The Mill, the Emlens, and the Yearsleys

The Mill, the Emlens, and the Yearsleys

In 1902 the Chester Times commented on a historic mill in Middletown, now “crumbling to ruins,” that deserved repair. “From it came a great deal of the flour shipped to the American soldiers during the second war with England."30   This was Yearsley Mill, which Penn State Brandywine knows today only through the road name in our address. In 2013, however, we purchased twenty-one acres extending campus property the length of Yearsley Mill Road to its intersection with Old Forge Road.  And by so doing we acquired the aged barn for the mill itself, once located on the opposite side of Old Forge.  Two privately owned, surviving houses complete the complex, the miller’s home just north of the mill and a second house at the southeastern corner of the intersection.31   All of these places have stories to tell of the hundred years and more from James Emlen’s purchase of the property in 1784 to Humphrey Yearsley’s death in 1887.

America’s soldiers in the War of 1812, who often embarked from Chester, are quite likely to have eaten bread made from this mill’s flour, but there was also competition to supply them in the neighborhood and region.  An 1826 survey of Delaware County lists twelve grist mills—mills grinding wheat and corn—in the valleys of Chester Creek and its tributaries alone.  Other mills on the creek allowed owners to saw wood, make paper, cut metal, and spin cotton (the last creating a manufacturing boom in its southern part by this time).  The power of a creek could turn water wheels for many purposes, in either agriculture or industry.   But the grist mills of the Delaware Valley dated from colonial times and really led to the others.  Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries southeastern Pennsylvania was the “granary of America.” Its hot summers allowed for three crops a year, and its vast network of creeks produced not only lush fields, but the means of processing grain from them.32  Even after dairy farming took over as the leading form of agricultural production, grain remained crucial as feed for the animals.

Today we can both see the technology and feel the beauty of such places by visiting Newlin Mill, a working historic mill near Concordville, just four miles from campus. The Newlins’ operation, on the western branch of Chester Creek, was eventually twice the size of the Emlens’ and Yearsleys’ on Rocky Run, another branch of Chester Creek.  But the two mills were similar in structure; in fact a 2001 state archaeological study describes Yearsley Mill by comparing its remains with Newlin’s restored system. A two-and-a-half story structure housed the operation of the mill, which was built into a hill. A dam and secondary canal, known as a mill race, connected to a small lake on the opposite side of the road (the land Penn State now owns). The mill race supplied a steady flow of water, which was diverted from Rocky Run and regulated to turn the wheel more efficiently. The elevation of the hill against the mill provided additional power as the water fell from the peak of the hill onto a wooden wheel that powered the grinding process. Even Pratt’s Run, the small creek that crosses today’s campus, fed into the water system.  Shafts and gears connected the wheel to a turning stone placed on top of a stationary stone, each a circular disc four to six feet in diameter, onto which grain was fed for grinding from a hopper above the structure.  As the top stone turned against the stationary stone, grain was slowly converted into flour that seeped out from between the stones.33

This mill was first built and operated thirty years before the American Revolution, but an unlikely man became its owner in 1784. As the research of Kevin Pistiner reveals, James Emlen (1761-98) had grown up in Philadelphia, the son of a wealthy Quaker brewer with a townhouse on Chestnut Street.  But James felt a spiritual calling that led to his repudiating business and European travel in favor of retreat to the country.  At his kinswoman’s gristmill in New Garden (near Kennett Square), he learned the milling trade and served the community without asking for pay.  Soon he bought the mill in Middletown, living there the rest of his life.   The estate of £3975 that he left behind (more than $500,000 today) shows that he did not live meagerly, still keeping the fine furnishings that a Philadelphia businessman might be expected to have.34  And apparently he did not himself run the mill, as the 1798 will specified that his “good friend Nathan Yearsley [should] have the preference as a Miller to my Mill…either on the shares as he now has it or at a very moderate rent.”  Yearsley was Emlen’s tenant.  Instead the mill was a site for Emlen’s effort to realize the contemplative ideals of the Quaker religion:  in his biographer’s words, Emlen sought out “mental retirement” and “embraced the ancient simplicity of the true believer.35

In fact we can know in some depth about two generations of Emlen men, because later in the nineteenth century the Orthodox Quaker press made positive moral examples of them. As their biographies separately tell, James Sr. (1760-98) and his youngest son, James Jr. (1792-1866), both became elders of the meeting before their thirtieth birthdays.  Both resisted the temptations of affluence for relative simplicity, the younger foregoing the fashionable hairstyle and worldly speech of his youth and returning to the Quaker “Thou” in conversation.  Both lived by the mill in Middletown but did not run it; both lived a family life based on egalitarian marriage and devotion to children.  James Sr. married Phebe Pierce of Thornbury and “lived in endeared fellowship of spirit” as they produced six children, whom he gathered around him on First-Day (Sunday) afternoons for Bible reading and conversation.  James Jr. married Sarah Farquhar, a minister in the Society of Friends, and with her raised seven children amidst both parents’ travel and teaching.   The Friend, an Orthodox periodical, offered the son’s biography first, then some years later the father’s as “very similar in character.”36

This similarity is all the more interesting because the younger James hardly knew his father.  Both of his parents had died by the time the boy turned six.  Raised by his mother’s parents in Thornbury and educated at Westtown School, he seems to have consciously returned to the place in Middletown where his life began.  The circumstances behind this family history are dramatic.  Both James Sr. and Phebe had been appointed as representatives to the Friends’ Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, where a yellow fever epidemic was raging in 1793.  Despite their six children at home, despite knowing they courted death to go into the city, both attended.  Phebe became ill and quickly died, and, accepting this sad outcome with “perfect resignation to the divine will,” James took up the sole care of his children.  Five years later he again felt the duty to attend Yearly Meeting, and this time it was he who succumbed to yellow fever.  In recognition of the risk, he wrote his will before departure, appointing guardians over his sons and daughters and leaving all property for them to “share and share alike.”  It was also now that he gave Nathan Yearsley first right to rent the mill and bequeathed a hundred pounds to the founding of Westtown School.37

Though Emlen cherished his children, religious service was an even more imperative calling.  And it was significant service, not a mere gesture of self-sacrifice, by a leader held in the highest esteem.  In 1794, less than a year after Phebe’s death, he joined three other Philadelphia Friends appointed for a month-long trip to Canandaigua, New York (near today’s Rochester) to represent principles of peace in a treaty negotiation with the Iroquois Six Nations.  Emlen’s detailed diary of the month-long trip tells of arduous travel by horseback through a Pennsylvania and New York wilderness now filling with American settlers.  He balanced between sympathy for these isolated Americans and openness to Native American resentment against them.  “We hope you will…be redeemed from the Spirit of War and cherish peace,” he records from the Friends’ address to the Iroquois.  “We wish that when you apprehend yourselves aggriev’d you would make your grievances known and not seek to revenge them.”  Returning home, he joined the Yearly Meeting’s first standing committee on Indian affairs.38   When he travelled into fever-threatened Philadelphia a few years later, he was going on business to the nation’s capital and center of Quaker peace principles. 

Quaker Minister Sarah Emlen

Quaker Minister Sarah Emlen

Image: Penn State

A generation later, James Jr. and his wife Sarah served the Society of Friends as well.  They married in 1816 and soon after moved to Middletown, James buying out his siblings’ shares of the mill.  James and Sarah opted, however, to live in its second, smaller house on the corner of what are now Old Forge and Yearsley Mill Roads. At first intending to farm, James soon turned to his truer vocation and established a school for boys alongside the house.39  Sarah may have joined in this teaching, since she had come from a recent period teaching at Westtown; in fact the couple, both onetime students there, almost surely met through the school’s community.40

As a Quaker elder and officially designated minister respectively, James and Sarah led busy lives.  Starting to have children right away, Sarah also continued her traveling ministry, first telling how she missed her infant just a year after marriage. Both the expressions of love and the travels would continue.  In 1825 she undertook a five-month preaching trip to the meetinghouses of New York and New England, leaving a housekeeper to assist with the five children.  But she always counted on James to take responsibility for them as well, once giving meticulous instructions to him about how the older daughter should measure her sisters’ heads (“round a little above the ears”) for their new bonnets.  And were they all behaving and doing well in school?  Parental conversation also flowed when James was travelling on behalf of the meeting.  In 1828 he journeyed to the South and Midwest while Sarah remained at home; now her “fireside talk” by letter told of garden plantings, baby-talk by their “very clever” children, and local turmoil in the meetinghouse.41

“The way is opening very fast for us to meet in the Schoolhouse,” she wrote to James that August.  As the next chapter will say in more detail, Sarah played a direct role in leading the Orthodox in their crisis, offering the Emlen school by the mill as an alternative meetinghouse.   This arrangement sufficed until 1835, when a new meetinghouse was constructed (still in active use) on Middletown Road.  But then James seems to have taken the lead in moving the family back to their older common ground, Westtown School, for a new phase in his teaching career.  For another fourteen years James was cherished for the words of wisdom that, as a writing teacher, he inscribed in students’ “albums,” while Sarah undertook new and ambitious preaching journeys.42

Meanwhile the Yearsleys, with or without the Emlens as neighbors, ran the mill on Rocky Run.   We can chart their lives only through public documents, not the manuscript archives and retrospective biographies allowing the Emlens to be known more fully. The outlines of their story, however, are still clear.  Nathan Yearsley (1762-1825) was the active miller when James Emlen Sr. died in 1798, and he gradually rose from tenant to proprietor.  By 1802 he owned at least the gristmill and thirty acres, since he was taxed on this property by the county from then on, and finally in 1823 he bought the main house and its hundred acres from the Emlens.43   He seems to have been a man on the rise, and it would have been he who sold flour to the army in the War of 1812.  

Emlen property circa 1865, Yearsley Mill and Old Forge Rd.

Nathan also married in 1812, to Tacy Hill (1765-1839), and though this was a late marriage for both, they had one child, Humphrey (1815-87).  Quaker meeting records show the family as members worthy of responsible offices, Tacy among those representing Middletown at Monthly Meeting in 1814, Nathan appointed to help the local community raise money in 1825.44   But later that year he died, and Tacy was left with a ten-year-old to raise.  We can only speculate about her conversations with neighbor Hannah Pratt, who was going through the same trial of widowhood with her slightly younger son Thomas.   Father Nathan had died without a will; however, a guardian was appointed for Humphrey and a miller hired to run the mill until the boy reached maturity.  The family seems to have remained prosperous:  the court’s inventory of Nathan’s estate showed him with household goods intact and $3060 of fees ready for collection.45   The spare language of tax assessment reveals what Humphrey subsequently owned at twenty-one in 1836:  one house, one barn, one springhouse, one grist mill, two horses, two cows, four steers, and two oxen.  The next assessment after that added two dogs and (a clear sign of status) a gold watch. In the Quaker Separation, both Tacy and her son had remained with the Orthodox community; and when she died in 1839, the news article announcing her death declared her a “member of the Society of Friends,” resident in her son’s home.46

After Humphrey married Catherine Water (1819-?) in 1837, three daughters joined them, and the Yearsley family seems to have sustained its middling status in the community. County newspapers listed Humphrey among supporters of a temperance hall for the village of Lima, Catherine on the committee planning a Ladies’ Fair at the Delaware County Institute of Science; these were causes held in common with their neighbors the Pratts and the Painters.  And when the carriage horse bearing Catherine and her daughters took fright and ran wild, threatening an accident that was averted only by a gallant gentleman’s rescue, the perilous story was deemed worthy of news coverage.47

Nonetheless, this generation of Yearsleys did not thrive amidst the increasing scale and commercialization of agriculture around them, which must have rendered their small mill operation less than competitive.  As early as 1842, Humphrey was manipulating his economic status by temporarily setting up the property as a trust for his wife; this move does not suggest financial authority for the woman, but a shelter from debt for the man.48    The federal census shifted from listing him as “miller” in 1850 to “farmer” in all subsequent decades, with the mill perhaps only a subordinate part of his work.  In 1870 rainstorms, amidst damage to the whole valley of Rocky Run and Chester Creek, swept away the Yearsleys’ mill dam and bridge, and Humphrey may never have recovered from such losses.  Six years later he acquired a $20,000 mortgage on the property through his wife and daughter.49  He died in 1887, like his father leaving no will, but unlike him owing debts at a level requiring sale of all his real estate.  Catherine could claim only a $300 widow’s exemption, and the court document listing her choices of what to retain makes even the language of estates poignant.  As well as household furniture and a corn sheller, Catherine chose “Horse Dave,” “Cow Clover,” and “Heifer Blossom.”50  Her farm animals were individuals with names.  We can hope that she and they continued their lives in the household of a daughter. 

The mill property’s history after Humphrey Yearsley’s death offers strong evidence of the region’s commercial development, the force with which he could not compete.  After several shifts in ownership, George Wood bought the property in 1901, part of the 1000 acres he acquired in Middletown as tenant dairy farms supporting the corporation that by 1922 became Wawa, the region’s largest supplier of milk products.  Clearly he had no interest, as the Chester Times reporter of 1902 thought he should, in repairing a mill not part of such productivity.  Wawa kept the property until 1945, then sold off these land holdings to private owners.51    The old barn that Penn State has acquired reflects all parts of this history.  The construction of its core shows eighteenth-century origins, around which is nineteenth-century space for dairy production, the remnants of either Humphrey’s diversion to farming or the tenant farms that supported Wawa.