Brewster’s Stony Brook Grist Mill has enjoyed a fascinating history—and a thorough restoration
Photography by Scott Laughlin and Stan Godwin
Nestled in a small, scenic valley and between a babbling brook and Stony Brook Road is a two-and-one-half story, wood-frame building. Understated in its New England simplicity, the only outward clues to the structure’s historic significance are a small sign on the shingles and a 12-foot, wooden water wheel dipping its paddles into the brook.
Known as the Stony Brook Grist Mill, the building was constructed in 1873, but the site’s historical ties for Brewster and the Lower Cape date back even further. The mill is the last building that remains of “Factory Village,” which from the late 1600s to the early 1800s was one of the largest centers of industry on Cape Cod.
Visiting the property today—it’s a quick detour off Route 6A in Brewster—one can learn about the mill’s fascinating history from artifacts in the museum, chat with volunteer docents who staff the mill in summer, and enjoy a little taste of Cape Cod life as it existed a few centuries ago.
Harnessing the power of water was not a new concept for the country’s earliest European settlers as mills were common in Europe during the 1600s. In fact, a functioning mill proved a necessity of survival and was often the means to a prosperous community in those early Colonial years.
According to Andrew Shrake, a Brewster resident and millwright by trade, most early New England villages had a gristmill where corn, rye, and barley were ground to provide staple ingredients for cooking. In the absence of a natural, running water source, windmills were also common, but Shrake says gristmills were by far the most efficient.
“Every gristmill is special because it’s a relic of how people used to live,” Shrake says. “Gristmills were a focal point for communities.” Dried corn could keep for months, but once ground, it would only remain unspoiled—in the days before refrigeration—for a few weeks. This meant individuals from most local households would make routine trips to the gristmill.
Hence, the mill became a meeting place and centers of commerce often developed nearby.
According to the Stony Brook Grist Mill’s application for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the first gristmill in the area was built in the early 1660s to serve the greater Eastham community (Brewster would not be incorporated as a town until 1803). A fulling mill—a water-powered mill designed to clean and finish homemade wool—was built a few years later and just a short distance away, to the south of Stony Brook Road.
New buildings and industries followed, and over the next 200 years a community developed and thrived around Stony Brook, taking on the name Factory Village. The success was largely due to the area’s geography and natural resources. Brewster’s inter-connected, freshwater ponds—Walker’s Pond, and Upper and Lower Mill Ponds—fed Stony Brook. The area’s unusually hilly terrain, at least for relatively level Cape Cod, created a 26-foot drop as the water flowed northward, from Walker’s Pond out to Cape Cod Bay. The resulting current is one of the strongest in the region.
In the 1700s, the fulling mill was expanded, but suffered a devastating fire in 1760. When a new, woolen mill was built in 1814 on the location of the fulling mill’s foundation, a new era for Factory Village was ushered in. In the 1830s, the mill would be converted for use in cotton spinning, employing 27 locals by 1836. A tannery was also opened, circa 1830, and soon the area was a neighborhood of small-scale industries and shops, including a cobbler and a cabinetmaker, intermixed with family homesteads.
Two to three decades later, maritime and agricultural ventures began to dominate Brewster’s economy. Due to its connection to local agriculture, however, the gristmill endured many of the changes taking place in Factory Village. The mill was operated until 1871, when the building and the adjacent tannery were destroyed by another fire. According to Faythe Ellis, a member of Brewster’s Mill Sites Committee, the cause of the fire came from within; the miller had allegedly been smoking herring in wooden barrels inside the mill.
With lumber used from a dismantled local saltworks, the gristmill was rebuilt in 1873 on the site of the former fulling mill, but its functionality was short-lived. Over the next 50 years, the building was used in various ways including for the production of overalls, the making of ice cream, and as a single-family residence.
Despite these many changes, there has been one feature of the area that preexisted the mills and has remained constant through today: herring. For centuries, Stony Brook has served as the water pathway along which herring travel to reach Brewster’s freshwater ponds where they spawn—before returning again to the ocean.
Saving the mill
According to Doug Erickson, a Brewster resident and the Stony Brook Grist Mill’s official miller, Factory Village may have become a mere historical footnote had it not been for a group of Brewster residents who had the foresight to preserve the historic mill. In 1940, the Town of Brewster purchased the mill from the Newcomb family. When the mill and the surrounding, 85-acre property gained a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, that 1940 purchase was described as one of the “earliest conscious acts of historic preservation in Barnstable County.”
Erickson says the fact that the mill and its surroundings has received these designations—the area was also named a local historic district in 1973—demonstrates its historic significance; the designations have also helped keep the area relatively unchanged and preserved for future generations.
When the town bought the mill in 1940, residents donated $1,200 to help defray the $2,200 purchase price. “I think that’s amazing,” Erickson says. “There weren’t that many people in town at that time, but they knew how precious the mill was.” Since then, the town has utilized the gristmill as a functioning museum.
Erickson has been the head miller for four years, and previously served as an assistant. In the summer, he operates the mill every Saturday and says the mill’s simple operation is always a crowd-pleaser. “Kids are fascinated by the machinery,” Erickson says, “and they can’t believe there is no electricity to run the mill— just the water.”
According to Erickson, the community spirit that gave rise to the mill sites more than 300 years ago is still very much alive in Brewster today. “A lot of the work that’s been done has been done by volunteers,” he says. Today, a group of volunteers maintains the site, and a core team of docents welcomes visitors to the mill, sharing stories of its unique history.
In 2010, the gristmill underwent a much-needed facelift, with several improvements made to restore the structure’s historic integrity and functionality. The millstones and the waterwheel were both undersized for their tasks, and exposed to many seasons outdoors, the wheel was in particularly rough shape.
Buoyed by $100,000 in Community Preservation Act funding, and guided by Shrake’s vision and expertise, the millworks were entirely rebuilt and enlarged. This included the installation of new millstones, which measure four feet in diameter and each weigh 2,500 pounds; a historically accurate, wooden waterwheel; gears; and, Shrake adds, “thousands of other little things that you need to get it to work correctly.”
“Now,” Shrake attests, “it works just like it should—absolutely beautifully.” In its current state, the mill can grind 400 pounds of cornmeal in a day. Two-pound bags of the freshly ground product—great for use in cornbread, muffins, and Indian pudding—are sold during the summer for $5 each.
Efforts have also been made, Faythe Ellis says, to make a visit to the gristmill as engaging and educational as possible, especially for children. The highlight for visitors, of course, is seeing the mill in action. In addition, a museum space on the second floor displays an eclectic array of objects once found in 19th century Cape Cod homes as well as a small collection of Native American tools, some of which were discovered in the Stony Brook valley. Also on display is a large spinning wheel, whale oil lamps, a barn loom, and kitchen tools such as a hand-hewn wooden bowl that is patched with rawhide.
Throughout the year, the gristmill—and its picturesque surroundings, including brook-side paths and cozy picnic spots—is still a place where the community gathers. Visitors can stop by on Saturdays in July and August, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as on Saturday, May 2, for the annual Brewster in Bloom Festival. Admission to the mill is free, and in recent years the mill has hosted more than 2,000 visitors each summer.
In addition, two delicious New England traditions serve as the centerpiece of two more annual events at the mill: the Indian Pudding Party (Saturday, July 11), and the Cornbread Festival (Saturday, Aug. 29). For both events, volunteer bakers use freshly ground cornmeal from the Stony Brook Grist Mill to create their specialties.
“It’s just a nice, fun, lively place in the summer,” Ellis says. “The kids that visit get to understand and appreciate how close to history we are right here. You feel a very close connection to people who have walked the same paths before you.”
Even when the mill is closed, Stony Brook remains a magnet for visitors, particularly in spring when the herring pass by as they head inland to spawn. Visitors can walk the scenic pathways surrounding the mill, or just sit on stones by the edge of the brook watching the fish swim by and opportunistic seagulls attempting to secure a free lunch. “It’s a place,” Erickson says, “that’s just magical.”
For more information about the Stony Brook Grist Mill, visit the “Mill Sites” page on Brewster-ma.gov. Parking for the gristmill and herring run is located off Stony Brook Road, across the street from the mill.