Northrup, Orlo J. - Do you remember?

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY

Orlo J. Northup - Do You Remember?

First published in the Altamont Enterprise.

Do you remember the old grist mills in this area? Before the advent of the automobile truck, the individual farmer took his home-grown grain by team to the mill and had it ground for his horses, cattle, hogs, etc. Of course, some of the grain was fed whole, especially for poultry.

These mills were originally powered from lakes or dams higher than the mill some distance away, from which a stream adjacent to the mill was diverted by an open race-way from a smaller dam to the wheel, where a gate operated by a hand wheel in the mill regulated the volume of water desired.

Warner’s Lake was the supply for the East Berne and the two Berne mills, also the Chesebro and Sand mill. The East Berne mill was supplied by a diversion race-way from the creek with a small dam at the mill, and the Berne mills by tubes from a dam (still intact) next to the lower hotel (now Franklin Shultes’ store). The East Berne mill, although said to be the largest in the state, was subject to permission from Berne to open the Warner’s Lake bulkhead gate, if there was any question of water shortage, as the Berne mill had priority water rights from the lake.

The East Berne mill has a very large overshot wheel, the top of which comes above the main floor, and the bottom in a pit in the cellar. The mill is filled from cellar to roof with shafts, gears, wooden tube elevators for distributing the grain to various grinders, baggers, etc.

To the best of my information, the East Berne mill was built by members of the Gallup family, of whom several of the descendants are still with us. Eventually my good friend, Henry Bins, acquired the mill and after coming back from the city, I was his maintenance man for the mill and automotive equipment. Incidentally, he and Mrs. Bins owned and started the development of the village end of Warner’s Lake as a summer resort, where there was not one cottage. He eventually sold the mill to the late Emmett Fisher, who at his death was succeeded by Edward Filkins and at the latter’s death by Edward Pitcher whose son Edward Jr. took over at his father’s death and now runs the business. Like the average mill, it has been diverted to a feed. fertilizer and farm commodity store. The feed end is buying and selling, acquiring the feed from large distributors by truck, with very little local grinding.

The local Berne mill has been in the Hart family for many years, now at least into the fourth generation. It is now run by Milton Hart Jr., coming down from his late great-grandfathers, who incidentally, many years ago ran a temperance hotel, which burned and was later replaced on the site by the Lakeside Hotel at Thompson’s Lake.

The upper mill in my time was operated by the late Melvin Becker, succeeded by his sons, William (now deceased), and Durand. They eventually sold out to the late Frank Hart, whose son, Milton Sr., joined him on reaching maturity. On Milton Sr.’s sudden passing a few years ago in the prime of life, his son, Milton Jr., took over and now operates the business with the able assistance of Mrs. Hart and Archie Willsie.

Elia Zeh, grandfather of the Voorheesville, R. D. carrier, Peter Zeh, a Breakabeen Schoharie county native, acquired the South Berne mill ahead of my advent in the world. It later burned and the late Charles Onderdonk purchased the property and rebuilt the mill. The main water supply was a mile above the village, now Onderdonk Lake (then know as Mud Hollow Pond), with four to ten foot stumps (now eliminated) sticking out of the water in nearly half the upper end, and no habitation. Now there is hardly a lot to be had on the shore line as it is filled with homes and camps. A smaller dam at the mill site with a high stone bulkhead (still intact) was the direct power supply to the mill site. Although the mill is long gone, as this dam had a gradual sloping bottom it was used by churches for immersion baptism. There was a small dam below this which powered the Andrew Sweet mill.

The wooden wheels were superseded by metal turbine wheels two or three feet across and a couple of feet high. Later many of them ran by electricity. One of the principal outputs of the old mills was buckwheat flower. The Bins and Becker mills did a great business in the fall, buying large quantities of the grain. It was dumped in a hopper at the door, from which it was conveyed to a large bin on the scales, weighed, ground, bagged in 25 lb. Paper bags, drawn to Altamont by team, about 3,000 lbs. to the load. Then it was shipped to its destination by rail. A large acreage of buckwheat was raised in this section. When in bloom it looked like driven snow. No farm home was complete without a buckwheat batter pitcher containing a mixture of the flour, buttermilk and yeast sitting on the back of the stove from fall until spring. It furnished the pancakes, augmented by eggs, salt pork and maple syrup or molasses, for breakfast.

The general store proprietors shoveled up the buckwheat hulls at the mill, using them to pack their eggs in barrels and boxes to convey them to the city.