Eden Mill: Home to nature, history

Landmark: The old mill and its grounds have been restored by volunteers to a new life as an environmental educational center.

December 14, 2003|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Today, Eden Mill shines as a nature center and Harford County landmark nestled along Deer Creek in Pylesville, rescued from neglect mostly by the determined efforts of a band of volunteers.

The mill and its 57 acres of grounds were purchased by the county Department of Parks and Recreation in 1964, and since then, volunteers have adopted the site as a restoration project. Leaders in the effort are Donald "Spike" Webb, 87, Frank J. Marsden, 56, and Roland Beckman, 49.

In 1966, Webb and his wife, Blanche, bought the nearby Stansbury mansion, where the miller once lived. Webb says he and his wife were out one Sunday afternoon and spotted the ad for a brick house in Pylesville with 3 acres for $17,000. While the house needed plumbing improvements, they liked the quiet location near the confluence of Big Branch and Deer Creek.

Three days later, they bought the Stansbury mansion and happily moved into the house overlooking the Eden Mill. The Federalist-style home with thick walls once belonged to a mayor of Baltimore.

The house today sits stately upon the hill. It has a winding staircase and four fireplaces. A cemetery is out back.

By the time naturalist Frank Marsden, once in business with his father at a Towson car dealership, saw the abandoned Eden Mill as a nature center in 1992, the Webbs had grown accustomed to seeing the mill deteriorate.

As he canoed Deer Creek, Marsden envisioned a nature center using all 57 acres of the mill property for conservation education.

As a fund-raiser, Marsden undertook a solo canoe trip from Havre de Grace to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay for donations to the mill project, and he spearheaded the committee of volunteers to form Eden Mill Nature Center.

Beckman has devoted many hours to making the interior of the mill an interesting learning place for visitors.

Through restoration of the machinery, Beckman, a former corporate trainer for an auto glass company, found a new way to use his talents. Tired of spending 200 days a year on the road, he transferred to a sales manager position in Baltimore. For the past two years, he has spent his spare time restoring the interior machinery of the mill, setting up displays, researching history and teaching docents.

As a result of the team's efforts, the nature center now has about 8,000 visitors a year.

Visitors to the mill learn from the photos and descriptions created by Beckman about how the original mill, built in the early 1800s by Elijah Stansbury, was named for Father Eden, a priest who served in the area, according to the center's Web site. They see restored equipment, with life-size mannequins that show how bags of grain were hoisted.

The mill has had a long and varied history. It began as a grist mill, along the model popularized by Oliver Evans in a 1790s book that described "continuous process milling" methods using devices to convey grain during the steps of the milling process.

The machinery that separated the wheat from the chaff, for example, made the work of the miller easier and less labor-intensive. Elevators raised the grain from the ground to the milling room. Horizontal conveyers, a drill and a descender made milling as effortless as possible in the early mechanical age.

The mill area is still musty and dusty, but full of reminders of the long-silenced milling process. There are surprise elements, and displays showing the simple wooden mortar and pestle that Native Americans used to grind corn and a modern Corona flour mill that Beckman set up.

For a while in the early 20th century, the site was home to a steam-powered sawmill, but by 1921 the mill had been converted into a hydroelectric power plant used to provide electricity to farmers in the Fawn Grove, Pa., area, a nearby canning house, feed mill and lumber mill.

Six years later, a Pennsylvania power company bought the electric lines, making the Eden Mill power plant unnecessary. The mill was sold to James Smith, who converted it back to a grist mill.

Smith was the site's last miller. During his time the mill was rated a 50-barrel mill, meaning it could grind 50 barrels in 24 hours. Cornmeal, buckwheat and animal feed were produced. When Smith died in 1964, the county purchased the property.

Today the mill has become a hands-on learning environment for educators and students. Marsden said, "I've been working with middle school children for eight or nine years. We try to teach them about diversity in our area. We teach them about the diversity of the Piedmont.

"We meet at 9 a.m. at the Pavilion. ... We follow the boardwalk around ... and the way we teach them diversity is a way the kids really enjoy it. We talk about edible and medicinal plants, and talk about the wildlife that's here. So it's -"

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