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Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Windmills

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Wind grist mills were important to Portsmouth farmers during the 19th century. In 1942 the Fall River Herald ran an essay by Benjamin Boyd whose family ran the Boyd’s Mill. Boyd wrote about “Wind Grist Mills of Rhode Island.”  He provides a first hand account of the history of his family’s mill, the Sherman Mill and the vital role the mills played for local agriculture.

“For some reason,” Boyd wrote, “Rhode Island seems to have been the only place where these wind mills were used to any extent.” When Boyd was a boy he remembered 10 mills in Portsmouth.  In 1942 there were three mills left in Portsmouth.  Almy’s Mill (later called Thurston’s Mill) was on East Main Road.  The Sherman Mill was built in Warren to grind grain for whiskey production.  It was moved to Fall River and then to LeHigh Hill on West Main Road.  Boyd’s Mill was the third.  The first mill the Boyd family ran stood by Bristol Ferry.  The Great Gale of 1815 destroyed that one.  The family bought the Peterson Mill.  It was located by Mill Lane near West Main Road.  This mill was built in 1810 to grind grain to feed livestock.  Boyd said that in 1901 he converted the Boyd Mill into a eight vaned windmill.

Boyd wrote that cheap grain and meat from the western US made these old methods of farming unprofitable for Rhode Island farmers so they went more into truck farming.

Sherman Mill – Now at Prescott Farm

“But there were many people who appreciated the fact that Rhode Island corn, which is of a different shape and color from any other, possessed merits for making meal for family use superior to any other cornmeal.”  Boyd was referring to the famous Rhode Island Johnny Cake meal.

Boyd commented that all meal up to 1895 was unsifted so that the cook had to sift it.  Boyd invented a “power sifter” run by the mill.

By the end of the 19th century there were 6,000 sheep kept on the island and many hogs.  November was slaughter time for the hogs that had been grown and fattened by the wind mill ground grain.  As the miller, the Boyds received a portion of the ground grain as payment and they fed their hogs with it.   Benjamin Boyd said his father took up to 6,000 pounds of pork to sell in New Bedford.  The gristmill grain and hay fed cows, oxen, sheep, pigs and poultry.

Most Portsmouth farmers had at least a pair of oxen that could be put to work.  Boyd said that local farmers looked to “pay off” their taxes.  “Money was scarce, so the town was divided into seven road districts with a supervisor for each district, and on a certain day after planting, when there was a slack time before cultivating and hoeing, the supervisor warned each taxpayer that he could come out and work out his tax if he so desired, bring oxen and carts, crowbars, shovels, forks, hoes, chains, plows, and as many of his hired help as he desired.”  Boyd states that the seven “road districts” corresponded to the “school districts.”

Boyd remembers “cattle drivers” and “horse traders” who drove their livestock down the main roads to sell their animals to the farmers.  One such driver stopped to talk to a potential buyer but his animals continued down the road and found a poor farmer’s cabbage patch.

For Boyd, windmills were part of his heritage.  He was a descendent of Nicholas Easton who built the first wind grist mill.  “I have farmed all my life and have turned the black dirt of Old Mother Earth into wheat, rye, oats and barley to be ground into feed for livestock, and as I have baked many Johnny Cakes.  I have literally turned the black dirt of Old Mother Earth into one of the finest food products known to man, the Famous Rhode Island Johnny Cake; ground by the power of the free air, which is the only thing that is free today.”

This article is available online at this link:

http://portsmouthhistorical.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Scrapbook-Part-2-p-13-20-18-blank.pdf

Joseph Cundall: Lost in a Snowstorm

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Many vintage guides to Aquidneck Island call the Glen “Cundall’s Mills.”  The old history books tell the sad sorry of Joseph Cundall who was “engaged in the woolen manufacture, in the pursuit and improvement, of which he was uncommonly skillful, ingenious and enterprising” (Newport Mercury, December 1811).  This is the story of the Cundall family in Portsmouth and of the tragic ending to a life well spent.

Cundall Family Mills

The Glen had been associated with mills since colonial times.  The Cundall family had strong roots in the area.  The stream through the Glen was originally settled by Thomas Cook and his family.  As the Cooks moved on to Tiverton, this land was bought by James Sisson who sold his grist mill and 46 acres around the brook to a Joseph Cundall.  In 1706 Joseph Cundall had left his native Yorkshire, England to become an indentured servant in America. Becoming an indentured servant was a way for a young person to learn a trade and get an education in exchange for working for seven years or more. Cundall seems to have learned his trade well and was in a good position to buy land as an adult. Water from the stream powered the carding and fulling mills to wash and pull woolen fibers. Joseph Cundall added almost a hundred more acres to his land around the Glen before he died in 1760.

As we walk through the Glen today, it is hard for us to picture it as a busy mill and cloth manufacturing site.  There was a mill pond and a stream of water which would propel a small carding and fulling mill.  You can still see the remnants of the mill run with its stonework lining the mill stream.  The millstream ends at the Sakonnet River.  At one time there were wide paths along the mill run.  Walking through this area today, you can imagine that it is still much like the landscape the Cundall family knew so well.  This mill stream area, however, was the scene of  Joseph Cundall’s grandson’s death.

The Christmas Eve Tragedy

Although family genealogies are hard to follow, Joseph Cundall (the third Joseph in the line from our original miller) was born in 1763.  He was described as a “highly useful and industrious citizen” by the  Newport Mercury at the time of his death. His character was described as upright, amiable and benevolent.   In listing his death, the Rhode Island, Vital Extracts notes that he was repeatedly a Representative in the General Assembly and was a Justice in Court of Common Pleas for Newport County, besides filling other offices of trust.  At forty-nine years of age, Joseph Cundall Esquire was a respected man in business and the community.

How did he die so tragically?  On Christmas Eve, 1811 there was a sudden and violent snow storm.  It was described by newspapers at the time to be the most severe storm the area had seen in many years.   Joseph went along the mill run to secure some wood that had been delivered on the Sakonnet River shoreline.  He did not want the wood to go out with the tide.  Shepherd Tom Hazard, who lived nearby on Wapping Road, reported that hundreds of sheep, many cattle and several human beings died in the storm.  Hazard writes “Among the latter was

Joseph Cundall’s tombstone

Joseph Cundall of Portsmouth, who became so exhausted and bewildered while but a few rods from his house in what is now called “the Glen,” that he gave up striving, and sat down in a deep gorge a short distance south of the mill, where his corpse was subsequently found under a snow-bank (From Recollections of Olden Times).  Cundall’s body was not found for a week and there had been hope that he could survive.  Cundall was laid to rest in the Slocum graveyard, just a few yards from where his mill would have been.

The Christmas Eve tragedy marked an end to Cundall’s Mills.  The land and mills had been purchased by the firm of Clarke (Judge Samuel) and Grinnell and they carried on the wool manufacturing business.  When the land and mills were sold in 1823 the Newport Mercury lists that they operated a grist mill, a clothier’s works with looms and spinning machinery.  The Cundall family members gradually left the area, but the the name “Cundall’s Mills” still remains in our history.