Old Sunrise Mill

Robert Wood

Sunrise Mill

Historic Sunrise Mill is located just off  Neiffer Road on a particularly beautiful stretch of the Swamp Creek at the intersection point of Upper Frederick, Lower Frederick and Limerick townships. Montgomery County bought the 150 acre mill site in 1971 with the plan to restore the historic saw and grist mill to working order as a visitors’ destination and the grounds as a recreation area. To that end the mill dam, which was destroyed by hurricane Agnus in 1972, was rebuilt and the buildings stabilized. Some of the original mill machinery was in place and removed by the county as restoration began.

Unfortunately, after a good start the restoration was stopped and the site was never opened to the public.

The most notable owner of the mill was physician and Temple University professor, Dr. Chevalier Jackson, who bought it in 1918 and lived there until his death in 1958 at the age of 93. It was his granddaughter who sold it to Montgomery County. Dr. Jackson is chiefly known as the inventor of the bronchoscope, a long narrow metal tube with a light and forceps at the end. With this he removed from persons’ throats, windpipes and lungs such things as pins, safety razor blades, coins, poker chips, jewelry, bits of bones and whatever else small children could swallow. He gained international fame as a throat surgeon and was the driving force behind laws getting household poisons such as lye properly labeled with cautions. If children drank lye, the caustic chemical burned and scarred the esophagus so that it closed up and the child slowly perished.

Dr. Jackson was quite attached to the mill, and had gotten it running again with a miller grinding cattle feed for the neighborhood. However, he would not restore the saw mill as he said he feared that the presence of a saw mill would cause people to cut down living trees. He painted the scenery around the mill pond and is today a collectable artist. He had an electric boat on the mill pond.

Dr. Jackson wrote an autobiography in 1938 in which he describes the site and mill:  “ ‘In the Province of Pennsylvania, in the Realm of His Majesty, King George the Third,’ the old parchment deed reads. The mill stands partly in the waters of the Swamp Creek, where they rush through a rocky gorge to pass under an old stone arched bridge. The hillsides are covered with trees and ferns; beautiful half-century old, gray-green lichens cover the rocks and cliffs. In this setting nestles the old mill. A date panel in the gable is inscribed 1765. The footing course of the massive wall is laid with huge stones resting on the outcropping strata…. The walls are plumb, level, and true as on the day they were laid, a century and a half ago, a monument to the conscientious craftsmanship of men long since dead and otherwise unrecorded. The hands that so skillfully shaped, mortised, and pegged the massive beams and timbers are disintegrating no one knows where.”

Well--- we do know where. From a dateboard high in the gable peak we learn that John and Mary Shoemaker built the present mill in 1819. We also know from other sources that he is buried about a half mile away at Hersteins Chapel on Neiffer Road. He had donated the land for the chapel and cemetery. The dateboard also informs us that “The foundation was laid by Yost & A. Bitting and Michael& C. Krause, August 1767.”

Yost Bitting was a prominent New Hanover farmer who owned 150 acres off Fagleysville Road near where Bella Vista development now stands.

Shoemaker put his 1819 mill atop the older foundation presumably after demolishing the old Bitting/Crouse mill. Michael Krause shows up in 1734 as the owner of that 150 acres in Frederick Township, which he bought in 1728. The first documented source of a mill at the site occurs in the provincial tax records of 1774 which list “1 gristmill and 1 sawmill.”

However, although the grist and sawmill are adjacent, the walls are not keyed together as they would have been if they had been built at the same time. It is speculated in the county study that the sawmill was built first. Sawmills are less expensive to erect than gristmills and  the study speculates that timbers produced by the mill could be used to build the gristmill. I think there is another good reason why the first mill was a sawmill. Just a half-mile up the Swamp Creek there was in operation at this time the large Antes Gristmill which would have been stiff competition for another one so close by.

But for most of the time there existed both mills. The county documentary evidence goes on to say, “By the extant physical evidence and limited documentary evidence, it is apparent that the two mills existed together at an early date. However, in all probability they were two distinct and separate systems. The information available about the operation of eighteenth-century mills indicates that the limited technology of the time presented serious power transmission problems which would have discouraged the joining of the two mills at Sunrise mill.”

Also, most up-and-down sawmills of that day used a small undershot waterwheel called a flutter-wheel, which is quite different from the large gristmill wheel.

When Dr. Jackson bought the mill in 1918, however, power did not come from a water-wheel but two tub-turbines. Toward the end of the 19th century most all mills with a sufficient head of water replaced the old inefficient wooden wheels with turbines that provided significantly more power. In these later mills, power went from the turbine up to the first floor by a vertical shaft where pinion gears transferred it to a horizontal shaft from which belts carried the power up the several floors to run bolting reels for sifting flour as well as machinery and elevators of all kinds.

Some mills, though, continued to use water wheels well into the 20th century. Indeed, I recall as a boy seeing an operating feed mill powered by a water wheel in Schwenksville.

In any case, installation of the turbines and penstocks obliterated all evidence of the original waterwheel configuration at Sunrise, but given the head of water and the existence of surviving mills and the dimensions of the stone walls of the wheel-pit, the original would most likely have been a breast wheel about ten feet long and about fifteen feet in diameter.

Before being purchased by the county, the mill had 16 owners. Most notable among them was Samuel Hartranft who bought it in 1842 and sold it in 1847. He was father to John Frederick Hartranft, who was one of the most prominent generals in the Union Army and later Governor of Pennsylvania. At this time the property was described as being on a “public road, which passes through the premises leading from Limerick Square to Keeler’s Church.”

This mill and site are an historic treasure. If Montgomery County were to see fit to follow through on the plan to restore it, Sunrise Mill could be the jewel of the county historic sites.

Dr. Jackson’s Bronchoscopy skills came in handy at the mill where, one day, a metal spike was accidentally dropped down the “throat” of  the cob-chop machine. The miller despaired of ever retrieving it from machine’s innards. But Dr. Jackson threaded a wire through a small pipe and with the aid of a flashlight lowered the pipe into the machine, looped the wire around the spike, and hauled it back to the light of day.



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