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Appreciation grows for overlooked tide mills of early New England Settlements

Mill on Sawmill Creek Forest Road Salisbury, Massachusetts 1890 Courtesy of Paul Turner Salisbury Historical Preservation.

My article published with Boston Media Group Publications 2015

Much of 17th century New England was powered by tide mills. A tide mill was any kind of mill powered by tidal water. Unfortunately these type of mills have been overlooked, but the tide is turning.

Over the past 10 years, John Goff, Bud Warren, and Earl Taylor, founders of the Tidal Mills Institute (TMI) have strived to advance the appreciation of tide mill history and technology. TMI also promotes the use of former tide mill sites and fosters the research of many tidal mill enthusiasts.

One member of TMI, Ron Klodenski of Newburyport, has made some interesting discoveries locally. In 2013, Klodenski presented a well-documented report on Curzon’s Mill in Newburyport at a TMI conference hosted by the Topsfield Historical Society at the Gould Barn.

Last October, Klodenski worked with Paul Turner of the Salisbury Historical Society on another tide mill site located at Ring’s Island and presented findings at the TMI conference at the Museum of Old York Maine.

As noted, the site at Ring’s Island revealed remnants of a tide mill such as vertical plank walls in the stream bed, a mill stone fragment, as well as pieces of cut granite. Local historian Robert Cheney noted that “the Coffins built a mill for the purpose of grinding corn for the residents. It was called a tide mill and the big water wheel which furnished the power for the grinding stones was located in the creek, which was called thereafter Mill Creek.”

Mill on Sawmill Creek Forest Road Salisbury, Massachusetts 1890 Courtesy of Paul Turner Salisbury Historical Preservation.

Klondenski includes a 1830 map in his report which shows a grain mill near the intersection of Coffin’s Creek and the Merrimack River. Cheney also noted that, when the mill was demolished, the bed timbers were not removed and clammers used them to cross the creek beds to walk home from the flats. He further adds that the house once occupied by the Coffin family has a lower millstone used as the lower step of the house.

Back when the colonies were forming it was necessary to have a mill to become self-sufficient, usually this was a grist mill. John Goff asserts that there were hundreds of tide mills operating in 17th and 18th century New England and were as frequent as gas stations are today. Bud Warren has documented more than 300 tide mills in Maine.

The most successful mills were the ones at “Mill Pond” and supplied Bostonians with grain for more than a century. During the “Big Dig” excavation a large millstone and remains of a wooden gear was found from that mill. These mills and other early tide mills are mentioned in the court records and the diary of Samuel Sewall.

One of the first tide mills in North America on record was at Port Royal Nova Scotia (1613). The Micmac Indians assisted the French in building a double function mill.

In March 1640, Salem authorized Capt. William Trask to build a tide mill upon the North River, “provided he make passage for a shallop from half flood to full sea.” He soon built another later known as Frye’s Mills.

Two depositions recorded at Ipswich court in 1662 reference a tide mill in the town of Lynn owned by Samuel Bennett in 1644. Francis Ingols and Clement Cooldome both mention a tide mill operated for about 20 years for the grinding of corn. Cooldome deposed that the mill was used more than any other and when sold the town was put to such a straight that it was forced to build another tide mill.

On the mouth of Strawberry Brook, Edmund Farrington was granted the right by the town in 1654 “to build a tide-mill upon the condition that the grain of the town be seasonably and faithfully ground.” He became the”Corn Miller” of Lynn.

In Manchester a tide-mill had been built in 1644, “upon the river near the meeting-house, a one-story log structure.” It was demolished in 1826.

Andrew Greeley built a tide mill for the grinding of corn, on Kane’s River, contiguous to a rock-bound island where he added a sawmill about 1650. The mill was occupied and run by three generations of Greeleys until 1747, when it was sold to Jonathan Walton.

Paul Turner just visited the site of one of the other mills located in Salisbury at the old French farm, which is now part of the Greenbelt. Turner checked the Salisbury town records which revealed a tide mill built by William Osgood: “On the 21st day of the 2nd month in 1641 (21 Apr 1641 new year began on 25 Mar.) Willi Osgood was granted 50 acres of upland and 10 acres medow to build a saw mill by 10th day 7th month. 50 acres lying between ye little river and ye commonwas.”

In Milton, a paper mill was erected “on the Neponset River, a little below the head of tidewater.” The General Court of Massachusetts granted to Benjamin Faneuil, Thomas Hancock and others the privilege of erecting this mill. (September 1728) In the first 15 months, the mill was required to make 140 reams of brown paper and sixty reams of printing-paper.

Goff is presently working with the Beverly Historical Society to establish a new tour program for the old Friend’s Tide Mill site located at the Cummings Center, upon the Bass River. Goff says this area was once part ancient Naumkeag, first settled by Nanepashemet’s boat-building, fishing and Indian corn-farming Native Americans.

John Winthrop’s sailed on the “Arbella” with skilled carpenter John Friend who was brought over to erect the same mill structures as used back in England. A land grants was given to Friend who built a circa 1647-49 Indian corn-grinding tidal gristmill after obtaining Salem permissions. The Friend’s Mill, or the Friend-Dodge Tide Mill was kept active by many different owners over the years.

Klodenski and Turner are planning to organize further exploration and have found evidence of more tide mills. To view a full report and learn more visit and contact the Salisbury Historical Society. Community help and support is greatly needed so we do not let this great historical find wash away.

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