More Than a Mill

More Than a Mill …From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

It was the center of productivity, an essential part of the growth along the East Coast beginning more than two centuries ago. Today, the history and impact of Kirby's Mill is preserved by a group of dedicated workers of the Medford Historical Society.

In these times of highly sophisticated machinery, it might be difficult to imagine the importance of both a sawmill and gristmill, but especially in the late 1700s and 1800s, Kirby's Mill was a major player in the industrial growth in South Jersey and beyond.

In 1773, the General Assembly permitted the building of a dam to power a gristmill and sawmill, a project that was completed and in operation by 1778. In addition, a blacksmith shop and small barn, which remain today, were built in the 1830s. What began as a single story building grew to a four-floor structure over the next century. William Kirby brought the mill complex in 1877, thus the name of Kirby's Mill.

When Kirby made the purchase, the complex was nearing the height of its productivity. The sawmill sawed logs for local lumberyards, along with those from Philadelphia and Baltimore. The gristmill produced a variety of flours, along with chicken feed and cornmeal.

The flour that was produced at Kirby's Mill was so renowned that it was in high demand by bakeries along the East Coast.

Eventually, as technology improved and modern machinery replaced the millstones, Kirby's Mill ceased producing flour in the 1920s. Then the sawmill shut down because of a lack of local timber; the blacksmith and wheelwright shop closed down due to the advent of the automobile around the 1920s.

The gristmill outlasted them all, remaining in operation under water power until 1961 when, because of low water and mechanical problems, it was converted to electricity. Kirby's Mill became the last operating commercial mill in New Jersey.

Less than a decade later, the Medford Historical Society stepped in and purchased the complex for $12,000 from the Kirby Brothers in 1969. The founders of the Medford Historical Society, a non-profit organization formed in 1965, felt that acquiring Kirby's Mill, along with the blacksmith shop and barn, was an essential part of preserving the rich history of the Burlington County town. To this day, restoring and preserving Kirby's Mill is the Historical Society's main function.

"There is a lot of self satisfaction," said Historical Society Trustee Larry Spellman, whose wife Dottie is the organization's membership chairman. "We take a lot of pride in the preservation and the saving of an historical area."

Many of the volunteers work three and four days a week to maintain the facility. During July and August, there are free tours of the complex on Sunday from 1-4 pm.

And there is plenty to see. Inside the complex, any visitor can gain a true sense of the era in which Kirby's Mill prospered. One of the biggest attractions is the outdoor waterwheel, which was restored in 1994. Inside, there is a big wheel lathe, which dates back to the mid-1800s. A lathe takes square boards and makes them round, used primarily for making table legs or any round piece of wood or log. The lathe is in working condition and is used during demonstrations.

There is a printing press, which dates back to the 1800s and, unbelievably, is still in working condition, having recently printed up some brochures.

On the second floor is a museum that houses an early American kitchen and a replica general store. For centuries, the general store was the main meeting point of the town, where residents would discuss pertinent issues of the day and buy hardware, food and other needs. Plenty of gossip was also exchanged, which explains why somebody could go shopping and stay there for nearly the entire day.

Other older pieces of equipment on display include a weaving loom, which is a machine for making cloth. These looms were used primarily for making rugs and blankets. Among the other interesting pieces of equipment include a phonograph from the 1920s, and a collection of miscellaneous antiques and artifacts from the early 1900s. Also on display is an extensive collection of tools and wood planes that also go back more than a century. There is a dress maker shop, with mannequins of dresses that are more than a century old.

The blacksmith shop across the street not only brings people back to the time when horseshoes were commonly produced, but also essential equipment such as shovels, plows and hinges.

The mill was declared a State Historical Site in July of 1971, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites in September of 1972. Of course, to maintain the Historical Society's two-acre complex takes an awful lot of manpower and dedication. There are approximately 200 members of the Medford Historical Society, although only about 25 are active.

Since it is a non-profit group, the Historical Society relies on donations and annual fundraisers. The biggest is the Apple Festival, which takes place on the second Saturday of October and draws a huge crowd. Anything made from apples--from apple cider to apple doughnuts--can be purchased, in addition to craft-show type items.

During this past summer, the spirit of the Medford Historical Society was evident when the buildings were hit hard by the floods that devastated parts of Burlington County. The first floor was engulfed in 14 inches of water. The blacksmith shop across the street had three-and-a-half feet of water.

"It didn't ruin anything, but it left an incredible amount of mud," said Medford Historical Society President Tom Rende, who lives across from the mill and had three feet of water in his basement from the flooding.

A number of people helped with the cleanup, but Rende said that Historical Society members Larry Spellman, Don Davis, George Ney and John Hines were there virtually every day, spearheading the clean-up effort.

"By the time we got done cleaning up the mill, it ended up being better off," Rende said. "But it took a lot of work and I can't say enough about the dedication of the workers who volunteered so much of their time."

And no doubt the time was well spent. It always is when the restoration of history is taking place.

Published in South Jersey Magazine, February 2005.
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Author: Marc Narducci; photo by Jan Noce

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