Most of our pantries contain a five-pound bag of flour from the grocery store. Although you can purchase flour ground at the park’s Thompson-Neely Grist Mill, locally ground flour is fairly rare in the twenty-first century. Not so in George Washington’s day. From a family’s kitchen table to Washington’s army, let’s take a look back at how grain products – and the mills that made them – played an essential role in colonial life.
The Power of Flour
It’s hard to overstate the importance of flour and cornmeal in the 1770s. Both could be used in many different ways. In addition to bread, other common baked goods included biscuits and pies, both savory and sweet.
However, fresh-baked bread would have been a treat for the Continental Army in 1776. As part of their daily rations, each soldier was supposed to receive a pound of flour. Because their rations were often lacking, many got by on a minimalist concoction called a “firecake,” flour and water mixed together and baked in iron kettles. There was no yeast or leavening agent, so the firecakes were flat and dense. One account describes them as “tasteless” on a good day.
Flour was also traded between neighbors for other goods, but more often mill owners sold their flour at the market in Philadelphia. Bucks County’s close proximity to the port city meant that millers could ship their product there within a day. From there, it went up and down the east coast and much farther, to markets in southern Europe and the West Indies.
Flour sold through the Philadelphia market was subject to quality control standards that increased its value everywhere. In fact, until the British invasion in 1777, millers and flour merchants boasted record profits.
“Even if their stockpile of grain was gone, a family who operated a mill would likely have income coming in,” explains Ross Heutmaker, the farmstead manager at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
Mills and the Revolution
One such mill owner was Robert Thompson, who had become one of the wealthiest men in Bucks County by December 1776.
“When George Washington’s Continental Army arrived in Bucks County that month, it wasn’t welcomed by everyone,” says Kimberly McCarty, the park’s curator. “Washington was concerned about those he referred to as ‘disaffected people,’ or locals who weren’t committed to either side, and the potential for spies within the area.”
Thompson, however, appears to have supported the revolution. When some millers refused to sell flour to Washington, preferring instead to send it to the market in Philadelphia where it would likely fetch a significant profit, Thompson likely helped feed Washington’s starving army.
And he didn’t stop there. For about two weeks, the soldiers lived in tattered tents, makeshift huts, and assorted structures on Thompson’s farmstead – including the barn, outbuildings, and even the family’s home.
“During that period, the beleaguered army resided alongside Thompson and his family, as well as the people Thompson employed to operate the mill during its peak season, which ran through January,” McCarty says.
The encampment completely disrupted the daily activities of the household and business. Horses and wagons came and went. Latrines were dug nearby. Camp followers – typically the soldiers’ wives and children – did laundry and tended to the sick.
Even more, the flour bought by Washington was paid with Continental Currency, which was quickly losing value. Still, Thompson appears to have remained unwavering in his support.
A Moment in Time
“Despite the strain on their resources during the encampment, the Thompson family’s milling business endured long after the revolution,” Heutmaker says.
After Thompson’s death in 1802, the bulk of his estate, including the mill, was inherited by his grandson, Robert Thompson Neely.
In 1828, the construction of the Delaware Canal caused irreparable damage to the mill, which was originally located along Pidcock Creek, in front of the family home. Neely was awarded $8,000 in damages from the commonwealth and subsequently rebuilt the mill in its current location.
In 1873, it was destroyed by fire. Again, it was rebuilt, this time with interior grain elevators. Business resumed in 1875.