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Harkins' Mill: Another Beaver County Last

By Jack Goddard
with Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 33 No. 4

Editor's Note-As far as I know this is the last "standing" early grist mill left in Beaver County, and it won't be standing for long. One part of the roof has collapsed, and it is slated for demolition in the spring. If you have any interest in seeing this type of thing, I would suggest that you drive into the middle of Unionville, New Sewickley Township on Route 68 out of Rochester. Harkin's Mill will be on your right to the left of G&C Garage. It is surrounded by cars and trucks. You can park across the street in the church parking lot. Please do not go near the building out of respect to the owner. It is a shame that no mill will soon exist in the County. It seems sad that we have no vestige left of this important stage in our history. If my memory serves me, sometime perhaps in the 1970s George Pettibone, a County Commissioner, tried to have a working grist mill moved to Brady's Run Park. I have no idea why this attempt failed. Perhaps one of our readers has some information on this. What a wonderful addition this would have been, bringing visitors to the area like they do at Beaver Creek Park and McConnell's Mill. It would have complemented the Maple Sugar Festival and many other events. It is too bad that this attempt failed.

The story of Harkins' Mill, purportedly the last grist mill "standing" in Beaver County, is dim and spotty at best. Although its earlier days are blurry, its future is clear. The current owner, Bill Gass, at this writing plans to tear down this ancient wooden structure in the spring.

Gass isn't keen on erasing anything from gone-by days but stressed that the large wooden building, which, over the years, was important to so many is now a danger and must come down.

There is very little known of its early past, as all records must have been lost. Checking countless research vehicles at both the Research Center in Beaver Falls and the Pennsylvania Room at the Ambridge Library failed to shed any light on it.

Apparently due to communication and transportation problems, New Sewickley wasn't included in various business guides from the early days. Neither was it mentioned in the 1888 History of Beaver County or Bausman's 1904 History of Beaver County. Harkins is on a map in Caldwell's Atlas but not the mill

Having failed in these areas, it was now necessary to call in Beaver County's super sleuth, Ron Ciani for some help. He is an expert when it comes to digging into deeds and other arcane places.

With his help it seems our little mystery begins back around 1850. That's when James Harkins enters the picture for the first time in New Sewickley Township. According to the 1860 US Federal Census, a Nancy Harkins also resided in the area.

Ron dug up the fact that James Harkins first bought a lot at a sheriff's sale in Freedom. It was purchased on December 1, 1849 from an Isaac Hesson. The property, Lot Number 93, was located south of where the old Freedom High School stands today. Whether he actually resided here is unknown.

But James Harkins must have been country-minded for on December 18, 1850, he bought 27 acres of land from Ovid Pinney and acquired 50 more from a Jacob Stahl in New Sewickley.

It is speculation but was this a Christmas gift to show his bride-to-be that he was serious, as 77 acres would make for a nice sized little farm? He added eight more acres on August 5, 1864. Was this for his grist mill? Regardless, it is shown on the New Sewickley map of Caldwell 1876 Atlas of Beaver County.

By the time he was done, Harkins owned 136 acres. Lynn Snyder was gracious enough this fall to give my wife, Gerry, and me a tour of where the mill sat off Harkins' Mill Road on Brush Creek. There was also a bridge here at one time. There are only a few signs that this was once an active water-wheel driven grist mill.

Around the start of the Great Depression, the mill was moved to Unionville, which was a few miles away.

Another mystery-How was it moved? Apparently it was moved to the Wahls of Wahl's Farm Supply. Bob Castelli, an employee at Wahl's from 1957 until it closed, thinks, "It was dismantled and brought here piece-by-piece." He agreed on the time frame as, "Mr. Wahl used to tell us stories of farmers bringing grain to grind during the depression."

That coincides with longtime residents, Nellie Herzog and Jim Steinacker's memories. Nellie remembers that, " A telephone company moved in above Wahl's and then was bought out. I remember going up to play with the abandoned phones when I was about six years old." That would make it 1928 and doesn't recall the mill being there then.

Steinacker pegs the move to be 1929 or 1930. " I remember that he quit grinding after a fellow got tangled up in the belts and was killed maybe in the late 1930s." Castelli agreed but wasn't sure when the accident happened. Some say the man killed was Johnny Miller. But Mel Eisenbrown grinned and clouded the issue when he explained, "That may have been his occupation, a miller, although there were folks by the name of Miller around here."

The mild-mannered, soft-spoken Wahl, according to Castelli, "used diesel power to run the mill. When I worked there, it was only used to put parts and storage in." Castelli said he never saw the silver-haired Wahl get upset or riled about anything.

Eisenbrown, a fourth generation farmer, remembered that, Wahl's was just a general store at first. "It was the local meeting place; had a big potbelly stove and everything." Steinacker, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year, added that, "They began selling farm machinery after World War II."

Castelli, with a glint in his eye, leaned back and said, "Yeah, we sold Allis-Chalmer tractors, New Holland and New Idea products. Oh, can't forget Red Rose Feed."

His co-worker, Sylvester (Wes) Kane and Wahl developed a strong friendship. Castelli continued: "He had three daughters-Ruth, Mildred, and Olive. I think they all moved leaving no one to pass the business on. He called Wes and me his sons, so when he decided to retire, he asked if we'd be interested in the business. We did but we knew we'd never fill Edwin L. Wahl's shoes."

Ollie Herzog, in closing, grinned and said," That's where Andy Zahn talked Bill Morebacher into becoming constable. Poor Andy turned out to be Bill's first arrest."