Built between 1812 and 1840 according to Historic New England records (formerly Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities), the Spaulding Gristmill is not the only gristmill that ever operated in Townsend, but it is the last surviving one. Its location in Townsend Harbor—the first part of town settled, in the early 1700s—is also the site where the first mills were built: a saw mill in 1733 and a gristmill in 1734-5.
The Gristmill is one of the few remaining mills that still has most of its original operating machinery intact. Much of the leather belting has disappeared, some pulleys and shafts disassembled or deteriorated, but the wood hopper, the grain elevators, and all the other machinery are still extant. The turbine, manufactured by Morgan Smith of York County, Pennsylvania, sometime after 1871, is also still in place.
The gristmill represents a stage of automation during the Industrial Revolution that spanned the period between the primitive mills of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the later mills of large companies that spurned the use of stones for milling grain. It operated in Townsend until 1929 and was given to SPNEA in 1930. That deed refers to the building as the “Ancient Grist Mill.”
The building rests on the first mill seat in Townsend, developed in 1733. Lott Conant, a mill developer from Concord, Massachusetts, purchased the land in the same year under contract to build a sawmill within five months and a gristmill within twelve months. Within five years, he turned the property over to his son John, and “The Conant Mills” stayed in the same family until 1802. Financial difficulties had overwhelmed the family by then, so a well-to-do neighbor purchased the lot and allowed the family to continue running the mills.
In 1792, the mill saw a flurry of industrial activity when the second John Conant conveyed to Silas Lawrence the privilege to draw excess water from the millpond to operate a fulling mill. He was also allowed to build a dye house and plank bridge to the island formed by the ditch carrying water to the gristmill. This clothing business was carried out in what is now the Cooperage. John Conant II deeded the mills to sons John III and Daniel in 1797, but within five years financial problems forced them to either sell or transfer the mills for mortgage purposes. John wrote his brother in 1809, telling him to concentrate on the gristmill and to try to pay creditors in grain.
Though the mills fell from the Conant family’s hands, the sites continued to grow, becoming an active and varied industrial center in town. By 1838, the property, then owned by two enterprising partners, Beriah Blood and Reuben Farrar, since 1829, held a sawmill, gristmill, carding mill, machine shop, horse shed, iron foundry, and a wood working shop. In fact, the partners conducted so many improvements when they took over the property they probably erected the Gristmill building that stands today.
The 1850 Manufacturing Census lists an Aaron Pressey as Miller who apparently ran the mill at the time it was owned by Henry and Levi Woods. The Woods sold the property soon after the census had been taken (in March 1850), and the site changed hands several times through the next two decades.
After the Civil War, Jonas Spaulding, a local entrepreneur, purchased the former Conant mills. He undertook massive renovations on the Gristmill and Cooperage in the early 1870’s. Jonas owned the Gristmill, but his brother Edward Spaulding ran it. The 1880 Manufacturing Census lists Edward as the miller with no additional employees. The mill ran 12 months a year producing a maximum of 150 bushels per day. The census listing includes the kind of water wheel used: the Gristmill had two turbines, both manufactured in East Pepperell at the Blake Brothers Company. The S. Morgan Smith turbine was installed later, at an undetermined date, but probably in the 1890s. Twentieth Century oral histories captured a bit of this late 19th century era. Eneas Morgan, local resident, stated in 1973: “I remember when Mr. Edward Spaulding ran the gristmill and turning shop. He also did custom grinding for the farmers, such as cob meal and other grist…”
Edward Spaulding turned the gristmill management over to his brother-in-law, Cyrus Lane, at the turn of the century. Another session of reminiscences recorded in writing in 1960, states: “The men remembered going to Mr. Lane’s grist mill to have 25 cents worth of graham flour ground. It was ground while you waited. Boys used to be hired to unload carloads of grain at the rate of 10 cents an hour.” And in 1972: “Cy Lane, remember him? With his small horse, hitched to seemingly too big a truck, hauling grain for his gristmill. Farmers from all around brought their corn there to be ground.”
Not all local memories are of grain, however. One resident remembers being marched from the Harbor School down to the Gristmill with her fourth grade class to be weighed and measured (with gristmill equipment) for their annual health report.
In 1929, the local paper had a brief notice: “After operating the grain and feed store at the Harbor for over 35 years, Cyrus W. Lane closed business affairs here on August 1. He has always carried such a fine grade of goods and performed his duties in such a pleasant manner that he will be much missed at his place of business.” The gristmill has sat still and silent ever since, retired along with Cyrus Lane from the labor of grinding grains for the community.