Maryland Heritage Areas Grant Helps Wye Mill Keep on Grindin’

By Ennis Barbery Smith, MHAA Assistant Administrator

Each year, the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) provides grant funding to heritage tourism-related projects that preserve and celebrate important places across the state. As part of Preservation Month, the MHAA staff wanted to take the time to visit one of these fascinating places where preservation work is underway, and to take you — our blog readers — along with us on a photo-based virtual tour.

John Nizer, Gail Owings, and Otis pose in front of the Wye Grist Mill in Wye Mills, MD.

The place we chose to visit was the Wye Grist Mill, where we were greeted by the cast of characters above: John Nizer (Board President and volunteer extraordinaire for the Friends of Wye Mill), Gail Owings (Executive Director of the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area), and Otis, a canine-heritage-tourism-enthusiast who you may recognize from his frequent appearances visiting historic buildings and landscapes on the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area’s social media feed.

The Mill dates to 1682, and — with very minimal interruption — it has been grinding grain to produce flour ever since. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the Mill’s claims to fame, featured prominently in tours and signage, is that it (and many other mills on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) shipped flour to the Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington, during the American Revolution. Part of what makes the Wye Grist Mill so special is that it’s a rare survivor. Sadly, those “many other mills” that dotted the Eastern Shore during the American Revolution are nowhere to be found today.

But Wye Mill is still standing and still grinding. Visitors can still see the grindstones, the waterwheel, and all the other intricate inner workings in action on the first and third Saturdays of each month from May to the middle of November, when a trained miller is on site. Visitors may also purchase grain. I, the author, can attest that the cornmeal ground on-site is fabulous, and makes a mean cornbread.

When we arrived at the Mill on a cloudy Wednesday in early May, one of the first things that John Nizer showed us was a new door on the rear lower level of the building that had just been commissioned and installed as part of the MHAA grant project. The previous door was determined to be damaged beyond repair, and a new “beaded vertical plank exterior door with diagonal interior sheathing” was approved by the Maryland Historical Trust just this spring.

John was excited to show it off, not only because of the door’s period-specific details, but because of the people who made it. A local teacher at Queen Anne’s County High School, Ron Frederick, took on the special project with some of his best carpentry students. Even the nails on the door are handmade. Charles Euston, a blacksmith working in Woodbury, CT crafted all 175 of them. He also does blacksmith work for the National Park Service.

Illustrations used in exhibit at the Wye Grist Mill, showing Oliver Evans’ automated process for milling, which he patented with the U.S. Patent Office in 1790.

As John explained and as the Mill’s hand-painted illustrations convey, the building uses an automated system for grinding grain, which was invented by Oliver Evans in 1784. This system would have been installed at the Wye Grist Mill sometime in the late 18th century or early 19th century, according to the signage present on-site. It replaced a system that required much more manual labor.

Wye Grist Mill’s iron waterwheel, which will be inspected as part of the grant project

When the miller on duty is ready to get started grinding, he or she opens a small metal gate that allows water to flow onto the waterwheel from a nearby containment pond. The waterwheel then powers the automated mechanisms. A miller must start the milling process by pouring grain down into the door in the floor (shown below) that leads to the “grain spout.”

The door to the grain spout is shown here. It is simply a removable panel in the floor with a handle attached.

From the grain spout, the grain then goes up an elevator to the top floor and back down another chute into the hopper on the main floor.

John Nizer explained the process as he stood beside the hopper (right).

Inside the hopper, the grain filters down between the two millstones’ grooves, where the grinding happens. The two stones involved in this process are called the “runner stone,” the top stone weighing in at around 2,600 pounds, and the “bed stone,” located below and weighing about 1,800 pounds in comparison. The distance between the two stones can be adjusted by the miller and will depend on how fine or coarse the miller wants the resulting flour to be.

A view of the top of the runner stone inside the hopper

The millstones are turned by a system of belts and cogs located directly below them on the first floor. John explained to us, as he showed us the system (below), that some of the cogs are metal while others are wood. He asked us why this would be the case, and we were momentarily stumped. “Metal against metal produces sparks,” he said, explaining the fire risk potential.

This photo shows the cogs that help turn the millstones, and the bottom of the bed stone is visible near the top of the photo.

After being ground between the two stones, there is one more automated elevator ride to the top floor of the building, where the course outer layers of the grain and other impurities are removed. The grain then comes back down to the main floor and falls into the “meal bin” through a chute. At this point, the grain is now flour. The processes for cornmeal and grits are slightly different.

The meal bin, where flour arrives through the chute visible on the right

The best way to learn about this traditional — albeit automated — process and all the related history is to see the Mill in action, talk with a docent, and peruse its exhibits and hands-on activities. Just down the road from the Mill, there are other historic sites to explore:

Over the next year, the Friends of Wye Mill will continue to inspect and repair parts of their historic building and milling equipment with the help of millwright Gus Kiorpes (also the millwright for Mount Vernon). These repairs will be funded in part by the MHAA grant they received. We wish them and all of our grantees a merry Preservation Month and happy grant season!

Thanks for coming along on our virtual photo tour of the Wye Grist Mill.

Proposed Changes to the National Register Raise Concerns

By Elizabeth Hughes, Director of MHT and State Historic Preservation Officer

Nationwide, preservation organizations are sounding the alarm regarding the impact of proposed changes to the National Register of Historic Places Program. The Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) has grave concerns about the proposed changes and their effect on the future of Maryland’s heritage. The changes are not finalized yet, and there is an opportunity for MHT and others to express their views. The National Park Service (NPS)—the agency which oversees the regulations governing this program—is seeking public input through April 30.

Established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places is this country’s official list of places worthy of preservation. In Maryland alone, the National Register has 1,801 listings, including 255 historic districts, altogether comprising 108,523 contributing resources. Although inclusion in the National Register is largely honorific, this designation is the threshold for access to state and federal rehabilitation tax credits—a powerful tool for community revitalization. The National Register also plays an important role in ensuring that local communities have a voice when the federal government’s actions have the potential to impact historic resources. Federal agencies are required to consider the effects of their actions on National Register-listed or National Register-eligible properties and to engage with citizens concerned about the future of these non-renewable resources.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an example of a federal agency that has embraced its historic property stewardship role.  This year, NIST will be receiving an award from Preservation Maryland in recognition of their exemplary preservation program at the agency’s Bethesda campus.

Among the various rule changes currently under consideration by NPS, one of greatest concern to MHT will provide federal agencies with unilateral and exclusive rights to nominate or refuse to nominate their properties to the National Register of Historic Places.  This change to the National Register nomination process extends not only to the listing of historic properties but also to the process of determining whether or not federally-owned properties are even eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The eligibility determination process is an essential step as agencies and state historic preservation offices, like the Maryland Historical Trust, work together to consider the effects of federal agency actions on historic properties through the Section 106 review process.  Federal agencies take the lead in developing determinations of eligibility (DOEs) for properties under their care.  DOEs are designed to be objective assessments of a property’s history and significance, uninfluenced by the nature or possible impacts of proposed projects. 

Under the current National Register regulations, this process is typically collaborative, resulting in “consensus determinations” between the federal agency and MHT.  Should a disagreement arise, the dispute is resolved by the Keeper of the National Register.  Regardless of the Keeper’s ultimate determination, federal agency projects still proceed.  The Section 106 process cannot stop federal agency undertakings from proceeding, it simply requires agencies to take into account the effects of their actions on historic properties.

Fort Howard, located in Baltimore County, was determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Owned by the Veterans Administration, plans for the redevelopment of the property are of significant interest to the local community.   This historic image, showing Fort Howard’s main hospital building and officer housing, is from the collection of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.

Under the proposed rule, it would now be possible for federal agencies to refuse to acknowledge the existence of historic properties in their care and, with impunity, carry out projects that may damage or destroy historic buildings, landscapes, and archeological resources under their control. The rule as proposed undermines the role of the state and the Keeper of the National Register as impartial arbiters of eligibility determinations. It also prevents local governments, tribes, and non-profit organizations from providing input on how federal agency actions may impact historic resources. Under this new scenario, there is no system of checks and balances on federal agencies who, in certain cases, have a vested interest in determining that no historic properties will be impacted by their actions. In this way, state and local communities are blocked from commenting on the impact of federal agency actions in our own backyard.

This proposed rule erodes the most basic principle undergirding the origin of the National Historic Preservation Act. Crafted in response to urban renewal and transportation projects of the 1950s and 1960s, which excluded local communities from deliberations about federal actions and resulted in large-scale demolition of historic resources, the Act sought to give states and local communities a voice in federal decision-making. By cutting states, local governments, tribes and non-profit organizations out of the process of determining whether properties may be eligible for listing on the National Register, the proposed rule subverts the intent of the National Historic Preservation Act.

To learn more about this proposed rule or to provide a comment, go to: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/03/01/2019-03658/national-register-of-historic-places

Comments are due to NPS by 11:59 p.m. EST on April 30, 2019.

MHAA Helps Fund New Exhibit Highlighting the Life Story of Reverend Josiah Henson

By Ennis Barbery Smith, Assistant Administrator, Maryland Heritage Area Program

The Reverend Josiah Henson’s legacy is one of resilience. He and his family escaped slavery in Maryland in 1830, heading north and eventually settling in Ontario, Canada. Once there, he founded a community for escaped slaves called the Dawn Settlement. While I only recently learned about Henson’s accomplishments and his connection to Maryland, it’s clear to me that the story of his life is worth sharing far and wide.

In high school, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I remember that my teacher credited this book with helping raise awareness about the brutalities of slavery and laying the groundwork for anti-slavery sentiment, which would propel the United States into the American Civil War. This novel, published in 1852, told the story of an enslaved man referred to as Uncle Tom whose journey begins in Kentucky. Over the course of the plot, he travels down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

Informational panel on display at Josiah Henson Park in spring 2018. These more temporary exhibits will be replaced and greatly enhanced by the new exhibit and orientation film, partially funded by Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA).

As a high school student, I didn’t think to ask how Harriet Beecher Stowe—a white woman from Connecticut–knew about the brutalities of slavery. It turns out that she based many of the experiences she described in her famous novel on firsthand accounts by former slaves, including the autobiography of Josiah Henson, which was originally published in 1849.

Shirl Spicer (left), Museum Manager for Montgomery Parks, talks with (left to right) Janice Hayes-Williams of MHAA and Sarah Rogers, Executive Director of Heritage Montgomery.

Henson was born in Charles County, near Port Tobacco, and spent much of his childhood and early adulthood enslaved on the plantation of Isaac Riley in Montgomery County. The stories of enslavement that he shares in his dictated autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself are Maryland stories. His childhood was marked by the horrors that many enslaved people endured: violence, abuse, and family separation. As Henson shares in his narrative, Riley recognized him as very intelligent and delegated many responsibilities to him. Henson also became a reverend in the Methodist Episcopal Church. When he attempted to buy his freedom, Riley cheated him, and he feared being sold away from his family. This is where Henson’s story as a free man begins. He escaped slavery in Maryland, eventually settling in Canada with his family and establishing the Dawn Settlement.

Cassandra Michaud (left), Senior Archeologist for Montgomery Parks, shows MHAA representatives and Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) staff the archaeological excavation underway in spring 2018 at Josiah Henson Park, the site of the former Riley Plantation, where Henson was enslaved. MHAA representatives pictured include (left to right) Lee Towers and Janice Hayes-Williams. MHT staff pictured include Bernadette Pruitt (far right).

Today, Reverend Josiah Henson’s story of perseverance and courage is finally being etched into the Maryland landscape, and finding its way into the consciousness of Marylanders. The site in North Bethesda that used to be known as the Riley Plantation is now Josiah Henson Park, part of Montgomery Parks. In 2018, the Montgomery County Heritage Area expanded its boundaries, adding this site—and a host of others. As a result, the Montgomery County Parks Foundation applied for and was awarded a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) matching grant to design and install new exhibits at Josiah Henson Park’s on-site Visitor Center, currently under construction. The exhibit will feature an introductory film, original illustrations, and artifacts excavated at the Riley Plantation site. Shirl Spicer, Museum Manager for Montgomery Parks, said she is excited for people to see the exhibit because the artifacts paired with dynamic, evocative illustrations will allow visitors to engage with Henson’s story in new ways.

Even before the park re-opens with its new and enhanced visitor center and exhibits, Shirl Spicer assured me that her organization is actively spreading the word about Reverend Josiah Henson in Montgomery County through outreach at community events and schools. Plus, a brand new in-depth Josiah Henson biography was written by Montgomery Parks’ senior historian, Jamie Ferguson Kuhns, and published in February 2019.

Fran Kline, Archaeology Program Volunteer for Montgomery Parks, answers questions about artifacts uncovered at Josiah Henson Park.

Knowing what I know now about Henson’s remarkable life and autobiography, it feels like an injustice that I had never heard the name Josiah Henson before the Montgomery County Heritage Area submitted their boundary amendment materials to MHAA last year. However, just over the past year, I’ve started noticing his name in press coverage. In addition to Henson’s own autobiography, interested readers can learn more about Henson’s story here, watch video content about his life here, and watch an interview with his descendant here. All these sources are no substitute for visiting Josiah Henson Park itself. The Park and the new exhibits, funded in part by MHAA, are slated to open to the public in 2020.