The year is 1782. The American Revolution was coming to an end and Moravian Bethlehem found itself at the center of attention. Aristocratic officers of the French army, imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment, had come to marvel at the marvelous city with its many industries. It seemed to them an idyllic community as their Parisian philosophers described it. But there was at least one individual, the master miller of Bethlehem, Herman Loesch, who was not happy. His accommodations, located in the mill itself, were too cramped. So he went to the village chiefs with a proposal. The space, he argued, was not being put to good use. It must be returned to storage. He also had a request instead of this space being used as a dwelling, he asked for a small house, a house for himself. It is unknown if he had a wife and children, but if he had, it would have made him even more critical.
As these things sometimes do, it took some time to discuss. We don’t know exactly what they said, but it was hard to find good, competent and honest master millers. Two years later, they offered the miller a house he could use while working there. It was one of the first private houses built in Bethlehem. Nothing fancy – a big room, a kitchen and a cellar, that was all.
It is unclear whether Loesch was satisfied. But when it was built, Grist Miller’s House was the first separate residence for a master craftsman built after the end of the general economy in the 1760s. Several millers lived there after Loesch. In 1825, one of them was George Henry Wohler, who as a young man had served in Napoleon’s army in Spain and had been present at the Battle of Waterloo to witness the Emperor’s downfall. In 1834, in a changing Bethlehem, with the opening of the Lehigh Canal, it was deemed necessary to add a one-and-a-half-story addition. At that time, the house and the mill belonged to Charles A. Luckenbach and his brothers.
Recently, Historic Bethlehem received a $753,397 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development for structural repairs to preserve the historic home. Planned projects include installing a period roof, painting the walls, repairing the beams of the 1834 addition, and reopening the stairs to the basement from the first floor.
The construction of a private dwelling for the master miller was probably not something the rulers of Bethlehem took lightly. In the early 1800s, master brewer John Sebastian Goudie applied to build his own home. After being turned down, he expressed outrage and threatened to move to Lititz. No one can say for sure the details of what happened, but in 1810 a map of Bethlehem shows his house and Goudie remained. But more than a master brewer, having a master flour mill expert was vital to the community. In some cases, before a school or a church, a mill would be built.
From its founding in the 17th century until the 1860s, Pennsylvania was America’s breadbasket. One source states that Pennsylvania’s first gristmill was completed in 1643, most likely by the Swedish immigrant population who occupied the Philadelphia site before Penn’s arrival. A contemporary described it as “a fine grain mill which grinds both flour and fine flour and the trade is so great that it goes on sooner and later”. Another gives the first claim to the Roberts Mill built in 1683 by Richard Townsend. Thus, there were already watermills operated by water wheels even before the arrival of the Moravians. But there were never enough for farmers, who sometimes had to travel nearly 50 miles to reach one.
Flour was one of the main exports of the colony. Until the late 1750s, when he largely ceased his trading ventures, the merchant and founder of Allentown, William Allen, sold large quantities of flour from Pennsylvania to South and Central America, which is now Panama and Colombia. Although technically illegal under the laws of the British and Spanish empires (a system called mercantilism), which stipulated that only ships from those countries could trade with their respective colonies, it was “a snap” as long as violations were not weren’t too obvious.
According to Ruth Mosser Kistler’s 1932 study included in the 1962 issue of the Lehigh County Historical Society Proceedings, Allen “was also the leader of a rum and molasses smuggling ring” to the Netherlands Antilles that included as partners the Collector of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia. As the climate in South America was not conducive to growing wheat, Allen sold much of the flour to the owners of sugar and tobacco plantations who used it to feed their families and the enslaved population that constituted Workforce. Allen also purchased luxury items which he sold to planters. But he had to disappoint his best client, Don Bernardo de Ruiz of Cartagena, on his request for matching white horses to accompany the big black carriage Allen had bought him. There is no evidence that the grain ground by the Moravians in Bethlehem was part of this overseas network.
Bethlehem’s first flour mill was built in 1743 by Henry Antes, a non-Moravian associate of the community who was also involved in other early construction projects in Bethlehem. By 1751 the mill was so popular, with large numbers of non-Moravians also using it, that it had to be extended. One source defined how it works this way:
“The technology was powered by a water wheel, something that dates back to ancient times. The most important part of the mill were the millstones, called the “heart of the mill”. The lower stone or bedstone was fixed in position while the upper stone or guide stone moved. They had to be carefully managed to keep them from grinding on each other and thus not setting the mill on fire as they sometimes did. They were connected to the power source (wind or water) by a wooden counter-wheel keyed to a horizontal drive shaft, which drove a small wooden gear. The spindle passed through the center holes of the stones but only moved the guide stones. The spit bearing rested on a beam that the miller could raise or lower to finely adjust the size of the stones, according to information gathered by his famous miller’s thumb (rule of thumb) when he felt the texture of the meal.
One source describes the typical day of the miller and his helper as follows:
“They had little time to stroll. When the grain arrived in a cart or wagon or on a sack hanging from a horse, they had to hook a rope to it and carry it to the top floor of the mill. It was manual labor in many small factories, with only a second pulley to help. They had to keep the hopper full, watch the grind, and change the gap between the stones, sometimes no more than the thickness of the paper as needed. Even when there was no manual sieving to do, the meal had to be measured, ringed and bagged in the presence of the customer. A man wanted his own ground grain, not the equivalent amount of another man’s grain. Thus, the miller had to label each man’s bags and grind them separately when that man’s turn came. The strict first-come, first-served turn was every man’s legal right and was always observed.
Moravian millers were known for their honesty, which added to their popularity. But others weren’t always fair with customers. “Their payment,” notes a source, “was a prescribed portion or toll of the finished product – one-eighth of wheat and one-sixth of corn, for example. Unscrupulous millers would be fined if they took more, and some tricky millers had a small extra chute from the vat as a means of acquiring more flour than was owed. Even an honest miller could put a square dwelling on round stones and take the accumulated profit in his corners. There is no mention in the records of such dealings with millers in early Bethlehem.
In the late 1840s the mill was run by Charles Luckenbach’s grandsons, David and Andrew. The brothers made several attempts to modernize the mill. But they were met with outrage from traditionalists who fought them every step of the way.
In 1862 a major flood swept through the area, destroying parts of the mill. The worst happened on the evening of January 27, 1869. Workers later claimed they thought they smelled smoke but could not figure out where it was coming from. At 11 p.m., flames were seen coming from the mill. David Luckenbach’s wife, who was sick, had to be rescued when the flames approached the miller’s house.
The old flour mill was a ruin that was destroyed and without a roof. But the Luckenbach brothers acquired the best milling technology the mid-19th century had to offer and within 5 months they were back in business. The new mill flourished in the early 20th century.
By the 1920s, Pillsbury and other large companies dominated the flour market. Reduced to the sale of animal feed, the mill closed its doors for good in 1949 and was converted into a dump and car scrapyard. Recovered in the 1960s by urban renewal, it became offices for Historic Bethlehem. Today, the Luckenbach mill and miller’s house are part of cherished history.