By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
UPPER SANDUSKY — The Wyandot Indian Mill is celebrating a big anniversary.
Located on the banks of the Sandusky River about a mile and a half north of Upper Sandusky, the former gristmill once owned by the Wyandot Nation of American Indians now houses a museum of Wyandot heritage and milling history.
Ron Marvin, director of the Wyandot County Archaeological and Historical Society and curator of the Wyandot County Museum, said this year is the 200th anniversary of the construction of the original sawmill and dam on the Sandusky River.
A gristmill was added the following year in 1820. Both were located 300 feet upstream from the current site.
The mills were built primarily as a reward for the Wyandot Indians for siding with the U.S. government in the War of 1812. The Wyandots had their grain and lumber milled there for free.
“Everybody else had to pay,” said curator Robin Conley. “And then after the miller would get his portion for working the mills, the money went back to the Wyandots for educational purposes.”
“And as far as we know, these were the only mills that were built with government money on an Indian reservation,” added Marvin.
Grinding to a halt
After the Wyandots were forced to leave the reservation in 1843, George Myers purchased the mills, dismantled the old gristmill and had it moved to the current site at 7417 County Highway 47, Upper Sandusky.
“He made it just one big building and it was just a gristmill after that,” said Conley.
In 1862, three Leffel turbines were installed. The turbines were invented by James Leffel of Springfield.
“His were the most efficient turbines of their time, and that company is still in business now. They still make turbines,” said Conley.
According to information provided at the mill, gristmills in early America were usually built along a stream where there was sufficient water drop and continuous flow to turn a large wheel, which then rotated the moving capstone over the stationary bedstone to grind the grain.
Marvin said Lewis Rummel, one of the early millers, was hired to build the present three-story structure. It was unique, he said, because it employed a covered bridge type of construction with cross trusses secured by steel rods and bolts forged on the site.
“This building was kind of built to kind of shift and move with the milling equipment, so when the (1913) floods came, the building just kind of moved with the water,” said Marvin.
The nearby covered bridge that had been built in 1871 was completely washed away and destroyed in the flood, but the mill only lost a few boards off the river side. A steel bridge was erected in 1918.
After several owners, John Finkle purchased the mill and two acres. The family operated the mill for over 50 years until 1943. Foster C. Finkle was its last operator.
The mill sat empty until it was purchased at auction by Ward Walton, who donated and deeded the mill and the water rights to the State of Ohio in the 1950s to be developed as a state historical park.
“But they really didn’t know what to do with it, so it just kind of sat empty here for 10, almost 15 years,” Marvin said. “People kept asking them, ‘What are you going to do with the old mill?’ They finally decided they were going to restore it.”
The mill opened as a museum in 1968. Diaries kept by curators of the mill noted that 1,000 people attended on opening day.
“It rained, so they went into the building. I can’t imagine,” Marvin said. “We know that with 100 school kids here, the place is packed.”
Conley said a favorite exhibit among visiting school children is a working model of the mill, made by Wilbur Brown and Carl Boel and Ohio Historical Society employees in 1976. The project was funded by Fred Milligan Sr., a former Upper Sandusky resident who donated the model in memory of seven generations of his family who were early pioneers of Wyandot County dating back to 1826.
“They came out for weeks at a time, taking exact measurements of every piece of equipment so they could get a true scale model,” said Marvin.
“Fred was a real good friend of local history. He loved the mill, so he arranged for this to be constructed because there was no way to see, since it’s not a working mill, for school children to be able to see how the equipment operates,” he said.
In the grinding process at Indian Mill, grain from storage bins on the upper floor fed through a tapered chute into the hopper above the capstone. Water power turning the turbine shaft revolved the capstone, breaking and grinding the grains into meal and husks, which were forced into the furrows and carried by centrifugal force to the outer edge and dropped into containers.
Husks and other impurities were separated from the wheat meal in the bolting chest, where the flour was sifted through fine silk cloths before passing through a chute into storage barrels. A toll dish measured the miller’s share of each patron’s grinding.
Many of the mill displays were used through 2012 when the Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) decided to update the site. The organization spent about two years researching and rewiring all of the exhibit and installing new ones.
The mill reopened to the public in May 2016.
“It’s completely different,” Marvin said. “If you haven’t been here in the last five to 10 years, it has a completely different look.”
The dam was also rebuilt and the cast iron bridge restored.
“You’re looking at probably a $1.5 million investment in this little historic area, so it shows a real commitment from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio History Connection and the Ohio Department of Transportation,” said Marvin. “It just shows how important this is, not just to the Wyandots but to Ohioans to preserve their history.”
‘Your Ohio History’
As part of the redesign, Marvin said they went to the Isaac Ludwig mill in Grand Rapids and videotaped a working mill.
“So we have a video now that shows a lot of these processes,” he said. “Since we don’t have a working mill, we can’t really show them exactly how it looks when the grinding stones are crushing.”
Conley also likes to point out the line drawn on the upper portion of the front door. That’s how high the water was during the 1913 flood.
There’s also an exhibit with samples of different grains that were once milled and their finished products. Buckwheat, for example, was once the main grain milled at Indian Mill, said Marvin.
“From what I understand with the process, if you tried to mill it with steel rollers, it had a tendency to catch fire. They used granite stones here, so people would bring their buckwheat from all over to have it milled here for that reason,” he said.
Conley, who toured the mill as fourth-grader, said one of things she remembers from that visit was a large topographical map of Ohio which still hangs in the mill.
“This was always on the wall out here and when we redid the exhibits, they initially thought they’d get rid of it,” said Marvin. “It was really too interesting to get rid of, so we added some of the names of some of the towns to orient you, and then put on some of the old mills.”
A lot of these are older mills that no longer exist, he added,
Graffiti on some pieces in the mill are from a time when it was closed to the public. Conley said a man who visited several summers ago told her that he and his friends used to crawl up through a hole in the floor and explore the building.
Another piece of equipment features the names of descendants of Foster Finkle who have visited the mill since the 1970s.
The Upper Sandusky Chamber of Commerce operated the mill for the Ohio History Connection for 20-30 years. Now the Wyandot County Historical Society is the managing partner, said Marvin.
The mill is open from 1-4:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, May through October. The cost is $2 for adults and $1 for children. Indian Mill Park is located across the river. The single-floor museum is designed to be nearly wheelchair accessible.
The mill is also listed in the Ohio History Connections’ “Passport to Your Ohio History,” a booklet that is stamped at each historical site visited in the state. In all, 58 historic sites and museums are listed by region, and the Indian Mill State Memorial is the only stop in Wyandot County.
A puffed wheat cereal miracle?
By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
UPPER SANDUSKY — We may be eating puffed wheat cereal today thanks to the Indian Mill in Upper Sandusky.
Ron Marvin, director of the Wyandot County Archaeological and Historical Society and curator of the Wyandot County Museum, said stories related to the mill have been told since the site opened as a museum in 1968. One of his favorites is the puffed wheat story.
“We don’t have the documentation, but according to the stories that were told to the curator back in the ’70s, puffed wheat may have had its origins at the Indian Mill,” Marvin said.
A farmer reportedly came in to have wheat ground into flour, but the wheat was wet from rain. The miller attempted to dry the grain using a small stove in his office.
“But after a little bit, the wheat started popping,” said Marvin. “So one of them, curious, picked it up and ate it and he said, ‘This is really good.’”
Mill workers traded with the farmer for the wet wheat and kept popping it and offering it to customers as a snack. Marvin said a man who ran the Reber House Hotel in Upper Sandusky tried some of the popped wheat and thought it would make a good breakfast treat for his visitors.
“The story was, there was a gentleman from Minneapolis who came and spent the night about 1905. He had some of that for breakfast and said, ‘This is really great. Where did you get it?’” Marvin said. “They told him where it was, so he came out to the mill and got some more to take back with him.”
According to Marvin, about six months later, the mill reportedly got a cease and desist letter to stop producing and selling this popped wheat because General Mills had just patented puffed wheat cereal.
“So it’s possible we have puffed wheat thanks to a miraculous accident that happened out here,” he said.