Property owned by William Penn
Property owned by Joseph Pike
1725 – 1812:
In 1725 Samuel Lightfoot purchased a 500-acre tract from Joseph Pike, an influential Quaker and acquaintance of William Penn. Samuel, also a Quaker, was acquainted with Joseph Pike through his half-brother Michael Lightfoot, who collected quit-rents from tenants of Pike’s land. Through this purchase, Lightfoot became Pikeland Township’s largest land owner.
By this time Chester County was already gaining a reputation as the “bread basket” of the colonies, and there was great need among local farmers for a grist mill. Lightfoot, a surveyor by trade, recognized the opportunity to harness water power from his land, and in c. 1747, he built a small, water-powered mill along the banks of the Pickering Creek. During the period of 1763-1767, he also maintained field records for Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as they worked to establish the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The Mill and Lightfoot’s work as a surveyor made him the wealthiest man and the largest taxpayer in the township, as well as a leader in political life. In 1767 Samuel divided his property between his sons Thomas and William, giving older son Thomas 250 acres and a saw mill, and youngest son William 250 acres and the grist mill. The Mill prospered for a time under William’s ownership, but began to decline during William’s old age. A year after William’s death in 1797, the Mill was listed as being in a “bad state” by the tax assessor.
William’s son, Samuel, continued to operate the Mill until 1812, when he sold it to James Benson and moved to Concord, Ohio.
1812 – 1820
Rees and Benson
In 1812, the Mill was sold to Lewis Rees and James Benson of Reading who, ten years later, conveyed the property to Rees Sheneman. During this time the construction of the Conestoga Turnpike (present-day Route 401) kick-started commercial development of the Mill and its community. The Conestoga Turnpike, named after the covered wagons that provided most of its traffic, contributed in large part to the westward expansion of the 1820s.
1820 – 1859
Rees Sheneman lavished much-needed attention on the Mill and its property, care that had been sorely lacking since the Lightfoot era. In the early 1820s he installed revolutionary technology created in the 1790s by a Delaware inventor named Oliver Evans, which allowed for continuous production in grist mills. The labor-saving elevators and conveyors eliminated the need to carry grain between the different floors in the Mill. Sheneman incorporated these new devices into the existing power train system, leaving the original Lightfoot technology untouched.
1859 – 1886
In 1859, just before the Civil War, Elias Oberholtzer purchased the property and turned it over to his son, John. In 1862 John married the poet Sara Louisa Vickers and raised two children, Vickers and Paxson. The scenery around the Mill found its way into many of Sara’s poems, including one of her more famous works, “At the Old Mill,” from her book of verse, Violet Lee.
By the end of the 19th century the Mill’s community, then known as Cambria, grew into a vibrant center for transportation and commerce. Injured while freeing the water wheel from ice in 1871, miller John Oberholtzer turned his attention to other commercial activities, employing other men to run his mill. In 1872, he constructed the “Oberholtzer and Hartman” general store, where he sold grain, coal, lumber and feed.
In 1872 Oberholtzer, along with his father Elias and other area farmers and businessmen, successfully persuaded the Reading Railroad to establish a spur line through the Pickering Valley, which traversed the 13-mile stretch between Phoenixville and Byers. Cambria soon evolved into a commercial center featuring a train station, post office, warehouse and store, and served as a major shipping point for dairy products sent to Philadelphia. In 1886 Cambria was renamed “Anselma” to resolve ongoing mail and freight confusion with another Cambria Station near Johnstown. It is believed that Sara Oberholtzer chose the new name.
In 1886 John sold Anselma Mill to Allen H. Simmers, one of the men hired as an apprentice to run the mill after his accident. John and his family moved to Norristown.
Anselma’s prosperity lasted through the 1920s when the coming of the automobile and truck ended the reliance on railway transportation.
1886 – 1919
After John Oberholtzer was injured freeing the water wheel from ice, he hired James Laird to serve as Miller. By 1880, Laird hired Allen Simmers as an apprentice. Simmers lived with Laird and his wife. He later purchased the mill in 1886. Simmers added the last significant upgrade to the Mill in c. 1906, when he replaced the Mill’s wooden water wheel with a steel water wheel manufactured by the Fitz Water Wheel Company of Hanover, Pennsylvania. He also replaced the wooden sluiceway with an iron pipe, which then conveyed the water from the mill pond to a steel forebay tank.
Anselma’s prosperity lasted through the early 1900s, when the invention of the automobile threatened the dominance of the railroads in American life, and the advent of portable grist mills mounted on pickup trucks rendered a trip to Anselma unnecessary for milling flour. The Mill suffered individually, and the community as a whole steadily lost the commercial luster of its early years. In 1919, Allen Simmers sold the Mill to Oliver E. Collins for $2,800.
1919 – 1982
When grain milling technology began to change, new owner Oliver Collins responded with Yankee ingenuity. Collins arrived at the Mill in 1919 with his wife Ethel, and children, John Alfred, Mary and Horace. Without destroying the colonial-era power train system or the 1820s upgrades, Oliver installed machinery that allowed him to successfully operate a 20th century business. An amazingly resourceful man, he ran the grist mill, a saw mill, a cider press, metal working shop, barbershop, and lawnmower repair shop, all powered by the same water wheel he used to mill animal feed. In 1933, at the urging of his wife Ethel, Oliver also took the exam to become a postmaster. While he worked with the heavy machinery, Ethel and their daughter Mary ran the Anselma Post Office.
These enterprises supported the family through the dark years of the Great Depression, and enabled the Mill to retain much of its colonial and 19th century character. Collins’ second-floor office and much of his machinery remain intact, and his spirit and ingenuity lives on at the Mill at Anselma.
1982 – 1998
The French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust
Oliver Collins passed away in 1982. In the following year, thanks to the efforts of Samuel and Eleanor Morris, the Mill was purchased by the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. Through an ambitious early restoration effort, the Conservation Trust successfully stabilized the Mill and other buildings on the property. The Mill then sat quietly for several years.
In 1998, the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust worked closely with West Pikeland Township and the Chester County Board of Commissioners to create a new organization, the Mill at Anselma Preservation and Educational Trust. On October 11, 1999, stewardship of the Mill was officially transferred to the Mill Trust, which was charged with completing the restoration and creating a new historical attraction for the enjoyment of Chester County residents.
A lengthy and careful process of detailed restoration followed, based on the decision to preserve all three centuries of the Mill’s history, rather than to try to restore it to a specific time period. Other buildings on the property received a similar level of care. In 2004 the historic millstones turned once again, and milled flour for the first time since 1934.
The Mill at Anselma designated a
National Historic Landmark
On the National Historic Register since 1973, the Mill at Anselma received the prestigious recognition as a National Historic Landmark in April 2005. This is the highest level of historical significance recognized by the National Park Service, and The Mill at Anselma is the ONLY custom grist mill in the United States to be so honored. In the same year, Anselma was given a license by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to sell its stone ground flour.
The Mill at Anselma stands as the most complete known example of a custom grain mill in the United States. It illustrates the impact of changing technology on the mill industry over the course of three centuries, and celebrates Chester County’s pivotal role as the breadbasket of colonial America. The Mill at Anselma Preservation and Educational Trust is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of this local treasure for the present and future enjoyment of families and scholars alike. It is the Mill Trust’s vision to create an innovative historical resource that brings Chester County’s rich industrial and agricultural history to life in ways that are meaningful for current and future generations.
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