The Economy of Germantown: Early Mills

by Susan Bockius

pdf_logo_sm Download PDF

Our snapshot of the Germantown economy is taken in the period 1687 to 1800, when the primary means of power was flowing water. The many small streams of the Wissahickon watershed were ideal for the purpose and were carefully chosen for their flow. For example, one historian reports that William Rittenhouse was driven to lands just over the line in Roxborough Township because there was not sufficient flow in Germantown streams for his paper mill (Hotchkiss, Ancient and Modern). These mills would have been the first resources for processing agricultural products. William Penn well understood their importance and made provision for their establishment.

The Germantown portion of the Scull & Heap map of 1753 serves as our orientation. Philadelphia’s first cartographer, Nicolas Scull, joined forces with official surveyor for the Penn family, George Heap, to create this view.


The Germantown area of Scull & Heap’s 1753 map.



Grist is grain removed from its chaff and ready for grinding into flour. William Penn envisioned a mill for the grinding of flour in Germantown from the outset.   English millwright Richard Townsend,recruited and partially funded by Penn, accompanied him on his 1682 voyage and brought components. He erected a grist mill in 1683 on the east fork of the Wingohocking Creek (now piped underground) at the north side of what would become Church Lane, less than a mile from Market Square. (On the Scull & Heap map, the complex is labeled “Lucans”.) While only a mile from town, that was still a long haul with a sack of grain on one’s back.

Roberts’ (aka Townsend and Lukens) Mill, side view.

Roberts’ (aka Townsend and Lukens) Mill, side view.

Townsend died in 1714 and ownership passed through several hands. In the Revolutionary War period, the mill was owned by the Lukens family (Lucans according to Scull & Heap). In the nineteenth century it was known as Roberts’ Mill for owner Hugh Roberts. The mill was demolished in 1883.

We also read of an “oil mill” in operation in 1706 in the Church Lane mill complex on the land of Walter Simens. The oil mill is noted on the Scull & Heap map on the west fork of the Wingohocking.   An oil mill was a common complement to a grist mill. This oil mill was likely pressing oil from flax seed.

Edge Mill

Edge Mill

Oil mills are “edge” mills; that is, a grinding stone is mounted vertically over a base and rotated to press or crush seed. The milling extracts vegetable oils—in Germantown probably the oil from flax seed, also known as linseed oil. This would have been used as a drying oil (an assist in the drying of pigments), in paints, as a preservative or conditioner on wood or leather, as a waterproofing agent on tents and clothes, and in soaps and inks. While fiber was the initial commercial focus of flax plants, invention of the cotton gin in 1793 drove linen from its prominence and flax became more useful for its oil found. The cake of seed hulls also made nutritious animal food.

Flower of the flax plant, with bee.

Flower of the flax plant, with bee.

The Robeson Mill appears on the Scull & Heap map where it marks the end of a road we now know as Queen Lane (first called “Cross Street to the Schuylkill,” Keyser tells us).   When Wissahickon Mills, as the complex was also known, were built isn’t clear, but it passed upon the death of owner Andrew Robeson to his son (also Andrew) in 1719 or 1720. If Townsend’s mill was one mile from central Germantown, and cartographer Scull is to be believed, the Robeson mill was nearly half again as far.

A “bolting house” accompanied the Robeson grist mill. Bolting was the term for the sifting of ground flour. Millstones did not grind all grains to the same size and texture. Sifting was necessary to separate the milled flour into grades.   Until the late 1700’s the sieve for sifting was covered in linen with different weaves for different grades: first sifting would separate the finest flour, second a coarser, and so on.

Interestingly, the qualities of millstones affect the nature of the flour. The soft stones of England and Germany left more bran in the flour and created a “brown” bread. The quartz millstones of the French tended to break the bran into broad flakes that were more easily removed in the bolting—creating a “white” bread.

America imported a good number of France’s quartz millstones. And we were rewarded by being selected as providers of flour during the French Revolution, the French wanting no part of “brown” bread. There is some conjecture that the French preference for “white” bread was to avoid rye flour tainted with ergot fungus and the widespread, seeming-madness and death it induced. The relationship of ergot fungus to the disease was not firmly established till well after the French Revolution. So perhaps the French purchase of American “white” flour was just a palate preference combined with sympathy for a new nation.

Thomas Livezey built a grist mill on the Cresheim Creek in 1745 on Allens Lane [initially Shoemaker Lane). The residence still can be seen, a part of Fairmount Park; the mill has been destroyed.

Livezey also cultivated a vineyard to keep his employees occupied in an economic slowdown. He sent a dozen bottles of the resulting wine to Benjamin Franklin, who commented in a letter to Robert Wharton:

. . . when the British were in Philadelphia, and our troops used to wander about seeking provender, he [Livezey] sunk a number of barrels of wine in his dam in the Wissahickon, where it remained until the close of the war. Some of that wine was bottled and preserved by the late Mr. John Livezey, a grandson of the said Thomas Livezey, until a short time before he died, in 1778. He gave me a small bottle of this Revolutionary Wine, which I shall deposit in our Society. (Lapp, “Livesey”)

Garrett Rittenhouse (1674-1742), son of original papermaker William (see below), was said to have a grist mill on Cresheim Creek. The one-story wing of Cresheim Cottage on Germantown Avenue at Gowen Avenue is thought to have been his home.



The Rittenhouse Paper Mill was erected in 1690 by William Rittenhouse, papermaker; Samuel Carpenter, landowner; William Bradford, printer recruited by Penn; Thomas Tresse, agent of William Penn; and investor Robert Turner. One author speculates that Rittenhouse was recruited in Amsterdam by Pastorius (Hotchkiss). We also know that when disaster struck Rittenhouse’s first mill, Penn was the first to put money in the pot to build the next mill.   That is, paper production was early and consistently a high priority for the founders.

William Rittenhouse.

William Rittenhouse.

Paper was made from discarded linen cloth, soaked, beaten, and re-cast as a scrivener’s tablet.   Philadelphia had paper production at a time when England had no domestic paper manufacture.   Paper was easily shipped and stored. Relying on a Continental supply would not have been a problem for England. However, with the rigid trade restrictions imposed by British mercantilist policies, paper import could easily have become a logistical issue for a distant colony—especially a colony in dissent. The Quakers had had experience of the oppression of a disapproving government. Complementary to the presence of a printer, the founders were assuring an environment of intellectual liberty. There would be printing of new books with new ideas, done by printer William Bradford on paper by William Rittenhouse.

In about 1700, the 1690-built wooden undershot mill (that is, water flowed under the wheel) was destroyed in a flash flood. A new mill was constructed, this time an overshot mill, of stone, and in a new location.   The first Rittenhouse residence, built of wood, had also been destroyed in the flood. In 1707 a new stone residence was ready for occupancy. This building may be seen today in something close to its original appearance at Historic Rittenhouse Town, Wissahickon Avenue and Lincoln Drive. Unfortunately the 1700 mill was torn down when the property was acquired by Fairmount Park in 1891, consistent with the Park’s efforts to protect the watershed from industrial contamination.

A second paper mill was erected in 1710 in the Crefeld portion of the Penn grant by William Dewees, a relative-by-marriage of William Rittenhouse. Dewees’ sister Wilhelmina was married to Claus (or Nicholas) Rittenhouse, William’s son and partner in the Rittenhouse mill. Dewees had emigrated to Germantown with papermaking skills and perhaps attracted by the family connection. Claus was an investor in the land purchased for Dewees’ mill, which was located on the Wissahickon where it wanders across the lowlands of Chestnut Hill College near Northwestern Avenue.

Over a period of many years, mills continued to multiply on Rittenhouse land: Two paper mills are recorded on Lehman’s 1764 survey; Abraham and Jacob in 1773 built a “grist and merchant mill. . . about a half-mile below where the paper mill stood.” (Rittenhouse History). The original mill passed into the Markle family and continued in use for paper into the early 1800’s. By 1850 the mills were converted to textile weaving.


It is surprising to learn that milling wood was resisted in England when a mill was built by the Dutch near London in the early 18th century. Laborers feared they would loose their value in the face of such mechanical efficiency, and the populace destroyed mills in England as late as 1767. It wasn’t until 1783 that a society for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce could report that “saw mills were then firmly established in England” (Leander, American Manufactures). Pennsylvania would prove more progressive than the motherland.

William Penn advertised that a saw mill was present in his colony on his 1682 trip. Keyser tells us that Robeson built a saw mill in 1700 at the mouth of the Wissahickon and that Johannes Gumre ran one on Kitchen’s Lane. Scull & Heap label a saw mill on the creek running into the Schuylkill at the falls. This and the lower “sickle” mill may have been owned by Charles V. Hagner’s father who owned two mills in this area around the time of the Revolution.

The “sickle mill” of prior mention is a term in common parlance in the 18th century; however, it is not well-defined. It could reference a place where sickles were honed. It could refer to a grist mill with a curved pattern carved in millstones to direct ground meal to the outer edge. The nature of the Sickle Mill on Falls Creek could not be discovered.


Not shown on the Scull & Heap map is a fulling mill, though this type is frequently mentioned as part of the mill population of Germantown. In the 18th century, “fulling” was a necessary step in the production of flax, cotton and woolen cloth. Only Matthew Houlgate is cited specifically as having “a fulling mill in operation on the Wissahickon near Germantown before 1720.” (Keyser, HOG) Fulling subjects homespun cloth to pounding, washing, and blocking or pressing. This cleans, interlocks and strengthens the woven fibers. The advent of mechanical looms in the 1780’s obviated the fulling process.


There were a number of mills in and around Germantown for the grinding of gunpowder from saltpeter crystals, sulfur and charcoal. Often these were edge mills, as illustrated for oil mills. Charles Hagner, the owner of saw- and sickle-mills mentioned above, noted that his property contained the remains of an ancient powder mill, giving evidence of gunpowder production in the early 18th century. However, a common problem with powder mills was that they frequently exploded. As they didn’t endure long, their record is sometimes difficult to trace

At the start of the Revolution, incentives were established for gunpowder production:


With Old World supplies practically cut off, the Colonies found themselves thrown upon their own resources, with the urge of necessity as a spur to their development. Powder, above all things, was wanted quickly, and in quantity; and to hasten its manufacture, the Committee of Safety for Pennsylvania offered to lend money, on security, to “such persons as are willing to erect Powder Mills in this Province within fifty Miles distance of this City.” All powder made in such mills was to be bought by the Committee, which was, moreover, to find all saltpetre.

(Barker, “Mills”)


Wakefield or Fisher’s Mill and Old Revolutionary Powder Mill (on right, with shot tower)

Sachse’s Quaint Old Germantown captions the above picture, “Wakefield or Fisher’s Mill. Built about 1755 by William Logan Fisher. The Old Revolutionary Powder Mill is also shown.” Fisher was related to the Logans of Stenton Manor, and was given land on the north edge of the Logan estate. This powder mill, nominally associated with the Revolution, may have been the result of colonial inducements.


This series on the economy of ­Germantown will continue with a review of crafts practiced in the town.




Barker, Charles. “The Mills of Mill Creek, Lower Merion,” Penna Magazine of History and Biography Vol. L, no 1, (1926).


Bishop, J. Leander, M.D. American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860. Edward Young & Co. Philadelphia, 1861.


Cassel, Daniel K. Genea-Biographical History of the Rittenhouse Family and All Its Branches in America. The Rittenhouse Memorial Association, 1893.


Eastman, Whitney. The History of the Linseed Oil Industry in the United States. T. S. Dennison & Co, Minneapolis, 1968.


Hazen, Theodore R. “Flour Bolting (sifting) and Bolting Cloth.”


Hocker, Edward W.   Germantown, 1683-1933. Self-published, Germantown, Pennsylvania. 1933.


Hotchkiss, Sr., The Rev. S. F. Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. P. W. Ziegler & Co., Philadelphia. 1869.


Iwanicki, Edward. The Village of Falls of Schuylkill. Colonial Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2006.


Keyser, Naaman H.; C. Henry Kain; John Palmer Garber; Horace F. McCann. History of Old Germantown. Horace F. McCann, Germantown, Philadelphia, 1907.


Keyser, Naaman H., “Old Historic Germantown.” An Address with Illustrations presented at the Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania-German Society, Lancaster. 1906.


Lapp, Herb. “Thomas Livezey, Merchant Miller” Parts 1-5. The Chronicle of Early American Industries Association. Vol 63:1. March 2010.


Lippincott, Horace Mather. A Narrative of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia with some account of Springfield, Whitemarsh and Cheltenham Townships in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Old York Road Publishing Company, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, 1948.




Philadelphia, 1753. Scull & Heap.


Roberts Mill:

[Church Lane, Germantown.] 
P.9057.168 (Brenner) 
7 5/8″ x 5 3/4″ 
Notes: Oldest mill in Pennsylvania. Built in 1683. Robert Newell, Library Company


Flower of the flax plant.


Edge Mill:


William Rittenhouse,


Sachse, Julius Frederick. Quaint old Germantown in Pennsylvania. Drawings by John Richards. Courtesy of the Germantown Historical Society.