Water and Fire


Ride date:


This is the road past Scott’s Mill Park in Kalamazoo County, Michigan. I often ride within a half mile or so of the park on my way to points to the south or southwest in Indiana or elsewhere. This was a cold day in March 2003 2004 that would have required chemical toewarmers, if I had known about such things back then. My wife was home watching the MSU Spartans men’s basketball team on TV. Despite what I’ve said elsewhere about my intense dislike of TV, I like to watch these games with her. But not at the expense of a good bike ride.

There are mill sites all over my bicycle touring territory, which shouldn’t be surprising given how important water mills were to the economy at one time. Some unanswered questions about the mill at Bridgeton, Indiana led me to the internet and then to a book I’m now reading: “Stronger than a hundred men: a history of the vertical water wheel,” by Terry S. Reynolds (1983).

A lot of what I’ve been reading so far is about water wheels in late Medieval Europe up through the 1600s, though water wheels were used earlier than that, too. Some take-home points for me so far:

  • In Europe, it was small streams that were first used for mills. Then people learned how to harness the power of larger rivers. (It had seemed to me that in Michigan the settlers with first dibs quickly grabbed the potential mill sites on the larger rivers; then those who followed looked for the 2nd best sites for mills. But maybe I should re-examine that notion.)
  • What we think of as the Industrial Revolution was not a sharp break with the past. It was a continuation of changes that had been going on for several centuries, centered around the use of water wheels.
  • It must have been difficult to turn around without seeing a water wheel in late Medieval Europe and in the centuries thereafter. They must have been a lot more prominent part of the landscape (and soundscape) than we see in the movies.
  • Some of the earlier mills were operator-owned, but as bigger, more expensive mills came into use, there came more of a separation of capital and labor.
  • Some of the earliest mills were not even operated by the owner, but by whosever grain needed to be ground. I don’t know about any mills like that in early Michigan, but people did talk about stump mills that were used on a communal basis. Those were labor-intensive things, and abandoned as soon as water-wheel mills were built.
  • In settlement-era Michigan, people talked about grist mills and saw mills. But in Europe, water mills had been used for a lot more than that for some centuries — trip-hammer mills for making clothing, paper, breaking up ore, preparation of olive oil, sugar, dyes, and mortar; running grindstones; drawing wire; boring pipes; stamping coins; and on and on.
  • A grinding wheel needs to turn at about 100 rpm for grinding grain. That’s a lot faster than I would have guessed.
  • Water mills were also used for making iron. They powered bellows for the final steps of pounding the slag out of it; and later for heating iron hot enough to liquify it and cast it. Interesting to think of water being used to create fire — or at least to make it burn hot enough to make materials for the official Industrial Revolution.
This article is tagged and categorized as follows: