Lawton's Valley
Water Mills from The Newport Historical Society


Some old Rhode Island Grist Mills. A paper read before the society, November 21, 1921 by Mr. Charles P. Coggeshall1

Water Mills

Water power was the first power to be used by the early settlers for grinding their grain. As the Islands were so small, the streams were not large enough to run the mills only a portion of the time. During the dry season they were obliged to shut down.

Jacob Chase, in his early recollections, claims the first mill in Lawton's valley was built by George Lawton on land granted for that purpose. It stood just below the south bridge on the West Main Road, where the two brooks unite at the head of Lawton's Valley. As the fall of the brook at that point is slight, the mill must have been, what Richard Bennet, in his history of corn milling, describes as a Greek or Norse mill. The stones for this mill were cut from a rock on Ferry Neck and was called plum pudding stone. One of these stones, about three feet in diameter, could be seen within a few years near the south bridge. The folklore or tradition relating to this mill claims that it was never locked. No one could carry corn from the mill, without the miller's consent, further than the north bridge, but must return to the mill and keep it on his shoulder until the miller gave him permission to drop it.

The second mill was built further down the stream at a point where there was a fall of about thirty feet. It was furnished with new granite stones, the power being an overshot wheel twenty feet in diameter. The best meal was ground here when the water was abundant and the mill was not too much hurried. There was plenty to do, as corn was brought from all parts of the island, as well as from Conanicut and Prudence. The miller, to use his favorite expression, "pulverized the corn." To get the stones right, he first ground three pints of corn, which was put back with the rest of the corn and ground over again. To prevent heating, no more than two bushels were ground per hour. When the corn was said to be pulverized properly, as all old jonnycake makers know, the meal must be ground exceedingly fine and it is no use to sift the fine from the coarse and attempt to make a perfect jonnycake.

At one time the mill in Lawton's Valley did much of the grinding. The corn was carried to the mill on horseback or man back, as it was not possible to get a horse cart nearer to the mill than 30 rods. In those days there were no wagons. The meal bags were composed of home-made tow cloth woven kersey, three-quarters of a yard wide, one and a half yards long so as to reach across the horse's back. To have it balance, some of the farmers were known to put a stone at one end of the bag to balance the corn at the other. Mr Chase, in his reminiscenses, does not give the name of the miller, but I have been told he ran this mill previous to its being shut down.

The walls of a water mill are still to be seen in Lawton's Valley belo the Jacob Chase grist mill. This mill was operated by Walter Cornell as a fulling and weaving mill the early part of the last century.

Further up the stream are the remains of another water mill on Mrs. Howe's place. This mill was operated by Edward Lawton about a hundred years ago for weaving woolens; later on it was used as a carding mill; its last owner was Edward Sisson. The machinery was removed about fifty years ago and the building has been used for various purposes since.

[1] Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, No. Thirty Nine, January 1922, Charles P. Coggeshall, pp 18-21

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Old water mill located on property owned by Dr. Samuel Howe and his spouse, Julia Ward.This mill was powered by the water falling in Lawton Valley.

Samuel G. Howe, circa 1859,
from a photograph by Black

ulia Ward Howe circa 1861
from a photograph

Mrs. Howe In Lawton's Valley
circa 1865, from a painting

Golden Valley
© 2000, W. Saslow

Lawton Valley Falls
circa 1890

Lawton Valley Falls
Picture Postcard circa 1900

Lawton Valley Falls Today
© 2003, W. Saslow

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