Wye Mills

Americana, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on December 10, 2000

What can a steel water wheel, a pair of French millstones weighing more than a ton apiece, and a maze of wooden chutes and elevators achieve today? Flour, plain and simple. In the village of Wye Mills, Md., (pop. 900) flour is made the old-fashioned way.

Entering the Wye Grist Mill (built about 1670) where wheat and corn still are ground between stones, one steps into the early 19th century when the milling industry flourished on Marylands Eastern Shore. At the mill, visitors experience historythe rumbling of floor boards, water gently sloshing, and the smell of freshly ground grain.

Our story is about a little organization saving a little building, says Jean Larson, president of Friends of Wye Mill Inc., a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the grinding operation. The unique thing is that this little building really encompasses the history of our country.

Wye Mills got its name from the two grist mills and one sawmill originally located at this crossroads between Talbot and Queen Annes counties. The village is 15 miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which connects metropolitan Maryland with the rural Eastern Shore. In the early 18th century, such mills were centers for settlement, commerce, and socializing. Today, Wye Grist Mill is both the oldest surviving frame grist mill on the Eastern Shore and Marylands oldest commercial structure in continuous use.

A National Register Landmark, the mill has had a colorful past. It provided wheat flour for the American Revolution, as did a number of mills in the area, earning the region the name, the Breadbasket of the American Revolution. Following efforts to save the mill during the last century, including rehabilitations by the state of Maryland and Preservation Maryland, its future now rests in the hands of Wye Mills.

Volunteers and a small staff spend hours helping with grindingsusing grain brought to them by local farmersproviding tours, and sponsoring events to raise money. And with employees bearing such last names as Miller and McGrane, the mills interpretation isnt left to chance.

Mac McGrane, the mills curator, says, As residents, we want to preserve (it) and tell the mill story to as many people as we can. McGrane and Bob Miller, two of the mill operators, share its history with an increasing number of visitors. Several times during the year, Wye Mills hosts festivals and colonial fairs, including the Wheat Festival in June and Wye Mills Day in October. The mill and surrounding historic sites become home to a colonial camp, with local craftspeople demonstrating trades and selling wares and re-enactors visiting from other states.

Miller likes to share stories unique to milling. His favorite is the expression, Keep your nose to the grindstone, which implies diligence in a task. Years ago, millers used the expression to mean regulating the speed of the millstones so as not to burn the grain (which could be detected by its odor).

Wye Mills is one of the greatest little treasures around, says Larson. Our goal is to preserve the mill, to promote it, and to develop the village of Wye Mills as an historic heritage destination.

The mill recently received a $42,000 matching grant from the Maryland Historical Trust to install a fire suppressant program and to complete repairs. The Friends of Wye Mill have applied to have the mill, the millers house, and a blacksmith shop recognized as a National Historic District, thereby gaining access to additional funding to help stabilize and restore some of the towns remaining treasures.

Wye Mills is a time capsule waiting to be found. Other sites that have survived the test of time in the village include the 400-year-old Wye Oak, the largest white oak in the eastern United States and Marylands state tree; Wye School (built about1800), believed to be an early colonial school building; and Old Wye Church (c.1721), thought to be one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the countryjust a little more history adding grist to Wye Mills.