Bear’s Mill Offers Healthy Stoneground Grains, Plus Art, Nature and History
Mill Home to First Female Miller in the State
By Shelly Calvert
GREENVILLE - Tucked into a scenic wooded area along Greenville Creek in rural Darke County, the historic Bear’s Mill four-story wooden structure, with its beautiful hand-hewn timber framework, blends into the natural environment
From 1849, when Bear’s Mill was conceived, to our modern times the skill of milling grains has transitioned from necessity to novelty, and some would argue, back to necessity again.
With plant-based diets and minimally processed products becoming trendier, Bear’s Mill is filling a niche like only a time-tested, hand-crafted milling operation can.
Located at 6450 Arcanum-Bears Mill Rd., about 5 miles east of Greenville off of U.S. 36, Bear’s Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its many owners and caretakers have ensured its viability as a working mill as well as a destination spot for visitors from throughout the region and beyond.
A picnic table sits on the park-like lawn of the historic site, inviting guests to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet and beauty of the property. A walking trail meanders across a small wooden bridge, winding down along the millrace stream and through the woodlands to a veterans memorial, a covered bridge and the beautiful mill spillway.
Inside the mill, a surprise awaits. Rather than the drab interior one might expect from the historic look of the façade, the first floor of the mill is an artist’s showcase that contains an art gallery (The Clark Gallery) and a shop where cornmeal and flours are sold, along with many other items, such as kitchen gadgets, baked goods, chocolates and jams, gift items and freshly ground coffee, which is ground at the mill, among other items. Located next to the mill is the Millrace Gallery. It contains beautiful pottery, jewelry, sculptures and paintings from local artists and is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday.
The second floor of the mill houses the old rollers and other artifacts from the days when the mill “rolled” its grains.
A truly remarkable piece of the mill’s history can be found on the second floor. Visitors will notice large round “stones” that were put back into use for stone-grinding grains several decades ago. These stones are remarkable because the original owner, Gabriel Bear, a master miller, wanted only the finest grinding stones for his newly created mill, so he traveled all the way to France to obtain French Buhr stones. Imagine, in 1849 he embarked on his mission to get the special, extremely heavy stones by boat. It was a two-year trip to get the $6,000 stones found only in France. Today, that amount would compare to approximately $180,000.
As Mr. Bear was traveling for the Buhr stones, he left his son-in-law, Emanuel Hershey, in charge of building the mill and installing the needed equipment. Hershey and his crew also created an 800-foot-long millrace (a water filled stream that keeps the mill wheel running). The millrace was hand-dug by school-age children earning 50 cents per day for their labor, which was a great wage in 1849.
More history can be found on the third and fourth floors of the mill, which currently acts as a museum, complete with the original belt system (still working!) that once took the grain from the fourth floor, down through the grinding process and back up again until the corn or grain was perfected into its finished product and ready to bag. Hanging on the walls are antique “sale bills” for farming property and equipment, which were posted at the mill for advertisements.
The real treasures here, though, are the millers. Bear’s Mill not only has a gem of a master miller in Terry Clark, who, along with his wife Julie bought (and saved) the structure in 1979, but now two new miller apprentices who have emerged on the scene, one of whom is the first female miller in the state.
Sophie Nieport (pictured above with Terry) and Thomas Hammaker joined the mill in May of this year, shortly after the Darke County Parks District took over ownership of the operation from the Clarks. Both apprentices are park employees and both are excited about the opportunity to learn from Terry.
“I love it. I get to build a lot of stuff and I get to do something that not a lot of people get to do anymore, and I get to learn from the best,” Hammaker said.
Nieport said she is glad to be in Darke County and honored to be training under Clark.
“It feels good to be back in Darke County and doing something positive for our county and the environment,” she said, noting that she was previously driving to Sidney for work. “Learning from Terry has been a great experience. He has so many different stories from his life. He’s a Vietnam War vet and he’s also a timber framer.”
Terry and Julie are well-known in the Greenville area, most notably as the miller and the artist. Julie’s pottery fills the Millrace Gallery and she helps curate art shows in the mill, showcasing the work of many talented local and regional artists. But ask anyone in the area and they will tell you that Terry’s interests don’t end at the water powered mill that he’s labored over for decades. He is a member of the Timber Framer’s Guild of North America, headquartered in Washington state. Founded in 1985, the Timber Framers Guild is a non-profit educational membership association dedicated to the craft of timber framing, which is a traditional way of building structures using heavy timber beams with joints secured with heavy wooden pegs, such as the Bear’s Mill structure.
“My wife and I were driving down a country road, saw a for sale sign on the mill and then learned that an amusement park in southern Ohio was going to buy it and move it piece by piece,” Terry explained about how he and Julie came to own the mill. “I had $100, so I got a contract on the place and the rest is history.”
Terry applied for and was given a grant for $36,000 for the down payment in 1979-80. It took a year-and-a-half for this emergency grant from the Ohio Historical Preservation Office to be completed.
Since that time in 1979, the Clark’s have lived next to the mill, eventually in a house they built. Terry, with his notorious wit and humor, has taken the mill through decades of transitions, all of which have preserved the milling process and the property.
Changes and improvements have evolved the mill into the educational, functioning and truly nature-friendly treasure it is today.
Hammaker and Nieport are the next-generation millers and an integral part of the upkeep of the property. The variety and outdoorsy nature of their work makes their job a unique one. One day the two employees may be cleaning out a log jam in the creek to clear the way for kayaks and canoes. Another day they may be building or repairing something on the property. Yet other days consist of milling a range of grains into consumer products and grinding coffee. They also help educate tour groups and students about the way the mill used to run versus how it is run today. For example, a pulley system, called a “windlass,” once hauled grain bags off of horse-drawn wagons, pulling the bags up the outside of the building to the fourth floor intake window. Now those bags of grain are brought in by vehicles and carried to the second floor. What remains the same, however, is the stoneground milling process of those grains.
“We think this is where the expression ‘wait your turn’ may have come from,” Nieport said. “It’s from farmers waiting in line outside the mill for their turn on the grinding wheel.” While farmers waited, they often socialized at the mill, making it a hub of news, information and gossip. Basically they had “the run of the mill,” where they were able to “mill about,” and maybe even keep a bit of news running through the “rumor mill.” Remember those expensive Buhr stones? If the miller set the stones too far apart the grains remained too coarse, but if he set the stones too close together it would cause friction and scorch the grain, ruining the product and making an awful smell. The miller really had to “keep his nose to the grindstone.”
“Many of our sayings originated from the mill,” Nieport said, adding that the business served an important part of life for farmers back in the day when conversations at the mill led to trading, sales and exchange of information.
For many years, funding to keep the mill operational was handled by the Friends of Bear’s Mill, a non-profit group made up of volunteers who were committed to preserving Bear’s Mill as a working national landmark. These volunteers also run the store and help bag the stoneground grains into retail portions. In April of 2021, the Darke County Parks District bought the 35-acre establishment, including the building and surrounding land, nine acres of water, a dam, a levy and the 800-foot millrace that provides water power to run the mill’s turbine machinery located beneath the mill.
Bear’s Mill provides wholesome products to several area bakeries, including Bakehouse Bread & Cookie company in Troy, who buys their spelt flour. Other miller’s products include bread flour, cake flour, wheat, rye and cornmeal.
The spelt is locally sourced, whereas hard wheat for bread comes from North and South Dakota. The hard wheat is whole-cell and non-GMO. Spelt flour is preferred by people with gluten sensitivities, due to its low amount of gluten. Corn for the meal comes from Shelbyville, Indiana and “It’s a food grade corn and it is the best corn in the county,” Terry said.
An education booklet, “A Story of Bear’s Mill, a Darke County Treasure,” can be purchased at the store. It is written by local writers and historians with a knack for making a long historical account of the mill into an easy and enjoyable read for guests, students and anyone interested in the history of the property.
The mill hosts a variety of special events and programs each year, including a monthly Art at the Mill exhibit and artists reception. Popular upcoming events include the mill’s Christmas Preview on Nov. 13, and the Candlelight Walk on Dec. 3.
Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at bearsmill.org. (Photos by Matt Bayman)