Old Mills in the Mid-West

Old Mills in the Mid-West

Old Mills in the Mid-West, Leslie C Swanson, 1985. 0-911466-15-0.

Originally (self)published in 1963, Old Mills in the Mid-West was updated with a new edition in 1985, and the foreword to the later edition dedicates the book to two mill restorations which had taken place in the intervening years - at Costello Mill and Potter Old Mill both in Jackson County, Iowa.

The book principally covers the mills of Iowa and Illinois, with short mention of the mills in the other mid-western states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri. The author, Leslie Swanson, counted mills as just one of his many interests, and occassionally one of his other interests, such as covered bridges, is used to help illustrate a point, or merely to add variety to the narrative.

The concept of "old mills" is a relative one (though a popular one in the USA, where the national organization, which Swanson belonged to is known as SPOOM - the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills). Many of the mills mentioned were constructed in the mid to late 19th century, and as such there is much mention of turbines and roller mills as replacements for the more traditional waterwheels and millstones. The author was a longtime resident of Moline, Illinois, and this town was the centre of milling in the Mid-west, and home to the Barnard & Leas Company, manufacturer of milling machinery. Products included the Barnard grain separator, and flour sifters and sieve bolters which were developed in Hungary, but produced under a rights agreement by the firm so successfully that it was said that there was scarcely a mill in the USA that did not have some evidence of the Barnard and Leas tradmark.

Research for the first edition of this book took place just at the tail end of the working life of some of the mills mentioned - whilst the second edition is able to report on the successful restorations that were underway, bringing long abandonned mills back into some form of use once again.

Whilst the Mid-west milling scene is dominated by watermills, windmills do get a look in at times. Three windmills are illustrated: the Fabyan windmill near Geneva, Illinois; the Danish windmill at Elk Horn, Iowa; and the Mount Emblem Mill at Elmhurst, Illinois. The couple of maps included, showing significant mills in Iowa, and in Illinois, also show other windmills.

Whilst I'm sure that much has changed in the twenty years since this book was published, its an interesting and personal introduction to the mills of the region. Leslie Swanson died in 2003, at the age of 97, but his book is once again available, via his daughter Vicki (who assisted with artwork and layout of the book).

Copies of many of Swanson's self published books are available from the L.C. Swanson Estate. The same site also carries a biography covering his long and full life. Further obituaries fill in more details of his life.

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Last updated 03/03/2017 Text and images © Mark Berry, 1997-2017 -