As a historical sight in Utica, Ohio, Ye Olde Mill is well-known to those who live near it. The original mill can be dated back to the early 1800's, where it was used as a grist mill to grind grain into flour. Later in time, the land would be used by Velvet Ice Cream to make and distribute over five million gallons of ice cream each year. Visitors flock to eat ice cream inside the attached building, learn about the history of the company and the mill, and connect with nature. Tours are offered where visitors can see inside the factory to get an up-close view of the ice cream making process. Ponds by the mill offer the chance to go fishing and feed ducks. A nature trail allows visitors to connect with the plants and other nonhumans in the area, coming to a stop by the river. Great for all ages, Ye Olde Mill is a place to make lasting memories.
Today, the land is mainly a tourist attraction. People make reservations for family reunions, weddings, and more. The Utica Sertoma Ice Cream Festival is held at Ye Olde Mill every year on Memorial Day to celebrate the start of summer. At the festival, visitors can ride ponies, compete in ice cream eating contests, enjoy live entertainment, view a classic car show, and connect with local artisans. As they are eating ice cream, people may not realize they are walking on land with a rich history. Ye Olde Mill and Velvet Ice Cream were not always connected, and in fact the mill was not always known as Ye Olde Mill. From a working farm, to a roller-skating rink, to an ice cream production plant, this place has seen its fair share of humans and nonhumans alike.
The mill was first built in 1817 by famous millwright James King. He built the mill for Clarence McKnight, a new settler moving into Ohio. Several white settlers were moving toward Ohio during this time, either to pass through or build a farm and stay, mainly due to the rich farmland and abundant supply of animals to hunt. Ohio also offers seasonal, predictable weather, as well as rivers for travel and trade. The mill built for McKnight was a grist mill, and one of the largest of its kind. Grist mills were a regular addition to farms during this time. Placed next to a body of water, the mills were used to grind grain into flour. Flowing water from the river moved the wheel, which moved heavy stones, which in turn ground cereal grains (known as 'grist' to early settlers) into flour. The wheels allowed for a large production of flour in a shorter period of time, as opposed to other ways of grinding grains, such as by hand using a mortar and pestle.
At the beginning, the mill did not have a name. It was simply a large grist mill, where people who lived nearby would come to drop off their grains. Ten years later a fire occurred. Fires were common in those days, as they were used often for cooking and providing heat to buildings, and they could be extremely destructive. The mill was burnt to the ground. Although nobody knew it at the time, this would be the first of three fires to take down the mill, as well as the first reconstruction. Millwright John McNaughton stepped in to re-design and re-build the mill, thus it became known as McNaughton Mill.
McNaughton Mill continued to grind grain into flour. Roads were being paved to connect Ohio to neighboring territories, which made it easier to sell to more people. Although, most Ohio farmers sold locally or sent their product by way of steamboat. The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were used to send products to New Orleans, while the eventual production of the Erie canal allowed farmers to send products North along the Ohio River. According to records at the mill today, flour from McNaughton Mill was some of the first flour to be shipped along the Erie canal. Ohio was ranked number one in corn production and number two in wheat production by the mid 1800s. The mill changed ownership several times, but it is likely the family who owned the mill continued to produce flour and send it along the river, while at the same time living off the land through farming, fishing, and raising livestock. They depended on the mill as part of their livelihood.
Lily the cow was the family's favorite cow. She had been around a long time because of that. Every day she would do the same things. Wake up. Eat food. Hear the mill turn. Someone comes to milk Lily. People bring bags of stuff to the family. The mill turns some more. Eat more food. Kids visit the barn. Go for a walk? Try to sleep. The mill keeps turning. It was a pretty predictable place with a structure like no other. The chickens lay eggs, the rooster crows in the morning, the sheep get sheared and the other cows are used for meat. Sometimes a duck wanders into the barn from the pond and quacks loudly because it's lost. Not loud enough to drown out the sound of the mill. Rushing water and grinding stone. Constant. A steamboat on the river will sometimes be louder. Sometimes. Lily can hear the family talking to each other, about something called flour. It was always about flour, corn, or animals. And in the background of every conversation, the sound of the mill turning.
Another fire ravaged McNaughton Mill in 1865. It was rebuilt. Close to the time of this second fire, the underground railroad was at its height, and Ohio was a major part of it. Ohio was a free state, but it was illegal to help escaped slaves make it to freedom, and in almost any Ohio town the population would be split 50/50 between pro-slavery and anti-slavery. In addition, bounty hunters could find escaped slaves in Ohio and return them to plantation owners, so Ohio was not a safe place. However, Ohio did have the most activity of any state with Underground Railroad networks, due to its close proximity to slave states and to Canada (the ultimate destination of an escaped slave) through Lake Erie. Although it cannot be confirmed, it has long been believed that McNaughton Mill was a part of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. There was a small alcove in the ground, somewhat in between the mill and the mill building, where escaped slaves could easily be hidden. Since the mill is known to have sent goods along the Erie canal, and Lake Erie was the destination of several escaped slaves, it is plausible the mill would have been a stop along the way.
Beth's face pressed against the cold stone. She wasn't sure where her skin ended and the dust started. A blanket on her back weighed her down. She was tucked in an uncomfortable position, and her elbow was pressing sharply into her stomach. The mill above her is sloshing and grinding so much Beth can hear a ringing in her ears. There are people walking and talking above her, too. The family. A visitor? Cattle make noise from the barn and a child screams when a fish jumps out of the water at him. The people are still talking. Something about a river? If only the mill would be quiet for one second she could hear better. "Boat going out tonight," someone says. Beth would be on that boat. She hears footsteps. Getting closer to her hiding spot. Then a prompt turn. "Let me show you the mill. Biggest one you'll ever see." She was safe. The mill turned.
With records of trade and an oral history of participation in the Underground Railroad, one might wonder, is there a known history of Native American encounters on the land, either before or after the mill was established? Unfortunately, there is no distinct record of Native American activity on this land. However, the Ohio area was known to be full of Native American tribes before the white settlers moved in, most likely due to the fertile land and abundant hunting opportunities that also attracted the colonists. It is highly plausible tribes moved through the land now holding Ye Olde Mill at some point. In addition, there is a story about a young Native American girl camping with her tribe between Martinsburg and Utica, the location of the mill, around the same time the first mill was built. Her name was Rachel Konkupote. She was shot in the leg by a man as part of a card-game bet with his friends. Rachel ended up dying from her injury and was buried in Mount Vernon, another town close to Utica. Therefore, even though there are not any stories involving the mill specifically, there were definitely Native American tribes in the area. They undoubtedly had an effect on this land, though their impact is not remembered.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Ohioans were moving away from agriculture as a primary way of living and toward other business opportunities. Farming competition from the west and the expensive new farm machinery made it difficult to make money from agriculture alone. Therefore, when Jake and Minnie Spillman bought the mill in 1930, they decided to turn it into a fun gathering place. They built the Park Plan Dance Club and the Thom Thumb Miniature Golf Course, renamed the mill Ye Olde Mill, and started bringing in live performers. Eventually, a roller-skating rink and a community swimming pool were built on the property. People would gather to skate, dance, eat good food, watch local sporting events, and have a good time.
Tom 's palms were sweaty, making it difficult for him to play the trumpet. He didn't realize so many people would show up just to watch the local high school band perform. Or maybe they came for the food. Or the roller-skating. Or to see the mill. People sure were fascinated by that mill. Tom didn't understand it. It was loud and distracted him from his playing. Couples liked to dance next to it, take pictures with it. Sometimes even get engaged by it. Weird thing, for the main gathering place in town to be near an old grist mill. The landscape was pretty, though, with the tall trees and the shimmering water. Tom looked around for Molly. He hoped she was watching. Instead, he found her with her back turned, staring up at the mill. The mill turned with indifference, producing more sound than a trumpet ever could.
The Spillmans put the land up for sale in 1960. At the same time, the Dager family, owners of the popular local company Velvet Ice Cream, were looking for a way to expand their business. They were running out of room on their current land. With memories of visiting Ye Olde Mill as kids, they decided to buy the property. The Dagers turned the skating rink into an ice cream manufacturing plant, built an ice cream parlor in the mill house, and added the picnic tables, nature trail, and other attractions still seen today. The mill caught fire once more in 1986, but again it was rebuilt. Ye Olde Mill still runs today, not as part of a functioning farm but in remembrance of everything it has been through. Where settlers once brought grain, visitors now bring family and friends. Several families have a tradition of visiting once every year with their children. With its multiple reconstructions and changing scenery, Ye Olde Mill has found a way to both honor traditions of the past and move forward with change, which is perhaps a lesson we can all learn.
I step out of the car into the hot sunlight, slightly nauseous from the forty-minute car ride. Not so nauseous that I won't be able to eat ice cream, though. We pass by the mill and walk into the parlor. I order my favorite ice cream and eat it so fast the plastic spoon snaps in half. Next on the list, the nature walk. The water is filled with fish, way more than the year before. Through a row of trees on the left we see the ice cream manufacturing plant. I am wearing sandals, and an ant crawls over my foot. The trail is short. We finish it quickly. "Do you want to take a picture with the mill before we leave?" Of course we do. We line up with our backs to the mill. The water splashes down on us from above and the sound fills our ears. I feel as if I am part of a bigger history. A bigger story. The spell is broken when we step away. The mill turns, turns, turns. I know it will be here when I come back, still turning, but I take one last look anyway.
1. FamilySearch. “United States Migration to Ohio, Northwest Territory, Southwest 1785 to 1840 (National Institute).” FamilySearch Wiki, 2016, www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Migration_to_Ohio,_Northwest_Territory,_Southwest_1785_to_1840_(National_Institute). 2. Grits & Grains. “What Is a Grist Mill?” The Old Mill, 13 Apr. 2020, old-mill.com/what-is-a-grist-mill/?utm_source=rss. 3. Jeffries, Anna. “Locals, Tourists Still Flocking to Ye Olde Mill.” The Advocate, Ohio, 17 May 2014, www.newarkadvocate.com/story/news/2014/05/17/locals-tourists-still-flocking-to-ye-olde-mill/9191733/. 4. Merrill, John. “Ohio's Dramatic History.” OHIO'S HISTORY, 2020, www.touring-ohio.com/ohio-history.html. 5. Newark Advocate. “Dager: Ye Olde Mill an Important Part of Velvet, Utica and Licking County History.” The Advocate, Newark Advocate, 20 Sept. 2020, www.newarkadvocate.com/story/news/local/2020/09/20/dager-ye-olde-mill-important-velvet-utica-and-licking-county-history/5748912002/. 6. Ohio History Connection. Agriculture and Farming in Ohio. ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Agriculture_and_Farming_in_Ohio. 7. Times-Gazette. “Some Fascinating Stories about a Couple of Native Americans.” Gazette, Ashland Times-Gazette, 12 July 2016, www.times-gazette.com/news/20160712/some-fascinating-stories-about-couple-of-native-americans. 8. Touring Ohio. Underground Railroad in Ohio, 2020, touringohio.com/history/ohio-underground-railroad.html. 9. Velvet Ice Cream. “Free Factory Tours: Visit Velvet.” Velvet Ice Cream, 6 Oct. 2020, www.velveticecream.com/visit. 10. Velvet Ice Cream. “History of Velvet Ice Cream in Ohio.” Velvet Ice Cream, 10 July 2020, www.velveticecream.com/about-history. 11. Velvet Ice Cream. “Utice Sertoma Ice Cream Festival.” Velvet Ice Cream, 1 Apr. 2020, www.velveticecream.com/sertoma-ice-cream-festival.
Images In Order of Appearance: 1. Trip Advisor. “Ye Olde Mill Ice Cream Shop and Restaurant.” Trip Advisor, 2020, www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g51073-d12885434-i336180986-Velvet_Ice_Cream-Utica_Ohio.html. 2. Karen. “Ye Olde Mill in Utica Ohio.” Sharing Horizons, 2015, sharinghorizons.com/ye-olde-mill-in-utica-ohio/. 3. Bradley, John. “Ohio Utica Ye Olde Mill Pond.” Wikimedia Commons, 2007, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ohio_Utica_Ye_Olde_Mill_pond01.jpg.
Image gallery at the end includes my own pictures.