The Mill at Anselma is more than a remarkable example of surviving colonial-era technology—it was the backdrop for the lives of five milling families, and was the center of the community of Anselma for over 250 years. It witnessed the fields of wheat and corn give way to turnpikes and development. It saw the rise of the railroad in the 1860s, and the failure of the “iron horse” to compete with the automobile in the 1900s. It watched the bubble of prosperity at Anselma in the 1880s burst in the 1930s when the Great Depression struck.
Through it all, the Mill left an indelible mark on the lives of the people who lived here, while remaining virtually unchanged itself. Here are some of the Stories from Anselma.
Sara Louisa Vickers Oberholtzer
Sara Louisa Vickers was born May 20, 1841 in Lionville, the oldest of nine children born to Paxson Vickers and Ann Thomas Lewis Vickers. Her father Paxson, grandfather John and great-grandfather Thomas all manufactured pottery, using clay to make dishes, bowls, cups and other articles necessary for household use. As a reflection of their Quaker beliefs that all people were equal in the sight of God, all four generations – including Sara – were staunchly opposed to slavery. Paxson, John and Thomas all served as “stationmasters” on the Underground Railroad, who hid escaped slaves in their homes until safe passage could be arranged, sometimes transporting them in the large blue wagons used to deliver Vickers pottery. Several of Sara’s later poems refer to difficulties which her father, grandfather and great-grandfather encountered while helping to transport escaped slaves. It was later reported that members of the Vickers family had helped more than a thousand fugitives find freedom in the north.
In addition to abolitionist activities, the Vickers’ were known for their skill in public speaking and lecturing. Sara spent her formative years enjoying lively debates and reading newspapers and publications on reform—which, coupled with her family’s compassionate Quaker beliefs, combined to instill in her an ability to speak and write beautifully and persuasively. In a letter to a publisher later in life, Sara mentioned that she had been writing and speaking to the public since before she was “grown up.” As a teenager Sara submitted many of her essays and poems to magazines and newspapers. At the age of fifteen she sent samples of her writing to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who encouraged her to nurture her talent. By the age of eighteen Sara had a volume of work ready for publication, and she and Whittier maintained a lifelong correspondence.
Sara attended Thomas’ Boarding School in Lionville before moving on to Millersville State Normal School. Upon graduation she had planned to study medicine but was prevented from doing so by serious illness. On January 1, 1862, at the age of twenty, she married John Oberholtzer, a former teacher who operated the local Willowdale Mill (now the Mill at Anselma). They honeymooned in Washington, D.C., a hotbed of activity during those early days of the Civil War. Sara was well versed in current events, and wrote with enthusiasm of seeing the Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian Institute and many other landmarks. Sara enjoyed being treated to a lavish lifestyle, if only for a short time—in a postscript of a letter home, John wrote, “Fashionable life may do very well for a short time, but I think we would soon get tired of it; once there was nothing new to look at.”
While John devoted much of his energy to running the Mill, Sara cared for their two sons, Ellis (b. 1868) and Vickers (b. 1871), and continued to write. Her new surroundings provided abundant inspiration, and her poetry flourished. Two of her six publications, Violet Lee (1873) and Come for Arbutus (1882) include numerous references to the Mill and the Chester County countryside. She maintained a healthy correspondence with poets like Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and dedicated poems to figures she admired, including Lucretia Mott, Bayard Taylor and Walt Whitman. A set of four poems in Come for Arbutus chronicled her family’s experience in the Underground Railroad: “The Station House,” “The Station Master,” “The Pilot” and “An Instance.” Sara also used poetry to express her emotions about events like James Garfield’s assassination and the sinking of the Ville-de-Harve passenger ship in the 1870s. John R. Sweeney found some of Sara’s poems moving enough that he set them to music, and they became hymns.
Two of Sara’s most poignant works are “At the Old Mill” and “Lost Music.” “At the Old Mill” reads like a love poem, using the Mill as a backdrop:
Radiant day is slowly fading,
And the evening calm and still,
Gazing through the oak and willow,
Stoops to kiss the ancient mill.
Listen to the damsel dancing
To the jig of feed and flour,
And the water-wheel revolving
With a dashing, constant power.
There is music in the rattle
Of the tinkling wheat that falls,
In the hopper, as the miller
Stops to heed the gristman’s calls.
Yes, I love this shaded building,
Love the flowing stream and flowers,
Love to hear the busy clatter
On the lingering summer hours.
More than all, I love the miller,
For his sake, I love the rest;
Of this world and its enchantments
I adore him the best.
Of these twilights I would weary
If his voice came not to cheer.
And this mill – life would grow dreary
If my darling was not here.
“At the Old Mill”
Violet Lee, 1873
The latter poem, “Lost Music” plays upon the same imagery she used during the first work, but the tone is much darker and more nostalgic. Sara penned “Lost Music” after John suffered a debilitating injury while attempting to free the water wheel from ice in February 1871. Published in 1882, she wrote,
Falls the wheat pattering
Into the hoppers old.
Then up it goes jolting,
Down it comes bolting,
And the warm flour is sold.
Grinding and pattering,
Notes that are lost on me.
The mill keeps repeating
Its musical greeting,
The water-wheel dances free.
Only the clattering
Seems a mock chattering
Of the sweet tinkling past.
And e’en the corn breaking
With a heavy bass quaking,
Falls on me dumb at last.
Tinkling and pattering.
Oh for the early days
When we milled together,
And I wondered whether
Fairest was wheat or maize!
Come for Arbutus, 1882
Because of his accident, John turned his attention away from milling and set about building his little village into a major commercial center. After hiring men to run the mill, he opened a general store which sold flour, feed, coal, hay and lumber. In 1872 he and a handful of local businessmen and farmers persuaded the Reading Railroad Company to run a spur line through Anselma, which thereafter carried both passengers and freight to and from Philadelphia. In 1886 John sold the Mill to Allen Simmers, and he and Sara moved to Norristown, where he became a successful grain merchant.
After moving away from Anselma Sara formed the Norristown chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization which condemned the consumption of alcohol as dangerous and detrimental to society. When Ellis and Vickers traveled to Germany to pursue their individual doctorates, Sara went with them and worked as a travel reporter for the Norristown Herald. She was a widely respected lecturer on subjects ranging from politics to nature, and was asked to write commemorative poems for occasions like Bayard Taylor’s funeral and the Bicentennial of William Penn’s landing. In 1888 Sara discovered the School Savings Bank program, which was designed to educate children about the value of saving their pennies. The School Savings Bank program consumed her energies for the rest of her life, and she abandoned her literary career. In her later years she also fought for women’s suffrage, and was a champion for equal rights for all people.
Sara died on February 2, 1930 at the age of 88, and is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Oliver Ernest Collins
For most visitors, Mr. Collins leaves the biggest impression. He was Anselma’s last miller, and its caretaker through the most difficult years of the twentieth century. Many of his belongings and tools still rest in the Mill where he left them when he passed away in 1982. His ingenuity and spirit are evident in every drawer and on every shelf.
It might not surprise people who knew him that Oliver was born during the legendary blizzard of 1888, the “Great White Hurricane,” which paralyzed the East Coast from March 11 to March 14. Raised in East Nantmeal, as a youth he and his father worked as hired farmers. At eighteen Oliver decided to learn the miller’s trade, apprenticing at Yeatman’s grist mill on the Elk Creek, which sold feed, cracked corn, mush meal and flour to local markets like Newark, New Garden and Landenberg. A short time later Oliver returned home, then met and married Ellen Ethel Lockman of Pottstown. In 1910 Ethel gave birth to the first of their three children, Jack. Another son, Horace, followed in 1912.
1914 witnessed another professional change of direction. Always a skilled carpenter, Oliver rented a sawmill in Byers and used the wood he cut there for building houses and barns. Due to the bad economy, which made building work scarce, he subsidized his income with part-time work at the Tomkins Graphite Mill. With Ethel now expecting their third child, a daughter named Mary, times were tough for the Collins family.
In 1919 Oliver heard about an old grist mill for sale in nearby Anselma. The elderly owner, Allen Simmers, had stopped milling and couldn’t keep up with repairs to the building. No one had expressed interest in buying the Mill — except Oliver. But Oliver didn’t have the money to buy the Mill outright, so the two men agreed upon a plan: Oliver would give Simmers $500 up front, then pay him a monthly mortgage for as long as the man lived.
Oliver had little interest in milling — he wanted the Mill because of its water wheel, from which he could power a sawmill and woodworking shop. With the agricultural center of the country steadily moving out west, there was little demand for locally-produced wheat flour in Chester County anymore. One industry that remained, however, was dairy farming, and when local dairy farmers approached Oliver about grinding animal feed for them, he agreed.
It would be no small task. The building itself was in terrible condition, and the ancient millstones were worn down to almost unusable condition. Though confident in his house and barn-building skills, Oliver hired a millwright named Louis Knauer to help with the intricacies of rebuilding a grist mill. After putting the children to bed each night, Ethel held a lantern over the gear pit so that Oliver had light to work by.
Two years into the new venture, the worn millstones that Oliver used to grind corn finally cracked in half. This was an especially frustrating setback, because millstones were difficult to quarry and ship due to their size. He purchased a set of stones quarried in Virginia from “native rock” for $1200. Whether he knew it or not, the stones Oliver purchased were unusually large and heavy, weighing 3200 pounds. They arrived by train, but were accidentally dropped off at the wrong station. It took six men to load the two-ton stones into the back of a one-ton Model T truck. When the truck reached a hill, all six men had to get out and push. Louis Knauer, the millwright who helped to restore the Mill to working order, stayed in Oliver’s house all winter dressing and balancing the stones, and by the spring Anselma Mill was once again in working order.
Oliver’s mill was the center of a vibrant commercial community, which blossomed in the 1870s when the Pickering Valley Railroad ran a spur line through the little village. Dairy farmers who brought corn to be milled into feed also made a stop at the Supplee Milk Company to sell cans of milk from their own cows, which would then make the journey by train to markets in Philadelphia. At the General Store they browsed the shelves for household items like food, clothes and coal, and picked up their mail at the Anselma Post Office. Their children attended school at the Franklin Schoolhouse. Women gathered in the Anselma Station to board trains to Phoenixville to shop for luxury items, and a few businessmen made the daily commute to Philadelphia. Anselma was a bustling village, where residents met to hear gossip, buy their household things, and run their errands. Almost anything that needed doing could be done within walking distance of Oliver’s mill.
Oliver himself offered a wide variety of services. Even before the Great Depression struck in 1929, he had diversified his activities at the Mill to include sawmilling, cider pressing, sharpening lawnmower blades, machine repair, and even installed a barber chair so that he could cut the hair of local residents. He developed a reputation for fair and skilled work. One resident recalled that “He was so particular. Anything he fixed it was fixed better than when it was new…There was nothing he couldn’t fix, metal or wood… You had to wait your turns if you wanted somethin’ fixed, if you wanted Collins to fix it.”
During the busy cider pressing season, Oliver typically awoke around 5:30 am, worked until Ethel called him for breakfast at 7:00 or 8:00, then continued to work until well after dark. Sometimes the Mill operated 24 hours a day, but Oliver’s most lucrative business by far was in sweet and hard cider. Apple cider production was a Pennsylvania tradition, and hard cider was especially popular during Prohibition. During the height of the season, two-horse wagons lined up all the way out to Route 401, waiting to buy cider for about one cent a gallon.
A nuisance to some — and a lifesaving program for others — was the Works Progress Administration, which sent troupes of unemployed Philadelphians to perform road maintenance on Route 401. Residents complained that the workers spent their days lazing about in the shade, raiding their springhouses for milk or stealing their chickens to take home with them. One day, Oliver discovered that the water wheel had stopped turning and upon investigating discovered that two dozen WPA workers had torn a hole in the bank of the mill race and were stealing all the fish out of the pond. When he confronted them, they argued that it was just a creek and he didn’t own the fish, and they had a right to take whatever they wanted. He charged them with trespassing, but the District Attorney in West Chester never prosecuted the thieves. Oliver simply repaired the mill race and went back to work.
Even with the number of occupations in which Oliver engaged, it was still hard sometimes to make ends meet. In 1933, after hearing that the Anselma Post Office needed a new Postmaster, Ethel convinced her husband to take the civil service exam. He passed the exam, and the post office was relocated from the General Store to a small addition on the side of Oliver’s house. Oliver hardly ever worked in the post office — it was Ethel and her daughter Mary who performed the day-to-day operations of sorting and canceling mail and making out money orders.
Because of Oliver’s efforts, the Mill survived the Great Depression, but many of Anselma’s businesses did not. The Supplee Milk Company, once a leading supplier of milk and butter to Philadelphia, closed in 1933. The advent of the motor car destroyed the dominance of the railroads over transportation, and the Pickering Valley spur line went belly-up in 1934, as did the General Store. By the mid-1930s the popularity of mobile milling machines, which could travel from farm to farm and mill grain on-site, led to the gradual closure of most small grist mills in Pennsylvania. Anselma Mill was no exception. Oliver continued sawmilling and machine repair, while Ethel ran the Post Office, but Oliver did not mill commercially after 1934. Ethel passed away in the early 1940s, and Oliver’s second wife Mabel continued to process mail until Oliver retired in 1958, at 70 years of age.
In 1972, Oliver agreed to let graduate students from the Hagley program photograph and document his old grist mill. He passed away in 1982, and in 1983 the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust purchased the Mill from his estate. They photographed his tools and belongings — but put them right back where he left them, to testify to the Yankee ingenuity of this exceptional man.
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