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Along Conesus Creek

Historic Mill Sites in Avon and Littleville, NY

Beginning in the late 18th century, streams near Avon, NY--and especially Conesus Creek--were the sites of numerous watermills. This contemporary map shows their approximate locations, although others probably existed that remain unknown to us today.

Besides the Glen Avon site, there appear to have been at least six other main locations along Conesus Creek where mills have operated since the late 18th century.  Beginning at Conesus Lake and following downstream toward the Genesee River, they are:

Conesus Lake Outlet: as of 1890, operated as a manufacturing mill by Henry Spencer

Millville: a grist & flour mill established in 1792 by John R. Bosley, and eventually joined by other firms

Triphammer Falls: site of a Wadsworth family mill used for metal work

Papermill Falls: built prior to 1797, the Wadsworth Flour Mills burned down in 1864 then was rebuilt in 1866 as a strawboard manufacturing plant

Glen Avon/Hosmer: on either side of the creek, this site has included saw-mills, grist mills, distilleries, wool-carding mills, foundaries

Ashantee: originally known as Malone’s mill, Herbert & Martha Wadsworth converted it to a cider mill before shifting over to a saw-mill

Conesus Creek, and especially its lower section toward the settlement of Littleville, was something like an industrial micro-corridor during its heyday—a site of water-powered production for adding value to agricultural goods (grains, wool), and for manufacturing equipment necessary to farming.  Its proximity to the Genesee Valley Canal and two different railroads was augmented by other nearby firms, including the Gilbert flour mill and the Avon Malt House.

Several themes tend to recur with water-mills along Conesus Creek—rapidly changing owners, catastrophic fires and rebuilding, lack of historical documentation, conflicting memories—that suggest their economic viability always was tenuous, more so as railroads delocalized agriculture and new power sources like steam & oil became available.  Beginning in 1854, Genesee Valley wheat production plummeted due to an infestation of insects called midges and it never really recovered.  A professor at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture saw the decline of what were termed “rural manufactures” as inevitable: “Something of the picturesqueness of country life has left it with the passing of the local tannery, grist-mill, wagon-shop, broom-shop, barrel-factory, hand-loom, shoemaker’s-shop, and cabinet-shop, but the rural people may the better concentrate themselves on production” (Fippin 273).  This somewhat patronizing assessment from 1921 is complicated, however, by the subsequent history of farmers producing crops for commodity markets: most of the added value passed out of rural communities, and farms have become even more precarious.

Without falsely idealizing the history of Conesus Creek, it is worth remembering that the first American industrial revolution was water-powered, a legacy easily forgotten as the scale and concentration of industry grew throughout the 19th century.  Writing in 1861, J. Leander Bishop reminded his readers that “the time is not very remote when...the sound of the mill-stream could be heard in the vicinity of Wall street” (I, 133).  This stark juxtaposition between an ecology of production and purified capital seems important.  Virtually every important community in Livingston County had some sort of water-mill, and although far from “green” nevertheless sustainabily powered a bioregional economy.  Looking upon illustrations and photos of water-mills, it remains possible to envision what E. F. Schumacher called “technology with a human face.”

Sources Consulted

—Bishop, J. Leander.  A History of American Manufactures from 1608-1860.  2 vols.  Philadelphia: Edward Young & Co., 1861.

—Davis, E.H.  “Avon.”  Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Livingston County Historical Society.  Dansville, NY: Bunnell and Oberdorf, 1888.

—Fippin, Elmer O.  Rural New York.  New York: Macmillan, 1921.

—Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  New York: Harper & Row, 1973.