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The Hoppes Grist Mill

  • PHOTOS COURTESY OF ABBY BEERMAN The Hoppes Grist Mill of St. Peter's Church in Mantzville was built by John Hoppes in 1845. Another mill further out the valley was possibly started in the 1830s by Solomon Hoppes.
    PHOTOS COURTESY OF ABBY BEERMAN The Hoppes Grist Mill of St. Peter's Church in Mantzville was built by John Hoppes in 1845. Another mill further out the valley was possibly started in the 1830s by Solomon Hoppes.
Published July 30. 2011 09:01AM

Little about walking into the mill near Mantzville's St. Peter's Church today gives the impression that it has sat idle for some 70 years.

Entering, it feels as though the owner momentarily stepped out the back door. The C. J. Homm's "BB Feeds" sign, that lists prices of turkey starter and ground oyster shells, looks as vibrant today as any modern sign. The workings sit and wait as though their master will soon return to once again make them rumble.

The mill was built by John Hoppes in 1845. And his great, great grandson, Berlyn Hoppes, has lived across the mill race his whole life. According to Hoppes, it passed down to his son David Hoppes who ran it up to the Great Depression. Then a partnership, formed by two men named Coombe and Shimer, ran it until Calvin J. Homm became the last operator, running it only as a cleaning mill. It then went to Fred Johnson until he passed away in the 1970s.

Enter Karl Jens, current owner of the Hoppes Mill near St. Peter's Church, who is a gracious, soft-spoken gentleman. He recently opened his home and mill property to a joint visit of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society and the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center.

The group was fortunate to have Jens's hospitality and his detailed tour augmented by Hoppes's color commentary. Near the steps leading into the first level, within the stone foundation, are two chutes with metal covers. In the working days, hoppers would be attached for farmers to pour their corn or grain into the funneled receptacle below the floor for the main elevator to pick up.

The main elevator, as well as all the subsequent lesser elevators within the mill, consists of a cup-studded belt that scoops the grain, cup after cup, directly to the fourth level of the mill. From there, the grain could be diverted to any number of locations in the mill depending on what needed to be done to it, by way of rudimentary yet efficient square-wooden tubes.

Grains could be stored in large bins on the third level or sent directly to one of the roller mills or sent to be cleaned of chaff and have fungicide applied to it ("Saracen-M" according to Hoppes) and returned to the farmer for seed for the following spring.

The jaw-dropper of the mill is the 26-foot steel Fitz water-wheel. Though the race is long gone, with just a few pulls, the giant wheel once again awakens to life. Once started, it can spin and spin like a fly-wheel with little sustaining effort.

Imagine the water shooting from the race over the top of the wheel, catching the tread-like sections that run across the four-foot width all around the outside wheel, each one big enough to catch about two gallons of the falling water each.

Paul Borits of Packerton remembers assisting Johnson to convert the water wheel into a hydroelectric power generator. However, Johnson passed away before he could see the idea through.

On the second level of the mill, above the wheel housing, is a 35-foot lever on a suspended fulcrum. A rope, now missing, would have been attached to the end of the lever and run through a hole in the floor. The operator could start or stop the flow of water from his control center from the 1st level.

The inside edge of the wheel is lined with teeth. From this same location on the first level, the operator could engage a smaller toothed wheel to the water wheel to engage the power train of the mill.

Though the dam, 1,200 feet to the rear, is today filled with dirt and the race long gone, at one time held enough water for a day's operation. Hoppes recalls that during the dry months, the dam only recharged enough each evening to give the mill 5 or 6 hours of operation.

Following the workings of this grist mill is an exercise in the Zen of efficiency. Everything from the bag-filler, to all the "mills," to the giant wooden spool in the fourth level for hoisting out the top bay, was powered by the water.

Originally the mill was a grist mill that used grist stones. Two stones with a diameter of about 3-4 feet sat flatly on top of the other. The top stone did the turning, driven at the center with an 8-inch square axle. Some of these stones were solid with domed tops while others were made up of pieced together stones held together with a steel band.

Occasional maintenance was needed to re-chisel worn grooves. Jens has many millstones from the mill on display in his yard, some of which are European in origin. Millers knew the stones used as ballasts of ships made good millstones.

A few millstones remain inside the mill. One rests on the fourth level of all places, undoubtedly hoisted there with the hope of some future use. A round shroud that encased the grinding stone was also found there.

But what the group was able to see, still in their place of operation, were various roller and cleaning mills. One all-wood flour mill, complete with wooden auger, was made in Chambersburg Pennsylvania by August Wolfe and Co. Mill Works. Inside, the silk filters remain largely intact.

Having all wooden parts is an important feature in a mill to avoid sparks. Dust created in the milling of grains can be highly explosive. (Recall the mini-explosion created when your 5th grade science teacher added a spark to a puff of flour.)

Hoppes recalled the days of the mill's operation and how the window panes in his house across the stream would rattle. In fact, vibration in a mill was a problem. We were told that the mounting of the mill stones was done in such a way to keep them independent of the structure of the mill to minimize this ear-numbing, teeth- jarring rattle and grinding.

The sign posted by C. J. Homm on the main beam reads, "If you spit on the floor at home, spit on the floor here, because we want you to feel at home." Coincidentally, a similar, albeit more concise version of this sentiment, was found on a website picture of the "American Midget Marvel Flour Mill," of the same type housed here at the Hoppes mill.

The Hoppes Mill's "American Midget Marvel Flour Mill" is on the second level. Perhaps not the most politically correct of all names by today's standards, the "Midget Marvel" was built by the Anglo-American Mill Company in Owensboro, Kentucky.

The "Midget Marvel Mill" was invented by an English milling engineer, A. B. Tattersall, of London, England. Tattersall had written a number of books advertising his mills, such as "The Story of a Wonderful Mill."

Another device in this mill, perhaps not seen in many mills, is an air-filtering machine that looked like something from the Willy-Wonka factory or from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. It was a drumlike machine studded with piston heads draped in a silk covering. The pistons pumped dirty air from the mill to filter out the explosive dust. (I hope you were awake for that science lesson.)

There were two wooden-chambered ducts leading out a window on both the second and third levels.

Hoppes also had some stories about the inventive genius Homm, who had several patents to his credit. He used of a Buick and a V-8 Ford engine to run the mill in later years. Other modern improvements were added including an electric-motor-driven conveyor to lift grain bags to the window on the 1st level.

Attending the tour were: John Drury, Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center director and founder, Steve Hlavka, Mauch Chunk Historical Society president, Board members of both the MCMCC and the MCHS, Jack Sterling, Ron Rabenold and intern Abby Beerman, Lifelong Mahoning Valley resident and a Baldwin Steam Engine employee Chester Mertz, Pennsylvania Canal Society Vice-President Bill Lampert, as well as Kim, Rick, Lisa, and Mason Rabenold.

The Karl Jens story

When Karl and his wife Candy purchased the mill, they fell in love with the property, not knowing that the mill went along with it. Ever since, the Jens' have devoted themselves to finding out more about its history.

Karl was born in Germany. Arriving in the states as a young man, he worked for 6 months in a tropical greenhouse on Long Island until Uncle Sam sensed his presence. He was promptly drafted and sent back to Germany. It did not matter that he wasn't yet a citizen or that he knew little English. They only tested his proficiency in German and that deemed him worthy of the job of interrogator for Military Intelligence Service (MIS).

He then ran a successful nursery in New Jersey before retiring to this beautiful section of the Mahoning Valley. The impeccably-kept property is located along St. Peter's Church Road and is replete with a greenhouse of some vintage and exotic plants. We were also given the opportunity to see his Lehigh Valley Railroad train display.

Just previous to Jens' purchase, the land was used by the Terry Graver family for growing of Christmas trees, which evolved from Calvin Homm to Fred Johnson and then to Terry Graver. Much of that original farmland is separately deeded today.

(See for more on this story, including more pictures.)

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