J is for [Historical] Jerusalem Mill Village in Harford County (click here for map).
Little did I know a 45 minute drive would land me in a place so rich in historical preservation. Additionally, the name of the village coordinated PERFECTLY with the month of December and, of course, Christmas. There “are” residents – four (to be exact), but for the most part it is made up of roughly 300 volunteers (more about that later). You see, this 17 acre historical village is actually the headquarters of Gunpowder State Park – the largest park in Maryland. Nearly 50 Eagle Scout projects have been completed here and the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 20, 1987. Additionally, Jerusalem Mill is the most photographed park in the State of Maryland.
During my research, I read the village was holding its 2nd Annual Dickens Christmas Village & Holiday Boutique on this day only. Figuring it would be a very active day with the reenactments and entertainment, I phoned ahead requesting an appointment to speak with one of the volunteers about the history of the village. I was scheduled to meet with Chris, a volunteer for 15 years at the site, in the Visitor’s Center of the Gristmill which is located on the property.
When I got to the village, the volunteers were preparing for the Christmas celebration. People were walking around in colonial attire – men with their infamous stove-pipe hats, vests, and decorative canes and women with velvet, floor-length hoop skirt dresses and complimentary hats. Later I discovered the volunteers are the only ones who are in character, not the visitors. I found the mill, walked in, and Chris met me with a smile and immediate conversation.
The mill was started by David Lee, who was of Quaker descent, and it was named “Lee’s Merchant Mill”. It was here he began milling flour under the “White Silk” label. Much of this flour was shipped to the Caribbean from Joppa, Maryland, which was at one time a MAJOR seaport. Jerusalem Mill was classified as a large merchant mill and export operation. These large mills used to buy unmilled grain from the seller (paying only in cash), mill the grain, and then own the rights to the flour. There are smaller merchant mills that are privately owned and accept money or trade for milling grains.
What I found to be extremely interesting was when Chris explained the water wheel at the Jerusalem Mill was not on the exterior of the building – “they” (as there were two wheels), were located in the basement of the mill.
|Basement of Grist Mill|
Various members of the Lee family ran the mill until it finally ended up in the hands of Jack Bridges (the final miller) until his death in 1961. He actually converted the blacksmith shop (located across the street from the mill) into his home so he wouldn’t have to walk far to work. It has since reverted back to a working Blacksmith’s Shop. Jack also added a convenience store to the property after recognizing the declining business in milling, which compensated for the decrease in milling income. Chris made mention of the unsubstantiated rumor about Jack selling “Bohemian Beer” at his convenience store, without a permit, for a number of years (teenagers were happy).
Unfortunately, a hurricane in the 1940s destroyed the race (a channel that carried the water to the waterwheel), so the mill was run off electric means for the last 20 years of its active life.
Following Jacks’ death in 1961, the mill sat vacant for nearly 25 years. In 1985, a committee of six local residents formed the non-profit, all volunteer group named, “Friends of Jerusalem Mill (FOJM)” and embarked on a long journey to recapture the past. They ended up saving the whole village—the state rebuilt (NOT restored) the mill as the headquarters of Gunpowder State Park and used Program Open Space funding to purchase the rest of the original buildings.
Chris told me the FOJM razed the buildings and meticulously rebuilt each in stages to today’s code. The stones and foundation are the original parts of the building and everything above the stones is a well-researched copy. When the undertaking began, the buildings were in such shambles a few of the locals thought the committee was “delusional” with their ideas. The FOJM persevered and as a result, 10 years later Jerusalem Mill is now one of the most intact historic mill villages in Maryland.
|Aerial View of Village|
The village is open 365 days a year (weather permitting). As mentioned earlier, it is made up primarily of close to 300 volunteers. However, Chris told me there are only about 30 active volunteers and he is really hoping more will decide to become active in the future. He told me about one such volunteer; feisty Agatha was a 70-something when she was actively volunteering at the mill. She is now 102 years of age and no longer lives in Maryland. She would give the youngsters (40-somethings) “a run for their money” when pulling the weeds out from around the buildings!
If you visit on the weekends (Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.), you can watch the village demonstrate its Living History Program. This is when you can get a sense of daily life from the 1770s (when the Gristmill opened) through the 1930s. On Sunday afternoons, interpreters in the buildings behind the Gristmill demonstrate woodworking, hearth and open fire cooking, gardening, sewing, and other activities essential to daily life in times past.
|Inside General Store|
Chris proceeded to tell me about the different buildings on the property. The General Store made its mark in history because of a 1864 Civil War engagement known as “Gilmor’s Raid” (there is an annual June reenactment). In short, a band of Confederate cavalry under the command of Colonel Harry W. Gilmor swooped down and "requisitioned" nearly $1,000 worth of goods and horses.
Chris then told me about the Gun Factory. The Gun Factory was originally a "Cooperage". This was where wooden barrels and casks were made. It was allegedly used during the Revolutionary War for the production of Black Walnut gunstocks for the Maryland Militia. Chris then made mention of another unsubstantiated rumor that the Quakers made these gunstocks. Remember, it was a Quaker village. The Quakers making gunstocks? Ones who are a PEACEFUL people? Maybe they made them, maybe they didn't. It would have brought revenue to the village, right? Unfortunately, there is not any official paper trail, so the mystery remains. In later years, the building housed at different times a cabinetmaker's shop, a cider press, a cannery, and a residence.
Working our way over to the bank barn, Chris explained that it was the largest bank barn in Harford County built in 1803. What is a bank barn? What is unbelievably devastating was that it was burned by an arsonist in the late 1950s/early 1960s AND the act was done by a volunteer fireman. The FOJM is in the process of rebuilding the barn and once finished, revenue could probably be brought in by holding events in the building that would be otherwise cancelled by inclement weather.
Speaking of inclement weather, it was at this point Chris proceeded to tell me that the mill was built on a flood plain. It makes sense in that the mill needed the water to work its magic. The problem is the park is usually underwater on an average of three times per year. To keep the water “in check”, a dam was built up stream. However, if the water got high enough during a bad storm, the dam would break and the area flooded. The mill would have to stop production as no dam meant no milling. Also, during inclement weather, sometimes huge tree timbers close to 30 feet long would come barreling down the river. Chris saw this happen on a couple of occasions and to this day cannot figure out where those timbers came from.
The activities for the 2nd Annual Dickens Christmas Village & Holiday Boutique were nearly beginning and I did not want to miss anything.
Chris suggested I wander over to the Gun Factory for some hot apple cider and to see a woman reenacting the making of a festive Christmas dinner for her family. Chris also suggested I attend the “Christmas Carol” reading in the tent located next to the Blacksmith’s Shop.
I thanked Chris for all of the invaluable information he provided and walked over to the Gun Factory located just behind the mill.
The Gun Factory was quaint. I mentioned earlier the building held many roles - one of which was a residence. I remembered Chris telling me there was a family of 10 living in there at one time.
Chestnuts roasting over that open fire, as well? Santa was in the house having a discussion with the “lord of the manor”. The eight children must have been outside playing. On another table sat some hot apple cider and cookies for the taking. Yum! I took a cup of hot apple cider and ventured outside to the vegetable garden where I could envision the plethora of good eating when the growing season began.
I walked over to the Blacksmith’s Shop
It was nearing 2 p.m. – time for the “Christmas Carol” reading! I walked into the tent and took my seat. The reading began shortly thereafter. There were two excellent narrators who took roughly 45 minutes to read the story and it was extremely enjoyable. It was interesting to think about the fact that at one time stories read out loud used to be a major source of entertainment.
It was time to head home. I walked back over to the mill and once again thanked Chris for taking the time to talk to me about the village. I told him I liked Jerusalem Mill for a couple of reasons: (1) it was an entire village of history, not a just a building or two tucked away in a modern day community; and (2) I liked that there was not a place to eat nor souvenir shops on the premises. Things like that only turn places like this into “amusement parks”.
Bottom line.....this village is a work in progress and is filled with charm and the love of the volunteers who will let anyone experience a bit of the past in the present. Visit the property yourself, or give the gift of volunteering some of your time to help rebuild a hidden treasure. I don't think the experience will disappoint.