History comes full circle for new Anselma Mill head
By J. Chambless
The Mill at Anselma, along Pickering Creek in Chester Springs, opens for the season on April 1. The operational grist mill traces its beginnings to the 18th century.
For Katherine Baker Lovell, you might say it started with an appreciation for the past.
And that journey which began as a teenager in her hometown of Littleton, Mass., eventually brought her to her position today: Executive director of the Mill at Anselma, a National Historic Landmark in Chester Springs.
The 250-year-old mill and outbuildings sit on 22 acres along Pickering Creek in West Pikeland and are part of a private, non-profit preservation and educational trust. But the mill itself isn’t just an impressive piece of county history – it’s the nation’s oldest operational grist mill that still produces flour using 18th-century machinery, a function that in 2005 earned it historic landmark designation from the National Park Service. The mill is one of 11 such landmarks in Chester County and 2,500 in the United States. “I felt it was a good fit, and thankfully they did, too,” Lovell said of the board members, staff and volunteers she met before being offered the leadership position.
Lovell, who started her tenure at the mill in January, said she’s excited about being part of an organization that brings living history to the public. Her life in public service started as a tour guide at a historic mansion.
“Growing up in Massachusetts, like here, you’re surrounded by history,” she said, “and the history that surrounds you [focuses] on 1775, the Battle[s] of Lexington and Concord.” April 19, the day of the battles which marked the start of the Revolutionary War, is celebrated as Patriot’s Day.
“When I was in high school and college, I worked at an historic home called the Old Manse, which sits near the Old North Bridge in Concord [site of the battles]. It was the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne for a year. That dated back to 1770, so not quite as old as the mill.”
Lovell’s identical twin sister also volunteered at a similar historic home about two miles away. Lovell noted with mild amusement that it sometimes made for some confused tourists who “recognized” her from the other house. She said she always cleared up the mix-up.
A graduate of Bates College in Maine, the English/business major worked in the marketing department of a Boston software company. A move with husband, Chris, to Chester County about two decades ago had her at first volunteering with the Friends of the Downingtown Library, then working part-time in marketing and fundraising there.
Lovell’s most recent position was as development director for five years at Bridge of Hope Lancaster and Chester Counties, a faith-based organization that aids low-income single mothers in becoming independent, under the guidance of mentors.
The mother of sons Graham, 21, and Eric, 24, credits her public service inclinations to the standards her parents set.
“It wasn’t drilled into us, but both my parents were active … whether it was church organizations, or the local League of Women Voters, the library. My dad was an excellent singer and he was in a local chorus,” Lovell said.
Community involvement was encouraged, “not strongly by spoken word, but definitely by example,” she said.
But what is it about the non-profit world that draws her?
“It’s necessary,” Lowell said. “And wanting to help where help is needed. Whether it’s human services, as Bridge of Hope was, [or] whether it’s community education, [like] the library. And here, it is obviously historic preservation, but it’s also very much education, too, geared toward the young and the old. So, it’s taking my marketing background and hopefully putting it to good use.”
As the new executive director, Lovell said she was looking forward to seeing the mill in action. Powered by its 16-foot Fitz Steel water wheel, a demonstration grinding is scheduled for at least one Saturday a month starting April 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
But grindings aren’t only for demonstrations. At least twice a year, wheat and corn are ground into flour that’s offered for sale. Each production grind produces 200 pounds each of bread flour and pastry flour; and 300 pounds of cornmeal flour.
David Rollenhagen, the Anselma miller and a longtime volunteer, also combines the bread and pastry flours to make all-purpose flour. Rollenhagen said he gets the wheat and corn from purveyors in Berks and Lancaster counties. The corn he uses is roasted first, to give it a sweet smell. The well-liked products are sold for $4 for each 2-pound bag.
“It’s very popular. There are people who only bake with our flour,” Lovell said. Even during the mill’s off-season – roughly mid-December to the end of March – people come to the mill property to purchase bags that have been kept in the freezer.
The grist mill itself dates to 1747, when it was built by Samuel Lightfoot. As time went by, later owners expanded on the mill’s operation. It passed down from Lightfoot family members to buyers and eventually ended up in the hands of Oliver E. Collins in 1919. His forerunners expanded the property’s function – such as the upgrading of the water wheel by Allen Simmers -- and added other buildings, including a store, railroad station and post office.
While milling in the 20th century was falling out of favor as a way to earn a living, Collins maintained the mill but broadened his business using the water wheel to power other efforts, such as running a sawmill, a cider press and a lawnmower shop. He even cut hair. Though Collins stopped milling wheat in the 1930s, he kept the machinery, which was a mix of works from the 1700s to the 1900s.
After Collins died in 1982, the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust purchased the mill. The mill was dormant for a few years, but the buildings in the most need were tended to.
An entry on the Mill at Anselma website states: “In 1998, the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust worked closely with West Pikeland Township and the Chester County Board of Commissioners to create a new organization, the Mill at Anselma Preservation and Educational Trust. On Oct. 11, 1999, stewardship of the mill was officially transferred to the Mill Trust, which was charged with completing the restoration and creating a new historical attraction for the enjoyment of Chester County residents. A lengthy and careful process of detailed restoration followed, based on the decision to preserve all three centuries of the mill’s history, rather than to try to restore it to a specific time period. Other buildings on the property received a similar level of care. In 2004, the historic millstones turned once again, and milled flour for the first time since 1934.”
Lovell said that looking at back through records and photos, she was impressed by the enormous effort behind the refurbishment from the time the trust was formed to the opening of the mill.
“The most fascinating thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here is just the amount of work it took,” she said. “The restoration of mill, the cleaning of the equipment, putting things back, sorting out everything that was in the mill, the landscaping … and obviously getting the water flowing the way it should be.”
Lovell said the part of the building which houses her office had once been the post office. Collins had removed that portion in the 1950s, and added an extension which had a kitchen, bedroom and bath. When it came time for the restoration, the restorers in turn took down the former living quarters and returned the post office to its original place.
“You look at it now and it’s gorgeous,” she said of the mill and grounds, “but that was after all the hard work of the many volunteers and staff.”
Lovell was enthusiastic in her praise of the very dynamic cadre of about 40 volunteers, many of whom she said have been with the mill since the trust formed. It’s largely due to them that the functions of the mill and its grounds are taken care of, she said.
“The volunteers are wonderful,” she said. “They give tours, they plan events … they do handiwork, and repairs. They do gardening. Whatever is needed around the mill.”
She noted that the board of directors is also very active. “And they all love the mill. They’re very, very passionate about the mill.”
The Mill at Anselma is at 1730 Conestoga Road in Chester Springs. It’s open Saturdays and Sundays from April through Memorial Day, and Labor Day through December. Memorial Day through Labor Day, it’s open Thursdays through Sundays. Tours may be booked any day of the week. In addition to milling demonstration days, activities coming up at Anselma Mill include Colonial Children’s Day on June 10 and Life in 1860s Day on July 8. They also offer an evening monthly lecture series at nearby Montgomery School. A Farmer’s Market meets on the grounds from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, May through November. More information is available at www.anselmamill.org and by calling 610-827-1906.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.