with Salmon Sawyer of Milford, N. H., as contractor. Within the same year the work was finished, with the equipment consisting in the main of a corn cob cracker and a stone corn-crusher, both of which were motivated by a shaft which was in turn attached to water wheels in the raceway beneath the structure.


Selection of workers for the mill was the next task, as we found from consulting the records which Mr. Francis kept so religiously and which were graciously shown to us by present officials at the Locks and Canals office. The esteemed engineer was most thorough in his data on the manner of selection of workers and in the musty archives in the library at the office we found complete stories of the lives of some of the applicants, most of whom agreed to work for the sum of $1.50 a day or 10-5 as The Englishman Francis recorded it.


From the accounts relating to the early days it appears that the Locks and Canals operated the mill for a few years then leased it to the Merrimack Manufacturing Company which in turn sub-leased it to other tenants. The next definite record is of the occupancy of James Meek and Company in the late eighties of the last century, at the time that Mr. Safford, the present engineer at the Locks and Canals first came to Lowell.


 Meek ground the corn and wheat for local citizens until about 1895 when Frank A. Orcutt took over the mill. The latter stayed but a short time, however, and in 1902 notified the owners that he would vacate. It was then arranged with J. B. Cover of this city to have his son, Frank G. Cover, take the mill, under whose direction the establishment saw many prosperous years until just before the war when the Cover company saw fit to give up the lease.


During the years of 1916 and 1917, Mr. Safford, who was then serving in his present capacity as engineer conducted an extensive program of improvements which involved the installation of new machinery and the scrapping of some of the old. This was really the transition from the old order to the new as far as the mill was concerned. In the year 1917 the Foster Grain company leased the old mill, but there is a rather interesting sidelight attendant on the leasing by this company that will admit of mention.


It will be remembered that it was at this time that Anne street was practically closed to traffic by the piles of steel that were to be used in the proposed high school, which was to cost $2,000,000. The closing of the street would, of course, impair business at the mill at petitions were sent at the time to Mayor James E. O’Donnell to have obstructions removed to such an extent that a passage at least would be made. The Foster Grain company wished to start business but was unwilling to occupy until arrangements were made for the clearing of the road. Accomplishment is this direction was slow, too, because civic factions were divided between the plausibility of painting the steel to save it from rusting and the plausibility of selling the steel outright and getting it out of sight. In defense of the latter suggestion one councilor said: “It seems to me that we ought to sell the steel as, in my opinion, a great high school will never be erected on that site.”


A passage was finally cleared, however, and the company was established in the mill to do business. The new arrangement was short lived and after this last vacancy the time honored grist mill became a storehouse for the Locks and Canals company until the present tenants, the Kilburn Printing company and the Lowell Crayon took over the lease [Editor's note: the crayons made here were specifically for the textile industry and not for artistic drawings. See below.].


So now the old grist houses its modern tenants who perhaps never think of the old raceway and the waterwheels and all the rest, but no matter what goes on in the way of modernism inside the building, there is nothing that can take away the quaint old beauty of the outside of the mill whose cold gray stones, if they could speak, could tell some interesting tales of the days when farmers “got grist to the mill, to have plenty in store.”


UMASS Lowell, Center for Lowell History. Digital Commonwealth

The front side of the Grist Mill can be seen in the upper right of this photograph.

Photo citation: Kheel Center, Cornell University

The Grist Mill in 1959.

Center for Lowell History - Elizabeth Foley Collection.

From the back the photograph:

Anne Street Stone Grist Mill from the corner of French Street and Lucy Larcom Park, Lowell, Mass April 17, 1959 Anne Street Grist Mill built by Locks and Canals in 1857

Stamped: This is a Kodak Color Print February 1960 RB