Ancient Water Wheel Rolls into Clarke County

A very rare (and very large) horizontal water wheel rolled into Clarke County Monday morning. The water wheel, which was donated to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources by the late Paul Mellon of Upperville, has spent the last 15 years in a Virginia Department of Transportation warehouse in Richmond, may someday be incorporated into Clermont Farm’s agriculture history program.

Woolf's Mill forebay box initial excavation in 1988

“This water wheel has been in stored in a warehouse for 15 years and it’s been looking for a home for the past five years” said Virginia’s State Archaeologist Mike Barber who was present at Clermont Farm to receive the delivery of the ancient water wheel. “Clermont will be a great home for the water wheel because it can be set-up out of the weather and also be historically interpreted for the public.”

Barber said that the long term plan is to assemble a team of historians and engineers to design an exhibit that will represent how the horizontal water wheel operated and the way that the technology was used in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“This is exciting stuff” Barber smiled.

While horizontal water wheels are recorded in Virginia as early as 1733, Melllon’s donation, taken from Woolf’s Mill on his sprawling estate southeast of Upperville, is the first and only water wheel of its type ever excavated in Virginia.

Clermont CEO Robert Stieg (l) and Virginia State Archaeologist Michael Barber watch as the Woolf's Mill water wheel tub is unloaded - Photo Edward Leonard

Originally Mellon’s water wheel was part of Woolf’s Mill on Goose Creek in Fauquier County. Woolf’s Mill was built about 1798 but burned in 1829. The mill was then rebuilt in 1832 when it is believed that the tub-style water wheel was installed to power the mill.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), which owns Clermont, asked the Clermont Foundation which manages the site to arrange storage for the Woolf’s Mill Tub Wheel, one of the largest and most unique artifacts in DHR’s collection of thousands of historic items.

“We hope to be able to interpret the water wheel for visitors to Clermont” said Clermont Charitable Trust CEO Robert Stieg. “At Clermont, many parts of the old house and service buildings are constructed with heavy timber frames – like a barn” Stieg said. “This water wheel system is also constructed using heavy timber frame techniques, and at Clermont these early building techniques can be compared in their various uses. The mill power system and its framing will also be studied in the context of the Burwell-Morgan Mill which is still operating in Millwood, Virginia and is owned by the Clarke County Historical Association.”

Stieg said that Woolf’s Mill used what was known as a “tub wheel” – a horizontal water wheel – to power its grist mill operations. Monday’s delivery to Clermont includes the partially conserved remains of the eight-foot-square wooden tub and wooden-bladed wheel, the 10-foot by six-foot water supply box – also known as the “forebay” – and the flume to carry the water between the tub and the forebay.

The horizontal power train was located in the basement of the mill, with an iron axle running from the center axis of the tub wheel straight up into the first floor of the mill, where it was connected to the mill stones.

Water came in from the creek through a headrace to the mill, where it plunged down into the basement and into the forebay box, from which a narrowing flume forced the water into the turbine box. The water rapidly turned the paddles on the turbine and was discharged out through a hole in the bottom center of the tub and out through a tail race under the lower wall of the mill, back into the creek. All of this occurred under substantial pressure.

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Stieg said that Woolf’s Mill ceased operation about 1900, and in 1925 the upper stories of the mill were dismantled and the remains left to deteriorate. In 1985, after conducting an archaeological survey of his estate, Mr. Mellon commissioned what became a five year excavation of the site of Woolf’s Mill. In 1988 the remains of the tub wheel itself, the forebay water supply box, and the flume were discovered in the former basement of the mill.

Paul Mellow was an American philanthropist, thoroughbred racehorse owner/breeder. According to Wikipedia he was co-heir to one of America’s greatest business fortunes, the Mellon Bank fortune, created by his grandfather Thomas Mellon, his father Andrew W. Mellon, and his father’s brother Richard B. Mellon. He died on February 1, 1999.

Steig said that not only did Mellon donate his unique archaeological discovery to the state Department of Historic Resources, he also paid for the complete conservation of the Woolf’s Mill artifacts, a process similar to what is done with ancient wooden ships raised from the water.

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Besides wanting to store these artifacts on its own property, DHR also wanted a location where they could be studied in relation to other applications of 18th and 19th century timber framing techniques, and in the context of other historical mills of different types.

Clermont’s collection of timber framed building and its proximity to a working mill in Millwood, Virginia made it the ideal home for the Woolf’s Mill artifacts.

Steig said that he was excited to receive the mill, in part, because the tub mill water wheel design was a technological advancement in its day.

“Mills operated in a lot of different circumstances” Steig explained. “The tub mill used a smaller structure that was better suited to smaller streams. The simpler wheel design not only made it less costly, it was also sheltered from the elements including ice. You can just imagine that ice can be a big problem for a water wheel. The tub mill solved that problem.”

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