Historical Markers
Lightfoot Mill (Mill at Anselma) Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Lightfoot Mill (Mill at Anselma)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Route 401, West Pikeland Township

Dedication Date:
October 13, 2007

Behind the Marker

Imageof the exterior mill.
The Mill at Anselma, West Pikeland, PA, 2009.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley was exporting an ever increasing volume of wheat and flour to Britain. In 1747 Pikeland Township in Chester County boasted more than fifty independent farms–but no grist mill. Recognizing a financial opportunity, surveyor Samuel Lightfoot constructed a small mill on the banks of the Pickering Creek. Today, the Mill at Anselma is the nation's best surviving example of a water-powered custom grist mill.

Wooden gear system.
flip zoom
Wooden gear system, The Mill at Anselma, West Pikeland, PA, 2009.
Never the largest mill in the region, nor the most valuable, the Anselma mill was typical of the approximately 100 grist mills that operated in Chester County in 1774. Like other custom mills, it served local farmers who brought their grain there to have it ground for their own use. Merchant mills purchased grain from the farmers, ground it, and sold the flour themselves. The Mill at Anselma never aspired to that kind of far-reaching trade–it was built to serve the community.

Influenced by advances in technology and transportation, the Anselma mill is a living example of American industrial ingenuity. In the 1700s, shipping products from field to market on muddy and pothole-filled dirt roads was tedious and often dangerous. Many farmers, especially in booming Lancaster County, found it easier to float their goods down the Susquehanna River to Baltimore rather than ship overland to Philadelphia. Piqued by the loss of revenue, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed legislation in 1792 to stimulate the construction of paved turnpikes by private companies, which could charge tolls for their use. In the decades that followed, turnpikes threaded their way across the Commonwealth, including the markerPhiladelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and the Conestoga Turnpike, which ran directly past the Mill.
Illustration of Oliver Evans automated grain mill
Illustration of Oliver Evans automated grain mill, from The young mill-wright...

The increase in traffic and new business forced owner Rees Sheneman to upgrade the mill. Many newer mills in the area had been constructed with technology invented in the late 1700s by Oliver Evans, who automated the milling industry by utilizing bucket elevators to move grain and flour vertically between the floors of a mill, and Archimedean screws to shift it horizontally through chutes to the appropriate destination. Previously backbreaking work could now be conducted by one man with a minimum of exertion. Rather than destroy the existing colonial power train system, Sheneman cleverly installed the elevators and screws piecemeal so that the new equipment and the old worked seamlessly.

Sheneman made it possible for his Mill to compete with the more modern mills in the area, but it took a father-son team of industrial-age entrepreneurs to usher in Anselma's golden age. In 1853 Elias Oberholtzer, another local mill owner, bought the Mill for his son, John, and the two businesses thereafter operated as "Willowdale Mills." (John's wife, poetess Sara Vickers Oberholtzer, would memorialize the mill in a number of her highly regarded poems, including  marker "Lost Music" and marker "At the Old Mill."  
In this photo mill owner Allen Simmers stands in the second-floor door of the Mill.  In 1906 Simmers replaced the wooden water wheel and sluiceway (shown on left side of the mill building) with a more efficient steel pipe and Fitz water wheel.  A cider press, at Anselma, is visible on the right side of the mill building.
flip zoom
The Mill at Anselma, West Pikeland, PA, circa 1900.

In 1872, after John Oberholtzer was injured trying to free the mill's water wheel from ice, he hired a full-time miller to take over the day-to-day operations of the mill, and devoted his attention to turning Cambria into a commercial center. He constructed a general store and warehouse on the Mill's property, and teamed with local farmers and businessmen to convince the Pickering Valley Railroad to run a branch line through the village. With railroad access, business at the Mill boomed and the Supplee Milk Company, which leased a loading station in Cambria, became one of the largest creameries in southeastern Pennsylvania. Because of mail and freight confusion with another Cambria Station near Johnstown, Sara Oberholtzer renamed the village Anselma in 1886.

In 1886 the Oberholtzers moved to Norristown and sold the Mill to Allen Simmers, who in 1906 upgraded the old wooden water wheel to a new, more efficient steel "Fitz" water wheel, manufactured by the Fitz Water Wheel Company of Hanover, Pa.
Steel overshot water wheel
The "Fitz" steel overshot water wheel, The Mill at Anselma, West Pikeland, PA,...

For all of Simmers' efforts, business at the Mill declined. Unable to compete with the oceans of grain in the American west, Chester County, once the breadbasket of the colonies, became a center of dairy farming, and the Mill, which in the 1870s had been on 24-hour production, faced hard times.

In 1919 Allen Simmers sold the flagging mill to Oliver Collins, who intended to use its water wheel to power a saw mill. When local dairy farmers asked him to continue grinding the animal feed they needed to maintain their herds, he agreed. Collins also reconditioned an old cider press installed by Simmers, for apple cider production, which still thrived in the region.

For more than 150 years the Mill at Anselma had benefited from technological innovations. In the twentieth century, however, a new technology turned on Anselma. In the early 1900s automobiles and trucks destroyed the dominance of railroads over shipping and passenger transport.

Parke Myer with his truck mounted "hammer mill," West Pikeland, PA, August 1965.
Parke Myer with his truck mounted "hammer mill," West Pikeland, PA, August 1965.
The Great Depression sped the change. In the dark days following the stock market crash of 1929, Supplee Milk Company closed and the general store was repossessed. In 1934, after making only $13.10 in seven months, the Pickering Valley Railroad ceased operations. Around the same time, the advent of "hammer mills," mobile grist mills mounted onto pickup trucks, provided a cheaper and easier way to mill grain than hauling wagons of corn to Anselma.
Millwright Oliver Collins office
flip zoom
Millwright Oliver Collins office, The Mill at Anselma, West Pikeland, PA, 2009....

In order to save his property Collins opened a post office on the site, sharpened lawnmower blades, ran a machine shop on the first floor of the Mill, and cut hair in a barber shop on the second floor. Collins weathered the Great Depression by exercising a bit of American resourcefulness, but the mill's time was past. After its last feed production in 1934, the milling business in West Pikeland Township all but ceased.

When Collins passed away in 1982, the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust set about the monumental task of restoring the mill. What they discovered was a surviving colonial-era wooden power train, which still functions as it did in 1747. Because of its incredible historic integrity, the Mill at Anselma in 2005 became a National Historic Landmark - the only colonial-era custom grist mill in the country to be so honored. And because of innovations like the Oliver Evans upgrades and the Fitz water wheel-all fitted seamlessly into the colonial framework-Anselma is home to three centuries of American industrial ingenuity.

Today, the Mill at Anselma is managed by the Mill at Anselma Preservation and Educational Trust, and is open every weekend from April to December for tours. Stone-ground flour, milled on Anselma's historic millstones, is also available for purchase.
Back to Top