Inside the first floor of the mill, Hank and Gerry Whittaker pose with the giant stones that used to grind corn and grains for many area farmers.
Digging into the annals of local history is a great hobby. Regional researchers love to discover places and things of local significance. Often these are things that you won’t learn in school because they lack global, national or state importance. But they’re here and are part of our history.
What makes the journey into local history even more fun is when your travels take you to the home of wonderful friends or neighbors who enjoy their slice of the past and work hard to preserve it and share it with others.
That’s the case with Gerladine (Gerry) and Henry (Hank) Whittaker. The Whittakers, Gerry, a retired nurse, and Henry, a retired builder, are owners of one of the oldest mills in Montgomery County – the Thomas Hillegass mill in Upper Hanover Township. According to “Beans’1884 History of Montgomery County," it was 275 years ago that the mill was sold by George Groner to Frederick Hillegass. The history of the mill prior to 1738 is unknown, but we do know that the mill is much older than that.
The land on which the mill and neighboring farm stood was purchased by Lodowig Christian Sproegel, an immigrant from Holland. At the time Groner sold the mill to Hillegass, he sold the farm to George Schenk.
At one time, Sproegel and his brother, John Henry Sproegel, owned more than 13,000 acres in Upper Hanover and New Hanover townships. Both men became naturalized citizens in 1705.
The Whittakers bought the mill in 1975 from Wiley Overly. The mill hadn’t been used for decades since Overly’s father, James L. Overly, ceased operation of his Macoby Mills sometime prior to World War II. According to Hank Whittaker, the mill was “ready to fall in” when he bought it. He made the structure sturdy enough to accommodate the storage needs of his contracting business. At the same time, Henry saw the potential the old building had.
Around 1998, shortly after Hank Whittaker retired, he began to work on the old three-story mill. The working stories of the building, basement, first and third, still contained much of the equipment used during its working years. The most noticeable casualty of time was the large, steel water wheel that sat in the basement and was connected to a series of gears and pulleys that operated the mill. The water wheel in the dormant mill became part of the war effort during WWII in a drive for scrap metal.
The second floor of the mill was open space used as a warehouse. That’s the part Hank Whittaker would convert to living space for his family. The third-floor, where the raw product entered the mill, still contains the large wooden pulleys, steel wheels and leather straps used to hoist the heavy sacks to the start of their trip through the milling process.
On the first floor, two of the original four stones and grinding assemblies are still in their original spot. Overhanging the grinding stones is a wooden and steel lift assembly used to raise the heavy stones high enough for cleaning or resurfacing. Also on the first floor is a smaller, motor-driven grist mill used in the first part of the last century.
In the basement, where the mill-race once fed tons of water through the building to power the giant wheel, is the gear gear-assembly that operated everything. Some of the gear wheels are four-foot in diameter and weigh hundreds of pounds.
The whole structure is held up by hundreds of feet of large oak timbers; many in excess of 12-inches thick and some as old as our Valley itself.
Always researching and studying to learn more about the old mill, Henry is quick to share his collection of photos and documents that he’s accumulated over the years. Gerry is proud of the way the warehouse was turned into their retirement quarters, she loves the cathederal ceiling over the kitchen and dining areas. She is also very fond of the beautiful and finely crafted corner cabinet and two hutches, hand-made by Henry’s father in the first half of the last century. The place of the items in the Whittaker home adds to the nostalgic value of the mill.
Researchers will continue to study the origin and history of the mill for years to come and thanks to Gerry and Henry, they’ll have something to study.