The Haunted Old Mill
In centuries past, mills did a lot of work with the help of air or water rather than electricity – and windmills have been making a comeback in the past decade or some. Some turned corn into cornmeal, while others turned wheat into flour. Nantucket has a haunted old mill that stands alone on the island.
The “Old Mill” is only one of four windmills that used to tower over the west banks of Nantucket – it’s the only mill left there, and it is still used when weather permits. This mill has an interesting story, one that includes at least one ghost. It’s also believed to be the oldest operating windmill in the U.S. that is still sitting in its original location.
You can see how watermills and windmills work in different areas of the country – some tourist attractions that look at life in the old days have mills they run just for show. The old mill in Nantucket is fully operational, while it is also used to show the history of milling.
The Creation of the Old Mill
The single old mill still standing in Nantucket was built by Nathan Wilbur in 1746. Wilbur was a sailor who spent time in Holland and brought back ideas with him to create smock-type windmills to assist in food production. He built the windmill using oak beams that had washed ashore from shipwrecks – a great way to help clean up the beaches of Nantucket and an early method of recycling and saving money. The used wood formed the framework of the mill, and wooden pins and scrap metal held the framework together.
The Old Mill stands fifty feet high and has four vanes (the blades that spin in the wind) that each reach thirty feet in length. The inside of the mill includes a driving wheel at the top that is connected to the blades. Attached to the driving wheel is a fixed body that contains machinery and a cap for turning the sails into the wind – the direction sometimes needs to be changed depending on which way the wind is coming from.
The driving wheel has wooden cogs that intersect with a set of wooden teeth in a vertical shaft the work together to turn the upper grindstone. Grindstones are what was used to grind up wheat, corn, and other food items – and, like the other parts of the mill, those stones are extremely heavy.
There is also a brake inside consisting of a heavy bag of stones, weighing a few hundred pounds. This is attached by a rope and pulley to the mechanism that controls the vanes in the wind, allowing the weight to counteract wind when the stones are in a certain position.
The Old Mill Changes Hands
The old mill went through many hands before becoming a museum. About a year after erecting the mill, Wilbur sold it to Eliakim Swain, who ran it with John Hay. Then it went to the ownership of Timothy Swain in 1750. The mill was run by the Swain family for many years. After Timothy Swain died, one of his sons took over; then, a grandson would stay in control of the mill until it was sold in the 1800s.
By the 1800s, the old mill was falling into disrepair. It was purchased in 1828 by Jared Gardner for twenty dollars, but it was in terrible condition at the time. Rather than taking down the old mill, Gardner restored it to its original condition, making it so that it could once again work for grinding food – corn, in this case. The mill had to go through some updates prior to that and even after.
George Enos was the owner in 1864. In 1866, John Francis Sylvia bought the mill and operated it along with Peter Hoy. However, by 1892 the mill was in need of major repairs again. The mill was purchase for $850 on auction by Caroline French, who donated the old building to the Nantucket Historical Association.
The mill now runs as a museum, where people can enjoy tours and see how the big machine runs. It was designated as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1992.
The Running of the Mill
It isn’t easy to describe how the mill runs in mere words, but a tour of the old mill consists of millers explaining exactly how the mill cap needs to be rotated if you want to get the best advantage of the wind direction before raising the sails. On good wind and weather days, NHA millers run the mill to grind corn, and are the mill is capable of grinding just as it did when it was first built over two hundred years ago.
As you tour the mill, the millers explain each of the mill’s mechanisms that allow it to turn corn into cornmeal. They show how the gear above rotated by the sails turns the vertical shaft, which is needed to turn the grinding stone to grind up the corn.
The NHA tour guides may tell you all about how the mill runs, but they might not tell you the paranormal tales attached to this somewhat spooky building. Those tales come from online reports, books, and tour guides who specialize in ghost stories.
The Haunted Old Mill Tales
For the book “Nantucket Ghosts,” author Blue Balliett talked to Ed Dougan, who ran the mill from 1977 to 1980. He had some great paranormal stories to tell about experiences he had while working.
Timothy Swain, who often enjoyed running the mill in the middle of the night, was found dead one morning sitting at his station. It was found that Swain had died of natural causes, but some say he still haunts the mill, ensuring that everyone is doing their jobs safely.
Swain loved the mill and died doing what he loved. Though there’s no definitive proof, it seems that Swain remained in the mill even after his death. The paranormal events experienced in the haunted old mill may be few, but at least one mill worker has shared them with others.
The Shaking Mill
According to Dougan, the mill could be one giant deathtrap when in the wrong hands – there are heavy parts, moving parts, and all sorts of ways to injure yourself if you’re not careful and you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. It was important to stay a certain closeness to your workstation, and Dougan found that when he would step too far away from his, the mill would begin to take over. The vibrational changes that happened when things sped up let him know that it was time to get back to his station.
Dougan tested his theory in front of many people, including those coming in for tours. He would repeat the process of leaving his workstation, and at a certain distance away, the mill speed would visibly pick up, shaking the place. This alert was definitely a paranormal reminder to get back and make adjustments. He believed that someone was watching out for him, letting him know when he was getting a dangerous distance from dealing with anything tragic that might happen.
The Stripped Wicks
Another strange phenomenon that Dougan witnessed had to do with a large gap in the turning radius at the top of the mill, one they dealt with by use of wax from spermaceti candles. The women in the neighborhood saved the candle nubs and gave them to the mill to fill the gap when needed.
One night Dougan filled up the gap with a few dozen nubs, and he turned the mill a couple of times to mash the wax up into the spot. He locked up and turned on the alarm system, and headed home for the night. When he and another person came in the next day, the wicks from the nubs were all sitting in two neat piles with all of the wax cleaned off of them.
The wicks should have been mashed and flattened. Instead, they were in perfect condition. Dougan chalked up both of the paranormal events he experienced in the mills as Timothy Swain watching over things, though he knew he couldn’t prove it.
The ghost of the old mill doesn’t seem to show himself, but his presence is known when it’s needed. Whether it’s the ghost of Swain watching over his favorite place, or some other specter, Dougan’s reports of the ghosts showed no fear of this entity hanging about.