Interiors

An Early 18th Century Grist Mill Filled with Storied Artifacts

by Caitlin Kelch

 

I’ve long imagined writing this post, but because of my deep emotional connection, always put it off until the time was right. My father helped restored the property, my step-mother was its last owner and resident and I had the honor of spending the last few months of her life with her — a woman of noble character, great taste and an often brutally honest, combative spirit.

Patrinka Kelch loved the mill with all of her heart and soul and regarded her role as steward as her life’s mission. When she passed away two summers ago, I’d go to the property and just weep. My father had left Patrinka, as he had my own mother, so his lingering presence within the millwork made me tingle with unrequited love and a whole lot of questions. Patrinka had been my style icon since I was ten and, although our relationship was rocky for most of our lives, she is likely the reason I work here at Design*Sponge. For better or worse, she introduced me to the all-white aesthetic way back when. She shared with me the joy of literally hundreds of paperwhites each February. We’d lie on sheepskins and smell them for hours. It was the 1970’s and I’m pretty sure she thought I was meditating with her. I wasn’t. I was singing songs from Grease  in my head.

During the last few months of her life, I saw her every single day. She had no family and I wanted her to have a loving exit. I’d bring flowers, olive oil and pictures of her cats , Muffy and Sushi, to the nursing home where she thought she’d die. I was set to bring her home to the mill where I’d be her sole hospice caretaker the day she passed away. (I couldn’t enlist any other help without money neither she or I had.) She passed away peacefully that morning and I know it had to do with a major lesson in pragmatism she had taught me a few weeks before. (Read more on that lesson in the slideshow.) My decision to care for her alone was not a practical one, but one I was determined to do.

This is her beloved home and I’m so proud to share it with you.

In short, the mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a three-story home has a 40-foot water wheel, considered the largest, freestanding water mill wheel anywhere. It recently sold to a private businessman. I adopted Muffy and Sushi. You can see a video of the water wheel in motion here.

About Shepherd’s Mill & Shepherdstown: This gristmill in Shepherdstown, West Virginia is located on our local small stream called the Town Run. The picturesque stream still spills violently down a rocky incline and disappears in the woods below the mill. It flows into the nearby Potomac River. The mill was built some time prior to 1739 by Thomas Shepherd, the founder of our town. Originally, it was a two-story structure and the original mill wheel was most likely a wood overshot wheel. The current 40-foot-diameter Fitz Water Wheel Company steel overshot wheel was built in 1894. A third story addition was built in the late 19th century.

“The remains of the of the first Shepherd Grist Mill, first built prior to 1739, and operated for two centuries, mark the industry of the State’s earliest incorporated settlement, originally known as Mecklenburg, the first settlers arriving probably as early as 1719. The mill stands near the Pack Horse Ford crossing of the Potomac. The Indian trail to Pack Horse Ford became the Philadelphia Wagon Road into the Valley of Virginia, and on this road, named High Street, the grist mill was erected. Thomas Shepherd Sr. not only built a mill; he laid out building lots for homes on a part of his first grant of land. Many wheat farmers settled in the vicinity. Shepherd bequeathed the mill to his son, Thomas Jr., in 1776. After the Revolution the village name was changed to Shepherdstown, honoring the builder of the mill. Shepherd started a trend of mills, which became focal points for roads leading out to seaboard markets for flour. A map published in 1810 lists 31 grist or merchant mills in Jefferson County serving a coastal area from Alexandria to Philadelphia. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Thomas Shepherd with his grist mill inaugurated a “bread basket” for the growing nation. There seems to be little doubt of the continuous operation of a mill on this spot. It is presumed that the stone building still standing is more than two centuries old. The large, 40-foot iron wheel was once located 60 yards farther down stream, but the date of its installation is beyond the memory of local inhabitants who can remember the mill as it was at the beginning of the century.

Shepherd’s Mill, then known as Thompson and Carter, suspended operations in 1939. By that time, transportation facilities had increased to the point where large firms could control regional or national markets. Small firms with limited production were simply forced to close their doors in face of such powerful competition. Shepherd’s Mill was too large to exist as merely a local supplier and not large enough to compete in a broader market where economy of scale meant the difference between survival and extinction. This phenomenon affected most of the town’s industries in a similar fashion, and Shepherdstown reverted to its earlier function as a residential and commercial center catering to the needs of the surrounding farms and the local college.”

Source: Historic American Engineering Record of the National Park Service, Historian & Author Dennis M. Zembala, 1975

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The upper level of the mill served as a space for many of Patrinka’s treasures, including furniture inherited from the Glackens’ collection & paintings by Ira Glackens and local artists.

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Patrinka’s massive library was filled with books on nearly every subject – from late 19th century local historical society publications to spiritual tomes. The chaise was a lovely spot to read & nap.

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The west wall of the upper level housed wooden objects and Portuguese & early American crockery. Even the wall frames housed treasures from Patrinka’s collection.

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I’ve always loved this full-page newspaper ad Patrinka took out in the 1970’s during her mayoral run. As an activist & environmentalist, Patrinka did not mince words when it came to her opponent’s (also a woman!) opinions on local preservation & environmental issues.

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Everything in Patrinka’s home was arranged on angles appropriate for optimum natural light & according to Feng Shui principles. She had running water fountains and gas fire stoves on each level of the mill to ensure those elements were present in the energy of the space. Note the angular placement of the blue settee — Patrinka would invite local artists & models to come into the mill during certain times to make art when the light lit the settee in a particularly beautiful way.

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Another view of the library & the upper level.
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There really wasn’t a subject that Patrinka didn’t know something about – usually a lot actually. In the last few weeks of her life, she taught me a much needed lesson in pragmatism when I tried to move her by myself at the hospice facility. She rattled on & on about insurance, training & in true Patrinka fashion — liability. While my first impulse was to act from the heart, she taught me to think things through & ask for help.

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This candelabra lit many salon gatherings & dinner parties. They weren't fancy, just filled with good food, good conversation & an environment that inspired late night discussions of art, culture & preservation.
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Patrinka often hosted visiting artists & invited them to take up residence on the upper level of the mill. The side view from this bed overlooks the cascading town run.
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On the ground level, in what I believe used to house the mill office & transaction area, my father outfitted a small two room apartment that overlooks the town run & waterfall that flows into the Potomac river. Patrinka's bedroom was in the rear & had a fantastic wooded view complete with the running water she loved so much.
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The stone window sill in the apartment's kitchen was the perfect place to display her pottery from local artisans & others she picked up in her travels.
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This is the ground floor level main hall outside the small apartment. It was filled with 360 degrees of massive paintings by William Glackens son Ira, along with low slung velvet chairs & an oversized farm table that seated 16. It is also where the top of mill grinding equipment stands in the far corner.

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Here sits the stone mill wheel, which my father restored & built a protective wood case around. The horse painting on the left was done by Ira Glackens. Photo by Ron Agnir for The Martinsburg Journal
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A year before Patrinka passed away, she called her to tell me she was mothering a baby deer whose mother had abandoned it. She had watched the fawn from her bedroom window & said it stood in the same spot for days waiting for its mother to return. When she didn't return, Patrinka left one of the mill doors open so it could see shelter if it needed to. The fawn came into the mill & simply laid down. Patrinka fed it from a baby bottle, nursed it back to health & swore me to secrecy because she was frightened that neighbors would call animal control. She would let "Roo" roam the property at night to avoid any neighbor issues.
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This photo shows the water wheel before the mill we're touring was built. A small building shown on the right may be where grain was processed at the time. The wheel was moved 60 yards upstream to its current location 1904.
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The mill was in ill-repair in the 1950’s as shown here. Former Shepherdstown mayor, Sy Starry, who I actually remember from my youth, purchased it & the adjacent house sometime in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. He nominated the mill for acceptance in the National Registry of Historic Places in 1971. It was granted.

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While minimum repairs on the mill made throughout the decades, it wasn’t fully restored to its former glory until Ira & Nancy Glackens purchased the property in 1973. They reported spent $500,000 on the restoration. This photo shows the mill circa 1974 prior to the renovation.

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Ira’s father, William Glackens, was a member of the early 20th century American painters known as the Ashcan School.  This photo from the Archives and Special Collections of Smithsonian American Art Museum shows Ira & Nancy seated beneath William Glackens’s “Family Group” painting. Photography credit: Peter A. Juley & Sons

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This view of the restored mill under the stewardship of Patrinka Kelch. Patrinka was the sole caretaker of Ira & Nancy Glackens. She inherited the property from them in 1990.
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This is an external structural blueprint of the mill from the Library of Congress.
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Another external structural blueprint of the mill from the Library of Congress that details the water wheel -- an early example of "green" power.
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A stunning view of the mill, water wheel & landscape that surrounds the property.

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This is a shot of the mill stone seen in Slide 11 on the ground floor of the mill. The property was not restored yet & was in severe disrepair.

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The below ground level housed all the gears and mechanics that ground the grain. The photo shows the lower level prior to the renovation.

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The restoration included making the lower mechanics & the water wheel function once again. Patrinka would open the mill to the public on special occasions & “turn on the wheel”, which was as simple as removing a man-made dam piece to allow the water to flow into the wheel’s path.

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The exterior gears of the water wheel & the stone facade before the restoration.

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Comments

  • This is an incredible property and a bittersweet story. I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been to publish, but thank you for the tour. I’m such a sucker for history and old buildings are such a treasure. I hope the new owner loves it as much as Patrinka did!

  • This is such a gem of a home, and a loving and beautiful tribute to your step-mother! I can certainly understand why you had waited so long to write this and am so glad you’ve decided to share it now. Your posts about your home-town are always some of my favorites on Design*Sponge.

  • Such a fascinating space, a veritable archive, and so many interesting stories here. This is a lovely tribute to Patrinka and her influence.

  • This is a beautiful and moving story. Your loyalty to Patrinka and the heritage of the mill speaks volumes about you, Caitlin. What a lovely home. Thank you for this! And for adopting the kitties❤️

  • Wow! Very cool article! My little Italian uncle, Americus worked for Sy on wheels repairs back in the day!❤

  • Thanks Caitlin,
    What you did for Patrinka in her last months and days was lovely. Thanks for the wonderful history and photos. I enjoyed getting to know her the last few years she was alive.
    Lori Robertson

  • This sounds like the makings of a book about Patrinka’s life. Thank you for sharing her and the mill history.

    • Hi there

      Apologies for taking 24 hours to reply! I knew this question would come (and the answer would be tough to write!) so it took some processing time.

      So, sadly, all of the contents were auctioned off at our local fairgrounds last summer. It was a complicated will and estate to settle, to say the least, and the local Sheriff was the executor. I couldn’t bear to go to the auction.

      My former neighbors and good friends’ property abuts the mill property & looks over the same town run/waterfall that Patrinka’s home did. They went to the auction and purchased two of her favorite velvet chairs & the chairs now sit in their home overlooking the same view they did when they were at the mill. I love this outcome!

      While she was still alive, Patrinka would send me back & forth from the nursing home to bring her old quilts from the mill so she could show me how to store them (tissue paper on every inch! & no sun!). She then proceeded to tell me we were doing this because she was gifting me the quilts. I treasure them.

      Caitlin

  • My historic home next to this Grist Mill is for sale. It is.on the historic registry, circa 1759. It has a full view of the Mill and orchard. See Circa website for details.

  • A beautiful home and a very moving story. I hope the new custodian continues to cherish this precious piece of history. I always enjoy Caitlin Kelch’s stories.

  • Caitlin,
    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, moving story. I believe it to be my favorite of all the Design Sponge stories I have read.
    Pam

  • G react story, Caitlin! I so remember all my times there when Sy was the owner.Jeane Owens and I would sit in the waterfall, sipping martinis, while you watched from the mill…before its transformation.It was so nice to see all the wonderful things Patrinka collected. Do you happen to remember Nancy had the little turtle city in back of the house? You
    adored that when you were there.

  • Oh my goodness..what a great story about a great woman! You were so lucky to have her in your corner, and you in hers! What a lovely and heartbreaking space to have to give up. I am so sorry about that. But I am thrilled that she gifted you all those quilts (I’m a quilter), and I hope you keep them and even use them occasionally.
    Thanks for sharing.

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