90 – Trovinger Mill, 1771, east of Hagerstown, MD
When the mill was built in 1771, it was Jacob Rohrer’s Mill. It lay along a road that ran from Hagerstown to the forge that was a mile and a half upstream. The abutments for a bridge over the creek still stand near the mill, but the road has long since disappeared along much of its length. Trovinger Mill Road now passes in front of the mill, a much later addition to the geography of the area.
Milling was the first major industry in this county, and it developed because of the favorable growing conditions for wheat, oats and barley and the abundance of water power available from the streams. A 1794 map shows at least ten mills along Antietam Creek, and many more were built in the next 50 years. Few remain. Mills present special preservation and reuse problems. They are built in flood plains close to running water, which undermines and wears away the foundations. Neither wells nor septic fields can be built in flood plains, so extraordinary means must be taken to provide for water and for sewage disposal in any reuse. These two problems prevented most of the mills from being converted to other uses after water power was replaced as the main engine of industry. Mills were abandoned and slowly decayed into the stream, finally falling when some calamity struck. Trovinger’s Mill just barely avoided this fate through some happy combination of destiny and luck.
Jacob Rohrer first bought land along the Antietam in 1739, and a 1747 patent makes reference to his dwelling. A 30 acre tract was patented in 1761 as Addition to the Mill, indicating that Rohrer was already engaged in milling at that time. This and several other small parcels were combined into an 817 acre tract called Nancy’s Contentment, which was patented in 1768. It is not known if some part of the earlier mill is incorporated into the present one, but this is certainly one of the earliest mills built along the Antietam.
The mill is built of roughly-coursed fieldstone, 30 feet wide and 80 feet long with broad, arched openings in its north and south walls to accommodate the swift water in the millrace as it flowed through the undershot wheel. Doors and windows are randomly spaced. Some of the openings are topped with segmental arches and fitted with heavy frames that are pegged together. The mill has three floors. At ground level, there are three spaces: a large room on the east, the central segment with the arches that once held the water wheel, and another large room close to the creek. A massive, hand-hewn summer beam about twelve inches by eighteen inches in cross section runs through the center of the building for its full 80 foot length. The two interior walls support the joints of this beam, and it holds the floor joists of the second floor and the weight of the rest of the structure. The second level is open except for a small office area in the northeast corner. The walls of this office are wide, beaded boards with their original bluish paint. The door is made of vertical boards with tapered battens on the inside and hung with a pair of fancy, hand-wrought strap hinges. At this level, another summer beam, nine inches by thirteen inches in cross section, is made of three lap-joined sections of hand-hewn timber held on posts. At one time, there was an exterior covered walkway extending from the north wall at the second story and two small dormers on the south side. The third floor is entirely open.
The Rohrer family kept the mill until 1818 when it was purchased by John Wolfersburger for $2,250, ten dollars an acre. Thirty-seven years later, Wolfersburger’s trustees sold the property to Samuel Horine for $15,575.17. After changing hands several times, the mill and seventeen acres were purchased for $4,000 by Joseph Trovinger in 1875. The Trovinger family retained possession until 1910, and a succession of short-term owners followed. Nellie Lytton, now 90 years old, lived across the stream from the mill as a child and remembers her terror at having to walk to the mill across a plank that was only a foot wide. In 1940, the mill with four and four-tenths acres brought $500.
Bill McMahon has a fascination with water power and the mechanics of mills. Before moving to the county, he had purchased a cabin on a bluff near Charles Mill and later purchased the mill itself. When he learned that the Park Service intended to take that mill by eminent domain for the C&O Canal Park, he began to search for a replacement. He found Trovinger Mill. He removed the milling machinery from Charles Mill and bought equipment from Ruffner’s Mill and also from Barnett’s Mill in Carlisle so that, when Trovinger Mill was restored, it would be possible for it to again function as a mill.
What McMahon had purchased in 1974 was in imminent danger of collapse. The raised-seam metal roof had been bad for many years, and the whole center of the mill structure had rotted out. There were bows and buckles in the long stone walls, but much of the milling machinery was there. The undershot wheel had been replaced with a turbine in the 1840s, and part of the millrace had been reinforced with concrete, but little else had been changed. McMahon first filled the channel of the millrace to divert the water away from the building and back into Antietam Creek. Then he worked Saturdays for many weeks replacing the roof with cedar shakes, the original roofing material. He repaired the rotted structural members as he went along. He removed the two tiny dormers, then added a large shed dormer on the north and a smaller one on the south. The mill was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. McMahon pursued the Health Department until they reluctantly approved a cistern and a holding tank for the mill to provide water and sewage disposal. Stabilization was a daunting project, done slowly when time and funds were available. It was difficult because McMahon did not live nearby.
It became a second generation project in 1982 when McMahon’s daughter Cheryl and her husband Rich Anderson took over Trovinger Mill and continued stabilization. There was a sand bank four feet below the foundation, and this had to be excavated and reinforced. The walls were then shored up, and 80 ton railroad jacks were used to raise floors. They are not yet level. Rich doesn’t ever expect them to be; he just hopes to remove the peaks and valleys. One window lintel is still about four inches out of level, but it isn’t loose. The holding tank for septic was put in, and framing for living quarters was begun on the third floor. The small hood and the block and tackle beam were replaced in the east gable, just under the date stone that reads 1771. The grand plan is to have an apartment here with the milling equipment put back on the lower two floors. This space can then be used for any number of craft enterprises. Because both Cheryl and Rich have full-time jobs and other properties to maintain, work at the mill is at a standstill. But Rich is fiercely determined to finish the job. When he retires in just a few years, the dream will be fulfilled.
Epilogue: The mill continues to wait for Richard Anderson’s retirement.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, April 6, 1997 as the 90th in the series.