Green Before Its Time

Shepherd's Grist Mill Overshot Water Wheel in its original location, 60 feet downstream from its current location on Shepherdstown's Town Run. The Grist Mill is on the left of photo.

This past weekend SIPschool personnel  attended the Shepherdstown Back Alley Garden Tea and Tour.  A leisurely afternoon of visiting the many gardens and historical sites in one of our favorite towns would be reason enough to attend this Shepherdstown Men’s Club fundraiser,  but the real draw for us was the opportunity to see the Thomas Shepard Grist Mill’s Water Wheel in action.

First established in 1738, the Grist Mill was a major factor in the development of Shepherdstown (then Mecklenburg).  Thomas Shepherd saw that the small spring fed stream provided sufficient water power to operate a mill by gravity flow, and built a wooden overshot water wheel to harness this power.  This 18th century mill was continually upgraded to keep pace with the rapid advancements in milling technology, and at one time was the largest milling facility in the Valley of the Virginias.  In 1894 the I-X-L steel overshot water wheel was manufactured in Martinsburg at the Tuscarora Iron Works which merged with the Fitz Water Wheel Company in Hanover, Pennsylvania.   The power generated by the turning mill wheel was transmitted along a main shaft that extended through the lower floor of the mill.  A series of wheels and belts allowed other operations including sawing and grinding of a wide range of commodities.

The wheel was moved intact in 1904 from a prior set of stone abutments 60 feet below its present location, where it transmitted its power into the mill by means of an endless cable.  The present arrangement allows more efficient transfer of power directly through gearing to the main drive shaft.  The master wheel and reduction gears are all supported by bronze-lined, self-oiling bearings that were also produced by the Fitz Company.  The wheel was so well balanced that reportedly a small child could set it in motion by hand.  One of the hallmarks of this design is its efficient use of the water that is trapped and carried for a greater distance through the arc of the rotating wheel.

Weighing 10 tons and measuring 40 feet in diameter, the wheel is the largest of its type in America, and second largest in the world.  It continued operating until 1939.  Since it is now a private residence, the mill is now only open to the public on special occasions.

When the Shepherd Grist Mill was built, it wasn’t thought of as “Green”. The mill was designed to efficiently use the available natural resources to perform a service that was vital to the growing economy. Many folks look at a water wheel and relate it to alternative energy. However, I prescribe to the notion that alternative energy is too often ignoring the concept of “Efficiency First” in today’s buildings in favor of those systems which make use of natural resources, but may make the customer spend more in implementation than they will ever recoup in energy savings.  This Eco-Bling strategy gets my favorite response; “It’s the envelope, stupid!”  But when I look at the Grist Mill I see a marvel of engineering and appropriate use of the technology and resources at hand. Plus, it’s really cool to watch such a large wheel turn effortlessly under the melody of splashing water.  Take a look at the wheel in action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: