- Written by Bart A. Stump Bart A. Stump
Dave Rollenhagen doesn’t work the typical 9-5 grind. Grinding, however, is exactly the type of work he does. Rollenhagen is the miller at the Mill at Anselma in Chester Springs.
Rollenhagen, 78, retired as an electrical engineer at Lockheed-Martin in 2003. He and his wife, Deborah, have lived in the Chester Springs area for 30 years. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Rollenhagen became intrigued with mills when his children were young.
“We used to vacation, usually in the New England area, and I just got interested in old mills. Everywhere we went, I would search them out and drag my family to them,” he said.
Upon moving to Chester Springs, Rollenhagen heard of a mill in the area but couldn’t find it.
“Finally, one Saturday morning I noticed a lot of commotion out in a field down the road from me. I stopped in to see what was going on, and it was a spring celebration of the mill to attract interested people to see it.
“That’s when I realized, that’s where the mill was located. I had heard so much about it, and it’s literally a mile down the road from where I live,” Rollenhagen laughed.
After meeting the people in charge, Rollenhagen was invited to join the board of the mill.
“They were real happy to have me because I had this engineering background, and I was just as happy to be working at an old mill,” he recalled.
The Mill at Anselma was built in 1747 by Samuel Lightfoot and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was in continual use from 1747 to the 1930s.
“It’s a very old mill … and the remarkable thing about that mill is the machinery operates exactly the same today as it did when the mill was first built. It’s totally preserved,” explained Rollenhagen.
“My role in the mill is to continue to preserve the machinery, of course, but to make products that we can use to demonstrate how the mill actually works. We make pastry flour, bread flour, and cornmeal.
“It’s a balance between preservation and operation,” he added. “We really want to keep the mill operational to show how it works because when you see that rotating machinery, it just gives an entirely different impression than if it’s just a static display.”
Having volunteered at the mill for 20 years, Rollenhagen has a lot of memories. His most memorable recollection, however, was not a good one.
“We were grinding wheat, and we had a malfunction with one of the gears, and all of a sudden the place started shaking and creaking, and this huge water wheel moved out of place.”
They later learned a gear misalignment had been overlooked in the restoration.
“Fortunately, we were able to recover from that. We set the water wheel back in place, readjusted everything, and replaced some broken cogs,” recalled Rollenhagen. “We did get [the mill] back operationally, but not with those set of [mill] stones. So, we used another set of stones.”
While Rollenhagen’s background in engineering made him extremely well suited to deal with the science behind the milling process — e.g., the mechanical aspects of the moving gears and machinery — learning the art of milling was a completely different challenge.
“I began to realize that being a miller is just as complex as knowing how to repair all the wooden gears and all the mechanical aspects, which is all I ever knew about,” Rollenhagen said.
“But as I got into it, I realized how much there is to know about milling. How to get the stones at the right spacing. How to do the sifting. How to do the grain cleaning … And over time, I did learn it, but the experience was tough because there is no book you can pick up and read and learn how to be a miller.”
This loss of traditional knowledge became apparent as the millstones began to wear down from grinding the hard wheat. There are precious few craftsmen who still know how to dress the millstones in the traditional manner.
Rollenhagen explained that every few years, the Mill at Anselma brings in someone from California to sharpen the stones using a traditional flat-billed pick.
In trying to learn how to produce flour from hard wheat, Rollenhagen encountered another obstacle.
“Most of my friends who are millers at other mills, they didn’t make flour; they made cornmeal because it’s easy to do, and there’s no sifting involved,” he said.
Running out of options, Rollenhagen turned to a couple of big commercial-milling operations for their expertise.
“They were extremely helpful. They bent over backward to help me since they knew I wasn’t going to be competition for them. I was just trying to get a historical site in operation,” recalled Rollenhagen.
Rollenhagen learned his lessons well, and the Mill at Anselma started producing high-quality flour.
“We do a pretty good job to the point that really good bakers will request our flour and want to purchase it,” he said. “The problem is, I really can’t do that because [that would] overstress the machinery … So, I grind enough just to sell 2-pound bags in our gift shop. It’s a testament to the quality of our product.”
The Mill at Anselma’s overall goal is education, and Rollenhagen’s favorite part of working at the mill is sharing his knowledge with children.
“By far and away, the most rewarding thing that I do is have little children’s groups tour the mill and try as best I can to have them understand the role of a mill,” he said.
A lot has changed over the 273 years that the Mill at Anselma has been in existence. But the one thing that hasn’t has been the way the mill has always tied the community together. Dave Rollenhagen has been a vital part of that legacy, and his passionate stewardship has helped educate numerous generations about the bygone days of water-powered mills.