One-Minute Essays
Mills in Colonial Cities Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening Lesson Plan included Original Document included
Since windmills and watermills were crucially important to the survival of early settlements, it is not surprising to see cities growing up where mills were built. Although later city development has often eclipsed this crucial early form of development, often remnants of these early industries are preserved in the names of streets such as Mill Street, Race Street (the race was the small canal that fed water to the mill), or Pond Street.
Mill Street If you look around your own town, if there is any flowing source of water at all, it is virtually guaranteed that you will find a street named after a mill or its industry (like sawmill road, or paper street where a paper mill once stood). The image to the right, for example, is from the little hamlet of Houserville, PA. Although you probably don't know the history of the town, you might guess that Old Houserville Road was the original road along the creek when the area was settled (in this case in the late 18th century). And the fact that there is an Old Mill Road right by a bridge pretty much guarantees that there was a mill here and that the modern bridge is where the old dam was (roads often crossed streams on top of the dam). You should be able to encourage students to make deductions like this at the first pass, and then send them out on to the web to find out the details of the history of the place you are looking at.
You can use numerous mapping software like Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Mapquest, or MapBlast to find these streets. Or you can teach the students about topographical mapping using TopoZone. Of course, if you do not know the name of the street you are looking for, though, these online search engines are not always as useful. Better to sit down with an old roadmap and follow the rivers and see where mill streets intersect with them. Alternately, you could get a gazetteer from the library to search for names.
Below are early maps of early colonial cities. The larger versions are available in two forms, plain or with the mills highlighted.
Providence, RI (1777)*

Plain | Mills Highlighted
Boston, MA (1778)*

Plain | Mills Highlighted
New York, NY (1671)

Plain | Mills Highlighted | External Link
Chester Co. PA (18th century)

Newburgh, NY (1880s)*

Plain | Mills Highlighted
Great Seal of the City of New York

Enlarge | NYC sites: 1 2 3 4
*Images from the Library of Congress American Memory maps division.
Discussion Questions
  1. Can you find the mills in the picture? How many are there?
  2. Why do some towns have only one type of mill and others a combination of wind- and watermills?
  3. Where are the windmills relative to the town itself? And where are the watermills?
  4. What do you notice about the regional distributions of mills and of mill types in the Chester Co. map? [see also the mill data on this image]