The Ancient Link Between Harvest and Table

By Karen Wright

Photos provided by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce

In their prime, as many as 300 gristmills dotted the Texas landscape, providing sustenance as well as commerce. The mills were an important part of survival in the rugged early years in the American west, because they made it possible to put bread on the table, the most universal of foods. But as technology advanced, most mills were abandoned and eventually torn down. Fewer than 10 remain today.

The Dublin gristmill was the community’s first stone structure and its only four-story building (counting the basement). It kicked off Dublin’s transition from wooden plank buildings to stone structures. And it is an architectural monument that was built to last.

Construction must have been quite an ordeal for local rock masons Joe E. Bishop, Rocky Davis and Old Frank Hamilton. They hand-cut the mill’s native stones at the request of local businessman William T. Miller, a Georgia native who helped establish Dublin’s first mercantile business. Horsepower and any crude lifting equipment the masons might have been able to invent helped with the lifting of the thousands of heavy rocks that make up the mill. Putting them in place may have been more an art than a science, since the stones had to support the weight of the building itself and be symmetrical enough that, more than a century later, it is still standing tall and straight.

Through its 134-year history, the mill has seen days of productivity and some of inactivity and even a few of neglect. But today it is enjoying a resurrection as a rare monument to another place in time. The building towers majestically over W.M. Wright Historical Park, which features a pavilion and an historic log cabin. The Dublin Historical Society, which owns the park, has watched over the mill decade by decade, protecting it from weathering and providing needed support.

“Looking at the working parts inside, it appears that the power-driving shaft from the original steam engine must have come into the building through the basement wall,” speculates Ben Pate, who heads up restoration of the structure. “From the basement, belts connected the shafts, making it possible to provide power from one single source to all four stories of equipment.”

The concept was simple but efficient, as long as everything worked in tandem.

As technology developed, a crude oil engine replaced the steam engine in 1918. “At that time the mill was still grinding grain, corn and wheat, making it a vital part of commerce in the Dublin area. Farmers would bring bags of produce to town and would leave with finished bags of flour or corn meal. Without the mill, they would have had to find a means to grind it themselves to have bread, which was the most universal of foods,” Pate said.

In 1926, when the mill was purchased by W.M. Wright and his son-in-law, Ted Robbins, the grist mill underwent yet another conversion when it became a hammer mill to produce animal feed.

Historians are delighted that the actual equipment that separated the seeds from the husks and then ground them into feed is still in the mill. Other equipment that remains in the mill today could blend the different types of feed.

As massive changes of the industrial age challenged the old feed mills, the Dublin mill ceased to operate, although owners may have continued selling pre-mixed feed in sacks for some period of time.

“Then one day, it ceased to operate,” Pate said. “It appears the crew simply closed the doors one day and walked away, leaving behind many of the mill’s components and memories. It is a reflection of the commercial strength of the agrarian community.”

The rebirth of the mill as a local landmark and popular tourist draw started in 1974 when Ted Robbins and his wife, Leta Wright Robbins, gave the building and adjacent land to the fledgling Dublin Historical Society. The following year, the mill was recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark.

Martha Wright McKinney, of Waco, has long had a keen interest in and appreciation for historical preservation of her grandfather’s mill. In 1991, when the mill was 100 years old, Mrs. McKinney and her friends of Waco’s Henry Downs Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution presented a DAR historical marker to the mill.

Today that marker proudly hangs beside the old mill’s front door, along with the Texas State Historical Landmark plaque.

Mrs. McKinney visited the Historical Museum in 2007, bringing numerous photographs and documents with Miller genealogy, enriching the museum’s files. A few years later, she returned to the museum, bringing a generous donation to help with the restoration program. Her gift became the seed money for the current renovation project.

The mill has remained the centerpiece of Wright Park, where the 1855 Turnbow-Barbee log cabin, the syrup mill, the wishing well and a pavilion dedicated during the country’s bicentennial celebration are some of the most photographed structures in town. Many a senior picture or bridal announcement featured the historic structures as backdrops, as have various celebrations, reunions and parties.

The restoration of the mill began in earnest in 1999 with the announcement from the Texas Department of Transportation of a grant to the City of Dublin to restore the exterior walls and roof.

With the historical society’s dream of using the structure as a visitors’ center, the focus has recently turned to the interior. The goal is to preserve as much of the “inner workings” as possible so that visitors could visualize how the grinding process worked.

A dream of the Society is to recreate the actual grinding process for demonstration purposes. Pate believes that “all or most” of the essential parts may still be in the mill today, although many parts are disassembled and relocated to other floors.

Donald Del Cid, architecture professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and his students have assisted on several visits to the mill, along with Jacobs Engineering interns, in cataloging the items inside and developing ideas for how to present the building to the public.

Repairing and refinishing the mill floors has been a badly needed but demanding project for the past few months. Pate has created a “see through” floor opening (protected by rails and thick acrylic) so that visitors can look into the basement without having to venture down rickety steps.

Top priorities now are the creation of a handicap-accessible bathroom and installation of heat and air, which is being overseen by Pate, along with the Historical Society directors and the society’s longtime leader Mary Yantis.

Mrs. Yantis proudly announced, “I think we are on the verge of getting this completed. It’s been a long time coming.”

Pate, who has become the public face of the mill, has recently taken his “show and tell” on the road. The mill was the subject of an October reception in Waco, which honored Mrs. McKinney for the donation that sparked renovation to the interior.

Pate recently presented the power point, along with large pictures and some of the mill equipment, to a Sunday afternoon audience in the mill. Most of the visitors had never been inside and took advantage of the opportunity. He has also told the gristmill story to the local Lions Club, the Rotary Club and the Garden Club, and, given the chance, to passersby on the street.

Pate commented that when work is going on inside the mill and people see the doors open, many stop by to see for themselves.

“One visitor who stopped by the mill a few days ago said that in the northeast United States, older buildings are appreciated and preserved. In Texas we tend to tear down buildings when they get weather worn. So having this building, in the great preserved state it is in, makes it and Dublin a destination worth visiting,” Pate said.

Pate, with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Texas Christian University, recently retired after a career in television with Channel 5 and Channel 8 in the metroplex. His credits include too many newscasts to count and children’s programming at both stations, including Mr. Peppermint and The Children’s Hour.

He chose to return to his childhood home after retirement, a community which has long known and respected the Pate family name. Ben’s father, Dr. Joe J. Pate, was a longtime Dublin doctor, as was Ben’s brother, Dr. Joe R. Pate.

When he started making retirement plans, Pate contacted Mrs. Yantis and asked how he could be involved with the museum. The two became immediate friends even though they had not known each other previously. “Growing up in a small town endears you to each other,” she said.

“When I realized Ben’s passion for history, we knew he would be an excellent curator for the Dublin Historical Museum,” Mrs. Yantis said. This was a position that Mrs. Yantis had herself held since she retired from Arlington public schools and returned to her hometown.

Pate and Mrs. Yantis, along with the community’s strong proponents of historic preservation, are respectful of Dublin’s architectural monuments and their heritage.

“These architectural monuments cultivate pride of our heritage, which makes us unique in the world. And architectural monuments are great attractors of tourists because visitors want to experience the ‘spirit’ of the place and the past,” said Pate. “With each preservation effort, we are expressing our gratitude to the people in the past, who had vision.”