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The Return of Peirce Mill

A new lease on life for a local landmark

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Peirce Mill in Rock Creek served fresh wheat and corn flour to government workers, the White House and other Washingtonians for decades. Now it's finally reopening.
Emily Friedman
Peirce Mill in Rock Creek served fresh wheat and corn flour to government workers, the White House and other Washingtonians for decades. Now it's finally reopening.

For nearly 200 years, the Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park brought fresh wheat and corn flour to government workers, the White House and other Washingtonians. Many in the D.C. area may have seen it, passing by on jogs through the park, or on drives across town. Since the mill's gears broke down 20 years ago, it has sat there, empty and silent. It took nearly 100 people and $3 million, but the millstones are turning once again.

Peirce Mill: The flour king of the 1800s

Washington was a very different place back in the 1800s. Where there are stores and homes right now, there used to be farms. And if you look at where our green spaces are, along the rivers and creeks--that's where the industry was. Along Rock Creek, there was one mill after another: paper mills, wool mills, fertilizer mills, and eight flour mills, many of them owned by the Peirce family.

The Peirces were Quakers from Pennsylvania, and they came to D.C. looking for more land, eventually settling along Rock Creek. "They basically owned everything that now is Rock Creek Park," says Steve Dryden, program manager for the Friends of Peirce Mill.

Dryden is the sole employee of the nonprofit group, and recently published a book on the mill's place in D.C. history. In its hey-day, the facility was a 4-story flour-making mansion, he says. Gears in the basement turned the stones, which ground the grain, which was carried upstairs by little buckets on a conveyor belt, where it was sifted, cooled and shot back downstairs to the basement to be bagged for people to buy.

"The way this is set up, it takes it all by automation," Dryden says. "It all operates off of water power, and this was a big, big deal." Peirce Mill was incredibly industrious, he adds. It could produce hundreds of pounds of flour an hour.

Twice was broken, but now is fixed

The original mill lasted about 70 years. It broke down around the turn of the 20th century, and was leased out as a teahouse. Then, in the 1930s, the Peirce Mill became one of the first historical restoration projects in the country. President Roosevelt's New Deal put men to work restoring the mill to its full flour-making potential. During that time, according to legend, Peirce Mill flour was baked into the bread of congressmen, senators, even the President.

In the early 1990s, the mill broke down again. That's when local historians started banding together to form the Friends of Peirce Mill. They raised $1 million in private donations and received $2 million from President Obama's stimulus plan. While $3 million sounds like a lot, for a mill this complex, and this old, that was just enough to cover the basics.

Food history for today's generation

Mason Maddox Jr., the hired miller that's on duty, checks on the mill grinding corn, and tops off the hopper holding the grain. From there, the kernels trickle down in between the stones to be ground.

"We don't realize what it took to get a loaf of bread in the 1800s," Mason says. "It took a farmer to grow the grain, the miller to mill the grain, then it took a baker to bake the bread. You just didn't run out to Giant food and pick up a loaf of bread."

This lack of knowledge of what goes into the food we eat is exactly what Dryden and the National Park Service hope to change within a few months; students from D.C. elementary schools will come to the mill to learn that lesson themselves.

"This is the kind of place that made the original whole wheat, and people used to eat it because it was the cheapest bread," says Dryden. "White bread became popular, and it's more refined. But this is part of education about why whole grains are good for you."

Dryden runs his hands through the deep well of corn flour. Rock Creek Park hasn't yet secured a permit to sell the flour, but that hasn't stopped him from testing it out. He made some cornbread with jalapenos and bacon fat earlier this week. After all, he waited nearly 20 years to bake that bread.

[Music: "Make It With You (Karaoke Version)" by Stingray Music Karaoke from The Karaoke Channel - In the Style of Bread - Vol. 1]

Photos: Peirce Mill

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