An Early 18th Century Grist Mill Filled with Storied Artifacts


I’ve long imagined writing this post, but because of my deep emotional connection, always put it off until the time was right. My father restored the property, my step-mother was its last owner and resident and I had the honor of spending the last few months of her life with her — a woman of noble character, great taste and an often brutally honest, combative spirit.

Patrinka Kelch loved the mill with all of her heart and soul and regarded her role as steward as her life’s mission. When she passed away two summers ago, I’d go to the property and just weep. My father had left Patrinka, as he had my own mother, so his lingering presence within the millwork made me tingle with unrequited love and a whole lot of questions. Patrinka had been my style icon since I was ten and, although our relationship was rocky for most of our lives, she is likely the reason I work here at Design*Sponge. For better or worse, she introduced me to the all-white aesthetic way back when. She shared with me the joy of literally hundreds of paperwhites each February. We’d lie on sheepskins and smell them for hours. It was the 1970’s and I’m pretty sure she thought I was meditating with her. I wasn’t. I was singing songs from Grease  in my head.

During the last few months of her life, I saw her every single day. She had no family and I wanted her to have a loving exit. I’d bring flowers, olive oil and pictures of her cats , Muffy and Sushi, to the nursing home where she thought she’d die. I was set to bring her home to the mill where I’d be her sole hospice caretaker the day she passed away. (I couldn’t enlist any other help without money neither she or I had.) She passed away peacefully that morning and I know it had to do with a major lesson in pragmatism she had taught me a few weeks before. (Read more on that lesson in the slideshow.) My decision to care for her alone was not a practical one, but one I was determined to do.

This is her beloved home and I’m so proud to share it with you.

In short, the mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a three-story home has a 40-foot water wheel, considered the largest, freestanding water mill wheel anywhere. It recently sold to a private businessman. I adopted Muffy and Sushi.

About Shepherd’s Mill & Shepherdstown: This gristmill in Shepherdstown, West Virginia is located on our local small stream called the Town Run. The picturesque stream still spills violently down a rocky incline and disappears in the woods below the mill. It flows into the nearby Potomac River. The mill was built some time prior to 1739 by Thomas Shepherd, the founder of our town. Originally, it was a two-story structure and the original mill wheel was most likely a wood overshot wheel. The current 40-foot-diameter Fitz Water Wheel Company steel overshot wheel was built in 1894. A third story addition was built in the late 19th century.

“The remains of the of the first Shepherd Grist Mill, first built prior to 1739, and operated for two centuries, mark the industry of the State’s earliest incorporated settlement, originally known as Mecklenburg, the first settlers arriving probably as early as 1719. The mill stands near the Pack Horse Ford crossing of the Potomac. The Indian trail to Pack Horse Ford became the Philadelphia Wagon Road into the Valley of Virginia, and on this road, named High Street, the grist mill was erected. Thomas Shepherd Sr. not only built a mill; he laid out building lots for homes on a part of his first grant of land. Many wheat farmers settled in the vicinity. Shepherd bequeathed the mill to his son, Thomas Jr., in 1776. After the Revolution the village name was changed to Shepherdstown, honoring the builder of the mill. Shepherd started a trend of mills, which became focal points for roads leading out to seaboard markets for flour. A map published in 1810 lists 31 grist or merchant mills in Jefferson County serving a coastal area from Alexandria to Philadelphia. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Thomas Shepherd with his grist mill inaugurated a “bread basket” for the growing nation. There seems to be little doubt of the continuous operation of a mill on this spot. It is presumed that the stone building still standing is more than two centuries old. The large, 40-foot iron wheel was once located 60 yards farther down stream, but the date of its installation is beyond the memory of local inhabitants who can remember the mill as it was at the beginning of the century.

Shepherd’s Mill, then known as Thompson and Carter, suspended operations in 1939. By that time, transportation facilities had increased to the point where large firms could control regional or national markets. Small firms with limited production were simply forced to close their doors in face of such powerful competition. Shepherd’s Mill was too large to exist as merely a local supplier and not large enough to compete in a broader market where economy of scale meant the difference between survival and extinction. This phenomenon affected most of the town’s industries in a similar fashion, and Shepherdstown reverted to its earlier function as a residential and commercial center catering to the needs of the surrounding farms and the local college.”

Source: Historic American Engineering Record of the National Park Service, Historian & Author Dennis M. Zembala, 1975

from Design*Sponge


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