Ohio Farmer

Kister Mill: A 207-year-old engineering marvel

Barn Spotlight: Kister Mill is unique because of the ability to perform multiple operations, either one at a time or simultaneously.

Pamela Whitney Gray

April 13, 2023

7 Slides

In 1816, John Nimmon hired Gen. Thomas McMillan to build a gristmill on a spring-fed stream in the southwestern part of Wayne County, near Millbrook, Ohio. In the past 207 years, there have been nine owners of the mill, including three generations of Kisters.

A young man of 19 years walked into the Ohio country from Pennsylvania. He bought three farms in the Millbrook area in 1835, which included the gristmill built by Nimmon. In 1845, he converted the gristmill into a woolen mill and operated it until 1875.

John A. Kister, the first of the Kister clan, bought the mill in 1881 and restored it to a gristmill. In 1894, he tore down the original 78-year-old timber-frame structure. He built a new timber-frame mill, increasing the capacity to 5,000 square feet, and four stories. This is the structure that stands today.

John’s forward thinking provided the opportunity for multiple functions to be added to the mill’s capabilities, including not only the original gristmill, but also a sawmill, planing mill, cider press, machine shop with metal lathe, and a woodshop with two “flight” machines. 

Wooden augers were used in a gristmill to move flour away from the roller mill to the sifter, and then to the bagger. Wood was used because flour would stick to steel. Steel also had the added danger of causing sparks. Therefore, all mills used wood for their augers.

As time went by, the small flights would wear or break. John recognized the need for replacement flights. He designed and made the two flight machines that produced the needed parts. The replacement flights were shipped all over the country and Canada.

John’s son, George C. Kister, assisted his father in the mill and eventually took over operations. George’s son, Guy S. Kister, became owner in 1934 and operated it until 1968.

By the 1900s, mills from the waterwheel-powered milling industry of the late 1700s and early 1800s had gone by the wayside. Most old mills lasted from around the 1820s to the Great Depression, when they were forced out by larger mills. However, the Kister Mill remained an outlier, driven by hydropower since its inception 207 years ago.

New waterwheel

Guy Kister was fearful people would no longer have the skills to construct a new waterwheel to replace the aging 1925 wheel. So, in 1967, at the age of 83, Guy, a third-generation millwright, built a new wooden waterwheel. It measured 18 feet, 6 inches in diameter with eight spokes, 56 buckets and a 4-foot face. Guy died in 1975 and is buried in the local cemetery on top of a nearby hill, which can be seen from the mill. Richard and Cindi Boyer purchased the mill in 1997.

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy acquired Kister Mill from the Boyers in May 2018. This included 15 acres of land, and the millrace. Andy McDowell, vice president of Western Field Operations, is in charge of conserving the mill and its operations and turning it into an educational and tourist destination.

Thirty years went by, and the waterwheel — built by Guy Kister — needed replacing. Now Richard Boyer, a tool and die maker, was the owner of the mill. Richard found the guide boards and patterns Guy Kister had stored away. They were used to assist in the building of a new wooden waterwheel, which, when finished and installed, ran with perfection.

There are two types of waterwheels, an overshot and an undershot. Kister Mill has an overshot wheel. A penstock is a pipe made of steel. It carries water from the pond upstream of the mill to a headgate. This controls the flow of water over the top of the waterwheel. The waterwheel turns a “bull wheel” inside the mill, which then turns the main line-shaft.

There are several auxiliary shafts on each floor driven by the main line-shaft to run the various equipment. Each machine or workstation has a handle to start, stop or regulate waterflow, ensuring each machine runs at the proper speed.

It took a lot of engineering to figure out the transfer of power from the slow-moving 18½-foot diameter waterwheel outside at the back of the mill, to the smaller bull wheel on the inside, then to wheels on auxiliary shafts, to the machines doing the job.

Serves many purposes

Most early mills specialized in making a single product. Kister Mill is unique because of the ability to perform multiple operations, either one at a time or simultaneously. The mill’s diverse functionality included the ability to press 30,000 gallons of cider per season from 10,000 bushels of apples.

The wood shop on the ground floor produced wooden “flights,” wooden potato and apple crates. The upper levels ground and sifted wheat flour and corn meal and housed the metal shop.

The sawmill, which required all other machinery to be shut down to cut the large logs into lumber, had the capacity to make 100,000 board-feet of lumber per year.

The conservancy plans to protect the mill, woodlands and wetlands for future generations. The goal is to till small fields with antique horse-drawn equipment to demonstrate the complete process — from planting, to harvesting and the milling of grain. It would create a unique historical, cultural and educational attraction for schoolchildren and visitors. It may be the only place in Ohio that can be totally operated off the grid.

A heated room on the second floor can be rented for private events or meetings. The conservancy hopes to incorporate a working blacksmith shop, a small gift shop and visitor center. The smallest water treatment plant available has been installed on the premises for restrooms.

The Kister Mill was named a National Historical Landmark in 1974. Its bicentennial year was 2016. At the time, it was the oldest industry in Wayne County and still operating commercially.

Gray, the Lady Barn Consultant, writes from her home in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

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