Oldest Flour Mill in Northern Illinois

Green's Mill with house behind

From The Sunday Times-Herald, Chicago, March 27, 1898

OLDEST FLOUR MILL IN NORTH ILLINOIS
Famous Old Structure at Dayton Built in 1830 Is to Be Torn Down
Was Erected by John Green

            Within a short time one of the landmarks of northern Illinois will have disappeared under the march of “improvement” and a most interesting relic of the pioneer settlements will have passed away forever.

This survival of the old regime is the famous flour mill at Dayton, a small village on the Fox River, seventy-eight miles southwest of Chicago. It was known in early days from Fort Dearborn to Springfield as “Green’s mill.” Erected in 1830, while the smoke of Indian teepees yet curled from the opposite bank of the narrow river, it was a rendezvous for settlers within a radius of a hundred miles, and from that day to this, until a few months since, its millstones have ground the wheat of the Illinois prairies.

Its passing is due to the crushing competition of the great roller mills of Minnesota and the country still farther to the west. This spring it will be torn down and a brick building erected on its site, using its present water power to send electricity to Ottawa four miles south.

Settlement of Dayton

            The mill was built by John Green, an Ohio pioneer, who in 1829 with a few of his kinsmen, made the long and dangerous journey to the Fox River and at its rapids, four miles above the mouth, he located the site of the present mill. They were thirty-four days on the road, a distance which can now be accomplished in less than twenty hours. The company numbered twenty-four, nine men, four women and eleven children, ranging from infants up to 16 years of age. Of the men John Green, David Grove, Henry Brumback, Reason Debalt and Samuel and Joseph Grove became ancestors of several of the most influential and respected county families of the present day.

John Green, the leader, was a man of action, and his wife, Barbara Grove, was no less decided. With vigor they set to work on the gristmill, and it was opened on July 4, 1830. That forenoon the flour was ground from which the holiday bread for dinner was baked, and the fifty-fourth anniversary of the nation celebrated with sincerity and patriotism.

Difficult to Erect

            It was not an easy task in those days to build a gristmill hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement. For the millstones the hardest bowlders or “hardheads,” relics of the glacial period from Lake Superior, were selected, worked into proper form, and made to do the work. Later the mill had work for four pairs of “burrs,” and ground all the flour and meal for a wide extent of country. At one time in the early ’30s all the grain of the Fox River settlement had to be brought by flatboat from Springfield via the Sangamon, Illinois and Fox rivers, Ottawa, Hennepin and Peoria being the only settlements between the two places. Some of the Greens conducted this expedition. In 1832 the Indians drove the settlers into Fort Johnson at Ottawa, but did not harm the Dayton mill, although they massacred eighteen whites within twelve miles, the upright dealings of John Green with them undoubtedly saving his property from the torch.

Mr. Green and his sons later built a woolen mill at Dayton, and until 1874 the family ran the flour mill. Then Daniel Green and his sons conducted it until a few years since, when it was bought by M. Masters, who has just disposed of it to an Ottawa man for the power. In 1855 it was enlarged, but is substantially the same as on that July day of 1830 when its first grist was ground.

First winter

The winter of 1829-1830, when the Green party had just arrived in Illinois, was a difficult one. Even though John Green had arranged with William Clark to plant a crop of winter wheat, they had no mill to grind it into flour. Small amounts could be ground by hand, in a coffee grinder, but this was tedious and time consuming. Jesse Green recounted in his memoir one way they tried to deal with the problem.

Soon after our arrival here father sent a team down to a mill in Tazewell County for flour and got what was supposed to be sufficient to last until we could grind some of our own wheat, but he did not take into consideration our increased appetites, which we thought had nearly doubled. Then Uncle Samuel Grove and I took a grist of frostbitten corn to Mr. Covil’s ox-mill below Ottawa on the south side of the river. We were ferried across the Illinois River just above the mouth of the Fox, by two daughters of Dr. David Walker who ran the ferry in the absence of their father. We followed an Indian trail, not a wagon track was visible. Probably owing to the fact that our corn had been caught by an early frost before reaching maturity, we did not succeed very well in grinding it in the Ox-mill, and we returned home with a good portion of our grist unground. Some time later we took another grist up to Mission Point where Rev. Jesse Walker had a similar mill in connection with his mission and school for the civilization and education of the rising generation of our Indian friends and neighbors, but his mill did not prove to be any more successful in grinding our soft corn than Mr. Covil’s mill.

They must have been very relieved when their own mill was built the following spring.

The mill  illustrated above is the type of the Dayton mill, but in Illinois the mill was built of wood, not of stone.

Millstones

millstone-shabbona-parkOne of the original Dayton millstones

The reason the Green party settled at what became Dayton was the presence of the rapids of the Fox river. They were looking for a mill site and liked the look of this spot. They had brought the mill irons and the millwright with them from Ohio, but the mill stones were a local product, created from boulders found along the river bank. The mill was the first order of business upon arriving, and Jesse Green remembered its first day of operation:

On the morning of the 4th day of July 1830 the first wheat was ground by water power in the northern portion of Illinois. We did not at this time have a bolt for separating the flour from the bran but we thought that graham flour was good enough to celebrate that Natal day with a double purpose that will never be forgotten by the latest survivor of the memorable event. It marked the first and greatest step in the alleviation of the hardships and suffering of the early settlers, and they soon all had plenty of graham flour and corn dodgers. Up to this time we were obliged to grind our grain in a coffee mill, or pound it in a mortar improvised by burning out a hole in the top of a stump, and attaching an iron wedge to a handle to use as a pestle which was operated in a manner similar to the old fashioned well sweep.

In one of the many upgrades and improvements to the mill, the original millstones were removed, but not discarded. They are today to be found in Shabbona park, near Earlville.

Bridging the Fox

wooden bridge

In 1837, John Green and William Stadden, who owned the land on either side of the Fox river at Dayton, were granted permission from the state to build a toll bridge. They had to complete the bridge within 5 years and could place a toll gate at either end to collect a toll, the amount of which was set by the county commissioners’ court.

By 1854, the bridge needed replacement and a subscription was taken up to build a free bridge. The toll was dropped to encourage those living on the east side of the river to patronize the businesses in Dayton.

In 1857, there was a severe ice jam in the Fox River between Dayton and Ottawa and the free bridge at Dayton was carried away. Jesse and David Green took on the job of rebuilding and in December of that year, the following announcement appeared in the Ottawa paper:

Free Bridge

The free bridge across Fox River at Dayton is now completed, and persons living on the east side will again have the privilege of patronizing our new Grist and Flouring Mill, which is capable of grinding from 50 to 60 bushels per hour. As the undersigned have expended their means very liberally in erecting such a Mill and Bridge as the growing wants of the country require, they hope to receive a liberal share of public patronage. Persons coming from a distance will find good warm stabling in connection with the above Mill, free of charge, and their public house has passed into other hands, and bids fair to do justice to the inner man at reasonable rates. Please give us a call.                                                              J. & D. Green1

In 1875, the bridge washed out again and for the next ten years, there was only a precarious ford to cross the river. The county agreed to pay one-half of the cost of a new bridge, leaving Dayton and Rutland to pay one-fourth each. In 1885, although Dayton was ready to pay their share, Rutland opposed the bridge, because they had recently been taxed for a bridge at Marseilles. Dayton offered to pay part of Rutland’s share, but it was some time before the bridge proposal was passed by the Rutland voters. The bridge was not finished until April 1887, and lasted until it collapsed in 1940.


  1. The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, December 12, 1857, p. 3, col. 6

The Bran Duster

Bran Duster

Drawing of Bran Duster from patent application

No one could accuse David Green of not being up-to-date. Left in charge of the Green businesses in Dayton while his father and brother went to California to seek gold, he refurbished the grist mill and installed a newly invented piece of machinery. In February of 1849, Frost & Monroe, a Michigan company, got a patent for a machine called a Bran Duster. By November of that year, one of these newfangled machines was installed in the mill at Dayton, as reported to the Prairie Farmer by one of its correspondents:

At Ottawa, on my return, I saw a machine, called a Bran Duster, patented by Messrs. Frost & Monroe, for the purpose of taking the flour out of bran after the latter has passed through the mill. It is said to gather five barrels of flour from the bran of a hundred. One is put up at Dayton, La Salle county. The cost I did not learn.1


  1. Prairie Farmer, November 1, 1849, p 22

The early mill

Green's Mills ad

In the early days of the settlement of northern Illinois, one of the most pressing needs was for a grist mill. When the Greens built their first grist mill, in 1830, it was one of the few places where people could have their grain ground. People came from as much as fifty miles away, and because of the distance and the number of people waiting for their turn, they sometimes had to wait in line for several days. The hardships of those early days made good telling in later years, as shown by this excerpt from the Earlville Gazette of February 8, 1868

Recollections of the Early Settlement of the Town of Earl, by Charles H. Sutphen

The first two winters we were here it was very difficult to get grinding, Green’s mill, at Dayton, being the only one within fifty or one hundred miles, and this mill occasionally froze up in the winter; the mill would be so crowded sometimes in the winter, that parties going to mill would have to wait sometimes two and three days for their grist.  I have laid by the hopper some two nights in succession, in the coldest of weather, waiting for my turn.  If you left your post, some one might slip a grist in ahead of yours; but this was soon remedied by the erection of mills on the Big Vermillion, and Dr. Woodworth’s, at Marseilles.