BOYD'S WIND GRIST MILL

 

....then .... and now

Aquidneck Island offered the early farmers low, gently rolling hills and ridges, clear of woods except for orchards and covered by rich, rocky, productive soil in which they planted wheat, corn and other crops and on which they raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs for sale to merchants in Newport and elsewhere.

Mother Nature provided only small intermittent streams on the island with insufficient water power to operate grindstones. Therefore, early entrepreneurs turned to the only other alternative, wind power, and built wind grist mills across Aquidneck Island.

Boyd’s Eight-vane Wind Grist Mill is one of the last two survivors of more than twenty known wind mills which once worked to supply the daily needs of Aquidneck Island. It is the only eight-vane smock mill ever built and operated in New England and one of the very few survivors in the United States.

In 1810, John Peterson built this mill and a house on fifty-six acres of land near the intersection of Mill Lane and West Main Road in Portsmouth, Rhode Island and where the mill remained for 185 years. William Boyd first leased the mill then bought it in 1815. It has been known as Boyd’s Wind Grist Mill ever since.

The oak timbers were cut in Wickford Village in North Kingstown and floated across Narragansett Bay to Portsmouth on Peterson’s schooner. When his schooner was wrecked, he used the oak knees and other ship timbers in constructing the mill.

Peterson and two millwrights constructed the mill in an octagonal "smock" style, so-called because of an alleged resemblance to a man in a smock – the loose garment our forefathers wore during weekdays.

It was a basic four-vane mill of three floors without sophistication. It is eight-sided, the tower 30 feet in height with a round top, or cap, 8 feet in height making the total height of the mill 38 feet. It is 18 feet wide at the bottom and 15 feet in diameter at the top.

The usual pattern of smock mills was based upon eight sides, the key structural members are the stout cant (or corner) posts which form each corner. This departure from square jointed construction and the fact that the corner posts are closer together at the top (15’) than they are at the base (18’) and to form good joints that were leaning in two dimensions called for all the millwright’s skills.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the erection of the mill in 1810 was the ability of the millwright to lift heavy weights from ground level to the higher levels of the mill: for instance, placing the two millstones, each weighing two and a half tons, on the second floor. Even more difficult was raising the two-ton cap to its position atop the tower.

The whole mill was completely shingle covered and mounted two feet off the ground on large rough rocks.

The mill as built, had four common vanes, each 28 feet long and 7 feet, 4 inches wide.

Except for the first five years until Peterson, the mill was owned and operated by three generations of Boyds. William ran the mill from 1815 to 1851. He then sold the mill to his son, Leander, who ran the mill from 1851 until 1879, when the mill was passed to his son, Benjamin F. C Boyd who continued its operation for the rest of its active life.

In 1884, Benjamin Boyd made extensive repairs and improvements. A Kerosene engine was installed requiring the millstones to be offset from the center. In the mill’s 1998 restoration, the eight vanes were restored and the millstones returned to their original positions.

In 1884, Boyd bought new granite millstones in Fall River (5 feet in diameter and 2-1/2 tons each) to replace the stones continually in use from 1840. (One of the broken stones can be seen on the footpath leading up to the mill.) The upper stone measured twenty-two inches thick when installed in 1884. In 1934, that stone measured but nineteen and a half inches thick indicating the wear and tear on the stone.

In 1901, the third Mr. Boyd remodeled his mill from four vanes to eight vanes. The main advantage of eight vanes was the ability to work in light winds and thus be capable of work on more days per year. However, the effectiveness of Boyd’s eight vane design is in some doubt because in 1916 Boyd converted the mill to gasoline power and the eight vanes were removed. No longer was the miller dependent upon the ever changing wind conditions, which made the milling operation significantly less difficult and less dangerous.

Boyd’s mill was built originally to provide feed for fattening beef, pork and poultry and to produce some selected grists for family use and for trading. For years, feed grinding was the principal business and it has been stated that from 1840 to 1884, grain from almost every Aquidneck Island farm passed through the mill.

However, with the development of the West, with its cheap grain and meat products, it became evident that the grinding of feed locally was a vanishing industry. Therefore, the Boyd family concentrated on the grinding of Rhode Island Johnny Cake Meal until that proved unprofitable.

For 135 years, the mill served Peterson and the Boyd family. For almost fifty years after the mill ceased operation, the mill languished in disuse.

For 185 years the mill never moved from its original Portsmouth location until 1990 when the Boyd family donated the old mill to the Middletown Historical Society for its relocation and restoration that began in 1995.

Windmills represent an important part of Middletown’s and the Island’s technological history. A windmill has been associated with Aquidneck Island since the 17th century. A windmill is portrayed on Middletown’s official coat of arms which reflects on the importance attached to the windmill as a part of the town’s rural heritage.

Time and the elements destroyed mill after mill and an important part of the town’s heritage slipped almost unnoticed into oblivion. While it may not be possible or desirable to try to preserve every historic site, there are many sound reasons in favor of ensuring the survival of some. Thus the Society’s struggle to save Boyd’s Mill.

Fortuitously, the mill became available at the same time that Paradise Valley Park was being developed thus providing a perfect new setting deep in the heart of historic Paradise Valley.

Through the combined efforts of countless craftsmen, volunteers, and benefactors, the mill has been fully restored and now serves as the centerpiece of the Historical Society’s preservation efforts.

The mill is open to the public on Sunday afternoons from May through September and guided tours are provided by a team of knowledgeable volunteer docents. For safety reasons, we are unable to allow visitors in the mill when it is operating.

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March 22, 2014