The Mills of Gaithersburg
(reprinted from The Communique, Spring 2008, by Jeanne North)
The world over, from time immemorial, people have devised ways to mash, crush or grind the grain they grow. Ever in search of the flour or meal to make the life-sustaining staple of their diet, they used hand methods—mortar and pestle, “saddle stones,” querns—that can be tedious and time consuming. Over time these yielded to the more efficient water mill: research has found that these were in use in ancient Greece and Rome as well as in medieval England.
Closer to home, mills have played an important role in Gaithersburg history. That history is displayed in the new exhibit mounted at the Gaithersburg Community Museum, housed in the freight house next to the railroad station in Olde Towne.
Brought to life by Wendy Woodland, Coordinator of the Gaithersburg Community Museum, and Maizie Cummings-Rocke, historian and Exhibit Coordinator for the Museum, the exhibit exuberantly proclaims the value of the City’s past, with explanatory wall panels chronicling Gaithersburg’s agricultural history, artifacts such as burlap bags of the kind that held the grain, tales of personages of import to the City’s past, and of course, a model train, symbolizing the opening of the City’s future.
"From 1700 to 1950, agriculture was the main industry in and around Gaithersburg," writes Historian Gail Littlefield in a research paper on Gaithersburg’s Agricultural Heritage. As early as 1639, the Maryland Governor and Council authorized the building of a grist mill. Most local mills were water powered, and ruins of some can be found on the Seneca and Potomac and their tributaries. But for the most part, the remains of the old mills can be seen in the names of roads named after them: Muncaster Mill, Clopper, Goshen, Watkins Mill.
With the arrival of the railroad in 1873 came the beginning of the transformation of Gaithersburg from a sleepy village to a bustling hub of agricultural trade. Strategically placed in the center of the county, and with rail transportation at hand, the City thrived. Grain warehouses, granaries and storehouses sprang up. The Gaithersburg Milling and Manufacturing Company, founded in 1891, manufactured flour, feeds and fertilizers and sold a variety of goods, which went to buyers in Gaithersburg and were shipped as far as Washington, D.C.
Milling continued to be part of the Gaithersburg landscape, and the remains of two mills can be found in Olde Towne today. The Bowman Brothers Mill, a successful grain mill until the 1960’s, has been redeveloped as Granary Row, a prize-winning mixed-use complex. The Herbert Bryant & Sons Mill, later Williams Feed Company, is now East Diamond Storage.
Its past steeped in farming and the milling that went along with that activity, the City saw its life take another turn. Development filled the rolling farmland with homes for commuters who work in Washington and elsewhere, and new enterprises sprang up along what is now known as the biotech corridor.
As the new exhibit in the Community Museum shows, there is much to celebrate in Gaithersburg's past. The people of the City await the future with anticipation.
*Muncaster Mill. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HABS-HAER,
Albert S. Burns, photographer, ca. 1934-1935, HABS MD,16-GAITH.V,1-2.