121 – Bowman’s Mill, 1789-1801, south of Leitersburg, MD

In the hollow where Little Antietam Creek crosses under Smithsburg Leitersburg Road, a cluster of buildings hugs the road. This is George Bowman’s legacy, and home of some of his descendants. The buildings are neat and well cared for, the lawns lush. Two solid stone buildings dominate the scene. The larger one was the mill, once three-and-a-half stories tall, but now just the two lower floors with a new roof and entrance porch. To its west is the miller’s house. A small, frame barn sits on a rise beyond the house, with a frame milk house and bullpen behind. The ground slopes gently to the stream behind, held by several dry masonry stone walls. A two-story brick house with frame outbuildings sits along the other side of the road, and a solitary stone house stands guard among fields beyond it.

Bell’s History of Leitersburg District says that the first Christopher Burkhart patented land as Burkett’s Lot and built a gristmill as early as 1779, probably the earliest mill in the District. A 1793 advertisement in the Washington Spy refers to …Jacob Gilbert’s mill, on Little Antietam Creek, seven miles from Hagerstown and two miles off the main road leading from said town to Nicholson’s Gap. Bell reports that Gilbert had purchased the property …in 1789 from Abraham Stouffer, who is said to have built the mill. Ten years later Gilbert sold the mill to Abraham Moyer. It was during his ownership that the Smithsburg road was opened. Moyer became insolvent, and in 1825 Frederick Bell bought the property and updated the mill. Around 1837 he equipped it with new machinery throughout.

Elliptical stone arches and heavy, pegged window frames that are still present in the mill suggest that this remaining section dates from the late 18th century and that it is the mill that Abraham Stouffer built and subsequent owners reworked. However, Bell states that …the old mill was a two-story stone structure, equipped at the close of its career with two sets of buhrs. This building was removed in 1857 by Daniel Mentzer, who erected on the same site a new mill that was regarded as one of the most commodious on Antietam Creek. It was three stories high and the walls were built of stone to the second story. This building was completely destroyed by fire on the 29th of January, 1886. 

The mill was powered by a millrace that was diverted from the Little Antietam on the far side of the road, near the solitary stone house. This stream of water entered the building through an opening in the north wall. It then fell on top of a 32 foot metal overshot wheel that was parallel to the wall, then exited through a tailrace at the rear of the mill and went back into the Little Antietam. At first, travelers simply forded the millrace. When the road was opened, the millrace was placed in a culvert under the road and directed into the building through the same portal.

George Bowman was born in Mapleville in 1852, youngest of nine children. As a young man, he apprenticed as a blacksmith for a year, then began working in mills. He operated the Old Forge Mill for seven years, then in 1886 purchased the mill on Little Antietam Creek. He introduced the rolling process and made other improvements. In 1889, he was appointed Postmaster at Mills (the name of the mill complex at the turn of the 19th century). Space for a small post office was added on the south side of the mill. About 1920, George built the brick house across from the mill for himself and his family.

George’s son Amos inherited the mill and business from his father in 1930. The milling operation changed, and the mill changed to accommodate different uses. After the post office closed, a large, one-story frame addition was added in its place. This space was divided; half was used as storage and the other half as a general store. In 1941, Amos purchased the farm on the other side of the road, the farm with the solitary stone house. The mill closed in 1952, and the store space was converted into a rental apartment.

The last major change to the mill occurred in 1980. The vast frame upper floors of the mill extended beyond the stone foundation, forming an overhang that accommodated the loading of farm wagons and trucks. Concerned about safety should a car hit one of the posts holding up the overhanging structure, the highway department asked that it be removed. The frame section was taken down and a lower-pitched roof placed over the remaining stone floors.

Huge oak posts carrying massive beams over the water channels dominate the first level of the mill. A few bits of milling machinery remain, and the graceful chamfers on the posts speak of an attention to detail not often seen now. A home is being carved out of the upper level. Functional rooms now fill the frame section, and a living room and master bedroom occupy part of the stone wing.

The miller’s house has quoined corners and is turned to face the mill. This four-bay, story-and-a-half structure has been changed to meet differing needs. A later addition extends to the west and is set back from the main block of the house. A one-story porch under the main roof span of this addition turns its face toward the road.

The original block of the house had four rooms with a center hall finished in beaded board walls bisecting the first floor. A closed stairway to the second story rises at the north end of the hall. The two rooms nearest the creek have been opened into a single, large living room. Many of the doors have six raised panels and are original, as is most of the chair rail. The kitchen and an entry room occupy the wing. The cellar opens out at ground level facing the stream. A window and wide door have been filled in on the side facing the mill, indicating that the level of the ground has been raised between the two buildings. This cellar can be entered from a double door in the wall facing the creek and from a recent stairway just in front of the original entry door.

The upper level has low ceilings and knee walls in its rooms. Changes have been made to accommodate different tenants, but much of the original fabric of this house remains. It has been charmingly restored and furnished.

The driveway to the solitary stone house dips across a small bridge over the now dry millrace and then crosses a wider bridge spanning Little Antietam Creek. A massive white fence of cast concrete balusters and rails circumscribes an elevated yard on the west side of the house, facing the driveway; it dominates the scene. This enclosure was added to the 1801 house about a century later.

The original front of the house faces east, on the opposite side of the present drive. A wing, probably original to the house, extends to the south and once had double porches facing the drive. These porches were closed in many years ago. Corners are quoined, and one original pair of twelve-over-eight window sashes remains on the first floor. Original six-over-six sashes fill most of the second-story windows.

The house is built on sloping ground with a stone springhouse nestled next to the creek and a great, red bank barn on the rise behind it. A concrete porch with concrete stairs has been added to the east side of the house. Two doors open onto the porch; one is to the kitchen, which is in the wing, and the other is the original main entrance, a six-paneled door with battens and long strap hinges on the inside.

 A rectangular entrance hall holds the staircase and doors to the dining room, kitchen, and the living room, which was created by removing the wall between double parlors. This room, on the north side of the house, has side-by-side fireplaces with different mantels. The east mantel is elegantly decorated with pilasters, while the other mantel is quite simple. The dining room has an ample fireplace and a door that leads outside opposite the main entrance.

The stairs are set against the east wall, just inside the main entrance, and cross in front of windows on each floor. Delicate rectangular balusters and a round handrail wind to the attic. The steps turn at a landing, go a few more steps to another landing with short stairs leading to it from both sides. The steps to the left lead to a low doorway into the attic above the kitchen wing, and the steps to the right lead to the hall serving the three bedrooms.

The large kitchen has a huge cooking fireplace still equipped with a crane, antique cooking tools and a small wood stove. Windows have been altered, and new cabinets have been added. The main level has random-width oak floors, while the second has floors of wide pine boards. Much of the woodwork is original, with wood-cased jambs on the first floor and the jambs trimmed with molding on the second floor.

Rachel Niemyer, George Bowman’s granddaughter, and her husband William live in the house now. At 85 Rachel is full of energy. She will soon repair the concrete balusters of the decorative fence again, as she has done for the 53 years she has lived there. She works hard to maintain the house and to retain its original fabric while living comfortably. The Niemyer’s daughter Carolyn Amsley lives in the brick house, and their other daughter Linda Baker has lovingly restored the miller’s house. Next door, Linda’s daughter Kelly Shank and her husband Richard are restoring the mill. Their baby Devyn Rachel is the sixth generation of her family to live at Bowman’s Mill. The place is rich in history and family stories. Rachel remembers that her grandmother burned down the barn at the mill when she was burning chickens’ nests, she remembers when her father had the bridges built and when her grandmother kept pies on board shelves in the cave (root cellar) beneath the miller’s house that has now been sealed. Linda and Carolyn remember as children lying in their beds on warm summer nights listening to the churning of the massive water wheel from across the street, and remember wandering through the mill as the men were busy grinding feed for livestock. The generations search for clues telling them how their homes have evolved. They try to imagine why changes were made, and they cherish the rich legacy that their family has given them.

Epilogue: A new roof has been put on the miller’s house, but little else has changed. 

This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, November 7, 1999 as the 121st in the series.