MITCHELL – A lot of facts are well-known about the Grist Mill found in the heart of the pioneer village at Spring Mill State Park.
It was built by Thomas and Cuthbert Bullitt, starting in May of 1817 and completed only six months later. They bought the park from Sam Jackson, who acquired the land for his service in the War of 1812, and the Bullitts sold the village to the Motgomery brothers for $20,000 in 1823. But after their deaths, a son sold it to Hugh and Thomas Hamer in 1825 for $7,000, to be paid over time.
Farmers from all over brought their corn to the mill to be ground up, and the Hamers kept a portion of the corn as a payment and mashed it and distilled it into Old Hamer Whiskey, which was sold in river ports as far south as New Orleans.
“It was a fine whiskey,” said Pam Shull, who gave a tour of the Pioneer Village Saturday morning. She works as the village’s potter, and previously, she’s been the gardener at the park. “Us common folk would have a different whiskey on our tables, but Old Hamer was on every fine table.”
But other facts about the mill and the pioneer village are not as well-known.
As part of the beginning of the celebrations for the mill’s 200th anniversary, Shull gave a tour of the pioneer village. She talked about what life was like in the 1830s-’60s, back when the village thrived while the Hamer brothers, each of whom had eight children, not only owned the mill, but also lived in the village. And the only way other people moved into the village was through marrying a Hamer, Shull said.
“This was an industrial village. It wasn’t a place where people lived,” she explained.
The town would have been loud, dirty and probably smelly. Besides the mill and the distillery, the leatherworker and the hatter both used a lot of chemicals, and there was a dye house where dyes were made from roots, bark and bugs. The blacksmith’s fire often would produce an unpleasant aroma. Plus, there were wagons coming in and out every week, along with boats heading out for market frequently.
And besides the people working there, you have to imagine all the animals that knew the village as home.
“What kind of animals do you think lived here?” Shull asked the four people who showed up for the tour in the rain.
Of course there were chickens, because the pioneers probably enjoyed fresh eggs.
“What about the oxen to pull the wagons in and out? There were horses, too. What about the pigs? How many pigs do you think were here? More than 350 pigs,” Shull said.
And the pigs lived everywhere within the perimeter of the village. They ran wherever they pleased and slept wherever they wanted. And the marks are still left to the day.
“Look at the mill. Do you see the sharp corners on the mill at the top? Follow that down to the bottom,” Shull said, pointing at where two sides of the mill meet. “See where at about knee-length, it smooths out and the corner isn’t sharp? That’s where the pigs liked to rub there on the stone.”
It also probably isn’t well-known what kind of person Hugh Hamer was in his lifetime, but Shull told stories of his kindness.
The mercantile building in the village, which is one of six original buildings from the village, is where people went to buy items they needed.
“If you needed something, Hugh would ask you what you have, and that would be the price of what you needed,” Shull said. “He was a kind man. He wanted you to have what you needed.”
Hugh Hamer was also known to be smart. He would make it known in other towns when a Hamer wagon was there by painting the wheels of the wagons and doing other things to start branding it. And because of how successful the village was under the Hamer ownership, the Hamers grew wealthy.
Shull said there were several things they did just because they could. The garden in the village is where dances and parties would be held, Shull explained. And during those dances and parties, the pioneers also had peacocks.
“When I’m asked why they had peacocks, all I can see is because they could. It was a sign of wealth,” Shull said.
But as time passed, the village started to decline in its prosperity. Shull said there were several reasons: railroads were built, and the first train bypassed the village because it was too far out of the way, but commerce started booming at crossroads; the Civil War from 1861-65; the invention of the steam engine.
In 1892, the last owner of the mill, Jonathan Turley, sold the village to Lehigh Portland Cement Co. for water rights to make cement. In 1927, Lehigh Cement Co. offered to sell the pioneer village and land to the state for $1, as long as the business could still own the water rights, which the company still maintains today. Restoration of the village began immediately — with a lot of research and educated guesses.
Many of the buildings in the village now were moved there, such as the Sheeks House and the Granny White House, but several original buildings were restored, including the mill, by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
“I’d love to see the village as it was in its prime for a day or two,” Shull said.