Saint Vincent Gristmill


In the early 1850s Father Boniface Wimmer began planning for the construction of a gristmill at Saint Vincent. He commissioned a local millwright, George Washington Bollinger, to design the gristmill, for which he received the salary of $400. Two sets of buhrstones were purchased from a flint quarry in France.

These buhrstones were shipped to Saint Vincent in anticipation of the gristmill being built so that they could be put to use. Boniface Wimmer sent one of the lay brothers, Brother Peter Seemueller, to a local miller “in order to learn first hand the grinding mechanism.” as Wimmer stated in a letter dated July 29, 1853.

Planning For The Gristmill And Sawmill

The actual construction of the Saint Vincent Gristmill is a fascinating story. With George Washington Bollinger’s design and under his supervision, the construction of the gristmill was done completely by the lay brothers. Copies of the design were at two sites: the sawmill on Chestnut Ridge and the designated Saint Vincent site for the gristmill. The beams and planks for the structure were cut at the sawmill, and so coded that the end of the beams had Roman numerals carved into them for identification so that the lay brothers assembling the gristmill at Saint Vincent would know where each beam belonged in the structure. It was a long, tedious endeavor to haul the wood from the Ridge to Saint Vincent. But the construction of the gristmill was complete in December 1854 at a cost of approximately $3,000. It was, however, in operation before that date; the first flour was ground in October 1854. It was a horrible coincidence that, in the same year, the crops at Saint Vincent failed, and the gristmill could not be put to full use.

The construction of the gristmill was unique for Saint Vincent in that it was built almost entirely of wood; other Saint Vincent buildings had been constructed—and would continue to be constructed—almost entirely of brick. The foundation of the gristmill was built from sandstone quarried by the lay brothers. Bricks were used for the chimney and the basement walls; these bricks had been made at Saint Vincent monks’ own brick ovens. The original gristmill building was 35 feet wide, 45 feet long, with a gabled roof having three stories and a basement. On each of the four floors there were two major support-beams in the center of the building. Each of these beams was 10 inches by 10 inches by 45 feet long, a solid piece of wood from a single virgin tree sawed on the Ridge. All of the beams, supports, floors, platforms, drive wheels, and stone covers were constructed from oak. The clapboard siding on the building was American chestnut. It is worthy of note that around the turn of the century a killing blight struck the chestnut trees, so much so that they no longer thrive on the Ridge and the wood is in scare supply. Rolled glass from 1854 and later filled many of the numerous windows of the building.

Part of the design of the millwright, Bollinger, was for a one-story sawmill connected to the west side of the gristmill. This addition was complete in early 1855, and was attached to the gristmill by means of a slanting roof. The frontage of the building was now increased from 45 to 85 feet; the depth, from 35 to 50 feet. And, within the next few years and before 1864, Brother Wolfgang Beck, an architect, would design the complement of the sawmill which would raise it to the height of the gristmill. The second floor would contain a planing mill; and the third floor would be used for grain storage. This sawmill housed a vertical saw of the “up-and-down” type, which was very slow in cutting wood, and yet this sawmill turned out many thousands of feet of lumber in the course of thirty years. Of interest is the fact that there are in the sawmill area two impressively hewn oak support beams with dimensions of 13 inches by 19 inches by 15 feet; on one of these the vertical saw was mounted. And the monks kept up with the times; by the early 1860s they had installed a more efficient circular saw alongside the vertical saw. But the days of this sawmill were numbered; after 1885, there was little demand for it, since much of the timber had been cut down, and what remained was taken care of by portable sawmills. In fact by 1918 the sawmill had been dismantled and the space that had been used by the saws and the planner was converted into a badly needed area to store grain.

In 1883 the gristmill was again expanded, this time to the east. With this 35 by 40 foot addition the building reached its present total frontage of 125 feet, and took on its present appearance. This new section had been built for additional grain storage and to provide a covered passageway for the loading and unloading of grain and flour.

The best description of the architecture of the Saint Vincent Archabbey Gristmill was made in 1966 in the nominations form for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The intent was that the gristmill remains more faithful to the Bavarian architectural styles of the homeland of these monks rather than to the mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival styles of most buildings of that day. The complete description reads as follows: “Architecturally, the style of the gristmill certainly was influenced by the fact that the monks who built it were Bavarians and would have used the styles that were familiar to them. The ability of the building to endure time alone is a tribute to the industry of that generation. The trend in this section of Pennsylvania at this period of time (1850s) was the Greek Revival style but these secular styles had little influence on the master craftsmen who built the gristmill. The greater tradition of 1,500 years of monastic architecture shaped the lines by which these men built. The simplicity of line and honesty of material are the chief elements by which these monks planned and constructed their buildings.”

The power source for both the gristmill and the sawmill was steam generated by a coal furnace. A waterwheel was not used because the technology of the day dictated that the most efficient source of power would be steam generated by coal. Also dictating the choice was the fact that coal mined on Saint Vincent property fired the engine. For the gristmill the steam engine operated a drive-shaft system on each floor. Each machine was connected to the steam shaft which was employed by engaging a hand-clutch. The gristmill is built over a never-failing spring of water that was used to supply the boilers. Two cylindrical boilers generated the steam to power the mills; they were, however, replaced by others of a more modern type in 1895. The first engine was a slow, long-stroke type, replaced in 1877 by a more efficient Fischer engine. This single source of power for both mills brought on an interesting relationship; since both could not operate at the same time, the sawmill would operate during the twelve hours of the day with the gristmill in operation during the twelve hours of the night. The reasoning was that the sawyer needed more light to see while he was operating the machinery than did the miller.

Equipment for Grinding of Grains

The building of the gristmill involved the installation of all of the equipment needed for the grinding of grains. First and foremost were the two sets of buhrstones that were put in place soon after the gristmill was built in 1854. Each set of buhrstones is comprised of two stones, bound by iron bands to support it and keep it from cracking or crumbling. Each stone weighs one ton.

The bottom buhrstone is mounted in a platform and is motionless. An axle, which propels a drive bar, protrudes through the middle of this bottom stone. Before conversion to electricity the steam engine in the basement provided the power. The top stone rests above the bottom stone and spins when in operation; the drive bar propels this stone. These buhrstones grind at their best quality when they are 1/100 of an inch apart. To achieve such precision, the cutting edge of the stones must be level and stones must be balanced. Covers encase the stones so that, when the flour is ground, it is caught and guided into a chute. Of interest in the grinding process is a unique alarm system that is still in use and that warns the miller when not enough grain is reaching the buhrstones. The sound of this alarm bell strikes fear in the miller because sparks from the flint of the stones could touch off an explosion, if allowed to grind away at each other.

In grinding with buhrstones, the wheat flows into the eye (i.e., center) of the top stone, which leads to the grinding surface between the two stones. The wheat is then guided through furrows to the outside of the stones. The circular motion of the top stone pulls the wheat out of the furrows on to the raised potion of the grinding surface, where it actually cut and not crushed. The buhrstones are flint, a very hard rock that will wear very little. Nevertheless, the stones need to be sharpened occasionally; this sharpening consists of cutting the furrows. The furrows in the Saint Vincent buhrstones are cut with a style which resembles swirls emanating from the center of the stone. The process of sharpening involves chipping away with a special pick to cut the furrows. So arduous is the task, it takes about nine eight-hour work days to sharpen one stone.

Once these two sets of buhrstones had been placed in operation in 1854, Wimmer soon judged that they would not be able to handle the demands of the institution. And so he ordered an additional set from the same French quarry. At the same time Wimmer purchased a machine to grind and crush corn. It was also in 1854 that the eighteen-foot sifting bolt was built and installed on the gristmill’s third floor, where it has been in continuous operation down to the present. This machine takes the whole wheat flour as ground by the stones, and sifts it into its component parts of unbleached flour, middlings, and bran. An ingeniously crafted bucket-and-belt elevator takes the flour from the stone, as it falls into the basement, up to the third floor and into this sifting bolt. The sifting mechanism of this bolt is a six-sided revolving cylindrical wooden frame covered by silk of different weave densities. The whole wheat flour flows through the inside of this tube. As it spins, the unbleached flour, which is the finest part of the whole wheat flour, is sifted through the 10XX and 12XX silk. The middlings would be sifted through the 0XX and 2XX silk. The bran is not even sifted; it is expelled through the end of the tube. The trough of the bolt, where the flour falls, cradles an auger which directs the flour and middlings to their particular chutes that lead to the first floor. As an aside, it is interesting to note that gristmills are traditionally built in such a manner that most operating and collecting can be done on the same floor—usually the first or ground floor.

Efficient as the sifting bolt was, some of the unbleached flour was not ground powdery enough to be sifted through the fine silk screen and was intermingled with the middlings. Thus, in 1885, Saint Vincent purchased a George T. Smith Middlings Purifier for $225 to improve the yield of the unbleached flour. This Purifier, built in Chautauqua County, New York, is made almost entirely from ash wood, a very hard wood used to endure many years of wear—and is in use even now. The machine resifts the middlings using a similar silk screen and brushed to assist the sifting process. This process separates the coarse unbleached flour from the true middlings and then send the flour to a smaller set of buhrstones to be reground into a finer powder-like flour. This smaller set of fourteen inch buhrstones had been purchased in 1883 for $140. Through this process the increase in the yield of unbleached flour is approximately twenty percent. Now, when sifted, the ground whole wheat flour yielded the following quantity of products by weight: sixty percent unbleached flour, twenty percent middlings, and twenty percent bran. This increase in the yield of unbleached flour is very significant, since it was in the greatest demand, especially for the baking of bread The middlings and the bran were used occasionally for cereal, but were chiefly used to feed animals.

In July 1908, two Howe grain cleaners were purchased for the use of the gristmill and the Saint Vincent farm. The first was a wheat cleaner that was used exclusively by the gristmill to separate chaff and other impurities from the wheat before it was ground into flour. It also beat the wheat in a scourer in order to remove must. Must is a type of mold or mildew that is caused by improper drying of the wheat. After this cleaning process the wheat is passed through a box containing a series of magnets in order to catch any minute metal particles which might have slipped through during the grain cleaning and screening processes. The reasoning is that metal, even the smallest shaving, is dangerous near grinding stones. The second cleaner was a larger one that could be used with any type of grain by changing the separating trays. This second cleaner scoured all of the grain to be used as seed the following year, so that the farmers would not plant weed-seeds like grass, cockle, or thistle along with the crop. Three other additions to the gristmill are the following: a hammer mill was purchased in 1948 to grind cornmeal for the monks and feed for the chickens. It did not last very long; in 1965 a new one was purchased. The second addition was a new bolting cloth for the sifting bolt, after the original had been in use for 97 yeas. This cloth was installed in May 1951; was made entirely of silk; and had four different sifting densities. But in August 1990 it was replaced with a polyurethane and nylon one. A third addition, made in 1954, was a set of small buhrstones to replace the one acquired in 1883. These new sixteen-inch stones, purchased secondhand for $50, were set on a horizontal axis, unlike the previous stones that were on a vertical axis.

The Grain and the Grinding

From the very beginning of its existence the Saint Vincent Gristmill has been widely used for the storage of wheat and other grains. This service was not only for the yield from the Saint Vincent farm but also for farmers from the area. In fact these farmers, again from 1854 on, had made use of the gristmill at Saint Vincent for the grinding of their grains.

Boniface Wimmer was proud of this service, as is evident from the following statement that he wrote in a November 28, 1854, letter: “All the farmers from the neighborhood and from far off come to us—Catholics and Protestants alike—notwithstanding that two steam mills and one water mill are around in our nearest neighborhood.” There were times when there were as many as three or four thousand bushels of grain stored in the gristmill. In fact this storing of grain was the prime reason for the erection of the 1883 addition to the gristmill. But the storage of grain by area farmers was discontinued once the Saint Vincent farm took care of the threshing of wheat at harvest time rather than during the winter. This storage of large quantities of wheat brought about one of the least desirable tasks at the gristmill, that of turning the stored wheat in order to dry it. It was a dirty and dusty job, what with wheat that was often waist high.

It is interesting to trace the wheat from the time it arrives at the gristmill until the time that it goes into the set of buhrstones. When the wheat of other grains are received, they are placed in grain bins on either the second or third floor. As the grain is needed, it is dropped to the basement by a chute. From there it is raised by an elevator, made of small metal scoops and leather belts, to the third floor. It then moves through a grain cleaner and is deposited in a ready grain bin on the second floor—which has a capacity of fourteen bushels. Next, as needed, it is dropped into the buhrstones. The remainder of this story of how wheat becomes flour at the Saint Vincent Gristmill has already been told.

The Millers

At this juncture a word of tribute to the many Saint Vincent monks who labored in the gristmill is in order. Little is known about the five pioneers who first served as millers in the gristmill; they were: Brother Peter Seemueller as first miller, Brother Leo Christ, Brother Majolus Kreutinger, Brother Corbinian Schiller and Brother Veremund Erhaid. We do know, however, of the tragic death of Brother Majolus at the gristmill on January 24, 1862, when he was caught in a belt.

The lay brother who is considered to be the greatest of all of the millers at the Saint Vincent Gristmill was Brother Mark Bauer (pictured above). He served two stints as miller, from 1879 to 1888 and from 1907 to 1946—over forty-eight years. He was pleasant, humble and a hard worker. A treasure trove of information on the gristmill is preserved in Brother Mark’s Diary 1924-1946. Even though Brother Mark suffered from various illnesses during the last few decades of his life, he continued to work in the gristmill until a few weeks before his death, at the age of 89, on September 13, 1946. And from 1946 until 1951 Brother Bernard Lewitzke was the miller, having stepped into the breach caused by the illness and death of Brother Mark Bauer. Brother Joseph Weigl was in charge from 1951 to 1970. He did yeoman’s work at the gristmill, but in 1970 was forced into retirement by a heart condition. He died on November 23, 1976.

The Millers at Saint Vincent
Brother Peter Seemueller, 1854-?;
Brother Leo Christ, 1854-?;
Brother Majolus Kreutinger, 1854-1863;
Brother Corbinian Schiller, 1854-?;
Brother Veremund Erhaid, 1854-?;
Brother Mark Bauer, 1879-1888;
Brother Chilianus Weigand, 1888-1907;
Brother Mark Bauer, 1907-1946;
Brother Bernard Lewitzke, 1946-1951;
Brother Joseph Weigl, 1951-1970;
Brother Edward Grinder, 1970;
Brother Eric Vogt, 1970-1971;
Brother Derris Jeffcoat, 1971-1976;
Brother Mark Peters, 1975-1979;
Father Justin Nolan, Brother Tobias Yott, Brother Francis Crawford, Brother Christopher Hoff, Brother Justin Matro. 1979-1984;
Father Kurt J. Belsole, 1984-1985;
Brother Francis Ehnat, 1985-1988;
Brother Paul R. Taylor, 1988-1990.
Brother Michael McIlwain, 1990-91
Brother William Francis Vernon, 1991-92
Brother Philip Casper, 1991-92.
Brother Matthew T. Laffey,
Gristmill Committee, (Father Paul R. Taylor, Chairman),
Brother Joseph M. Adams, 1997-2001
Brother Dominic Shipsky, O.S.B., 2001-2003
Brother Michael Gabler, O.S.B., 2003-2008
Brother Francis Ehnat, O.S.B., 2008-2012
Brother Michael Antonacci, O.S.B., 2012-2013
Brother Matthew Nguyen, O.S.B., 2013-2015
Brother Matthew Hershey, O.S.B., 2015-2017
Brother Dominic Leo, O.S.B., 2017-2019
Brother Anselm Zhang, O.S.B., 2019-

Modern Times

Monks continue to grind grain at Saint Vincent Gristmill, as they have since 1854. In 2001, a General Store and Museum opened. The Museum features a viewing area where visitors can witness the monks operating the grindstones to make flour, as well as various exhibits involving the mill and some of the early agricultural history of Saint Vincent.

The General Store feature Gristmill products, including flour and bran, as well as specialty gourmet items, including Saint Vincent bread mix, pancake mix, coffees, and many other items. Also available is a 100-page history book on the Gristmill and Brewery by Omer U. Kline, O.S.B., published in 2000. The book includes a 16-page color section inside with photos of the historic milling equipment, and a fold-out color schematic illustration showing how the mill works.

The ground floor also houses the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program (Building Excellence Through Skills Training). The Bearcat B.E.S.T. program was born of the need, expressed by parents of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for transition programming that would focus on the needs of young adults who, while they may not have the aptitude for post-secondary education, could achieve, with appropriate transition programming, a greater level of independence than a sheltered workshop would provide them. The goals of the program are to develop the students’ capabilities in each of the four pillar areas: academics, vocational training, activities of daily living and social skills.

The Gristmill also plays host to an Environmental Education Center, tied into the Monastery Run wetlands project and aimed at hosting local, regional and national audiences, including elementary, secondary and college students, civic organizations, and private groups.

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