Reflections: Mills, once a familiar sight, have nearly disappeared from the landscape

By the turn of the 20th century, most, if not all, of Kendall County’s water-powered mills had either completely disappeared or had switched to steam power.

That seems puzzling given that the water powering those mills was free, while steam engines require fuel of one kind or another that has to be purchased. As it turns out, while the water that powered the mills might have been free, turning it into hydraulic power is pretty costly. Couple that with the economics of improved transportation and the economies of scale that industrialization created, and it gets a lot easier to see why water-powered mills disappeared.

Starting with the era of settlement in the 1830s, enterprising millwrights built saw and gristmills on almost every sizable stream in Kendall County. The Fox River had the largest share of mills of various kinds, of course, but so did creeks including Blackberry, Morgan, Big Rock and Waubonsie.

According to the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, by 1846, Kendall County’s population stood at 5,600 and “Their sawing and [grain] grinding was done by fourteen saw and grist mills.”

To create the waterpower to run their mills, millwrights first had to build dams that were simple walls with no floodgates. The technology of the day called for putting together trapezoidal timber frames that were then hauled into the stream and secured to the bottom with forged iron stakes. The open frames were then filled with rocks and rubble. The vertical upstream side was faced with planks to hold the rubble in place, while the slanted downstream side was covered with planks to make a smooth surface for the water running over the dam.

Millraces were dug around one or sometimes both ends of the dam and were generally faced with flagstone, easily mined along the banks of the county’s streams. These millraces could be simple, powering one mill or longer, or more elaborate, powering multiple mills. The long Montgomery millrace powered two mills, while the millrace at Yorkville powered Black’s paper mill, as well as Yorkville’s first grain elevator via an overhead wire cable and pulley system.

The fast millrace water powered the millwheels. Because of the generally flat topography, most early local mills used horizontal tub wheels, although vertical undershot wheels we generally think millwheels ought to look like were not uncommon. One county mill used an undershot wheel, powering equipment using water flowing under and not over it. Huge at 24-feet in diameter, the sawmill it powered was on the Fox River at Millbrook.

As soon as possible, those early tub wheels were replaced by turbines imported from back East. A later turbine wheel from Gray’s Mill is on exhibit near the riverbank in the park just upstream from the Mill Street Bridge in Montgomery.

Early on, sawmills were as, if not more, important than gristmills. They used vertical steel sawblades to cut local timber into lumber for buildings and fences. In the county’s oldest buildings the evidence of their vertical saw cuts still are clearly visible, looking much different than the spiral saw marks made by later circular saw blades.

The era of local sawmilling ended surprisingly soon, as lumber began to flow into Chicago aboard sailing ships from mills in Michigan and Wisconsin. The fate of Jackson’s Millbrook sawmill was typical, as Hicks reported in 1877: “But the gang saws of Michigan and Wisconsin at last outstripped it, and left the aged frame to bleach in the sun until a year ago, when the spring freshet bore it away on its bosom to rest in a watery grave.”

Hicks’ comment also points out one of the other downsides of the county’s water-powered mills – the cost of maintaining them in the face of annual floods, called freshets in those days. Dams were damaged every year by the annual spring floods and were often entirely destroyed by rampaging ice floes during breakup.

The dams also required constant maintenance. Those timber frames submerged in water tended to rot, and the upstream and downstream plank coverings had to be monitored continuously, making for a lot of labor to make use of that “free” water. Coupled with the vagaries of water flow at various times of the year, and it’s clear water power may not be such a hot power source after all. As the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on Aug. 21, 1879: “The water in the river is so low that the paper mill had to shut down Tuesday.”

The viability of local mills remained certain through the 1870s. After that, two things tended to lead to their disappearance. First was the advent of affordable steam engines. When a steam engine could be installed and run the establishment with no need to maintain a dam, complicated turbines or worries about low water levels, it made economic sense to switch power sources.

Gradually, the mills closed down to be replaced by steam-powered mills in more convenient locations, which were made obsolete by the extension of rail lines through the county that carried farmers’ crops and livestock away and brought back manufactured materials, from wheat flour to sawn lumber, at prices no small local sawmill or gristmill could beat or even meet.

While some of the old mill buildings remained, especially ones made of native limestone such as Gray’s Mill in Montgomery or Post’s Mill at Millbrook, the dams that provided their waterpower were gradually erased by annual spring floods and spring ice breakup. A few of the dams were maintained by ice harvesting companies but the increasing pollution of the Fox River and the development of ice manufacturing equipment soon eliminated that use, as well.

Today, while some of those old dam and mill sites have been totally erased from the landscape, here and there their remains can still be seen if a person knows what they’re looking at. I can see the remains of a dam and the mills that stood at either end from my office window in Oswego. But for the most part it’s an important Fox Valley business era that’s almost totally disappeared from our collective memory.

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