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The Literary Miller

Glen Avon Mill, as it appears today

Contemporary photograph of the Glen Avon Mill site, first constructed in ca. 1796 before burning down in 1878.  The current structure was built in 1879 by Emme Light and remained in operation until the 1950s.  Currently it is a private residence.

One of the truisms of horror movies is to never, ever go into an abandoned mill or turn onto Old Mill Road: you won’t come back alive.  Perhaps this tradition dates back to James Whales’ 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein, which brilliantly locates its climactic scene with the monster bellowing amidst the turning gears of an old windmill set afire by an angry mob.  By the 20th century, of course, such locales were becoming atavistic—reminders of an earlier time to be remembered fondly, or approached with trepidation.  Walt Disney’s animated short The Old Mill (1937) manages to encompass this ambivalence by populating an abandoned mill with all manner of pastoral animals, then having the structure briefly come back to life during a storm.  While there are no working mills along Conesus Creek, physical structures like that at Glen Avon are accompanied by historical ones in the collective memory, albeit largely unconscious.

Given the centuries-long history of milling, it shouldn’t be surprising that the activity would engender distinctive cultural themes, modes of representation, plot lines, literary types, and connotations—in short, a poetics.  As mills passed into obsolescence along with the vocation of farming, however, much of this cultural history has been forgotten save for certain famous exceptions like Chaucer’s scurrilous miller in The Canterbury Tales.  Better consigned to the past, perhaps?  Consider then, before answering, how you would articulate what’s distinctive about our own society without certain iconic figures like computer hackers, or a poetics of video-gaming.

Or, given the reputations of millers in medieval society, perhaps the contemporary figure of a cable provider executive: a powerful monopolist not to be trusted.  Colonists in North America brought with them a deep skepticism of flour-filching millers and enacted strict regulations upon their business.  Oliver Evans’ design for automated mills in 1790 was, if anything, even more instrumental in reforming the profession—it was at the vanguard of industrial design during much of 19th century.  With the rise of steam mills and increasing mechanization, water mills gradually became an object of nostalgia, even pathos; they were incorporated into a sentimental vision of bygone rural life.  This exhibit consists of three collections of images and brief extracts to suggest some of the latent history lurking at The Old Mill, newly intriguing within a poetics of sustainability and local food systems.


1. The Business of Milling: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (1380-1400); American folk song, “The Miller's Will” (before 1764); Oliver Evans, The Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide (1795); Robert J. Burdette, “Rime of the Ancient Miller” (1888).

2. The Sentimental Turn: George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860); James Russell Lowell, “Beaver Brook” (1848); James Whitcomb Riley, “The Old Home By the Mill” (1887); O. Henry, “The Church With an Overshot Wheel” (1904).

3. 20th-Century Reincarnations: James Whale, Frankenstein (1931); Wilfred Jackson/Walt Disney, "The Old Mill" (1937); Eric Sloane, Our Vanishing Landscape (1955); Patricia LaLand, “The Legacy of Water Mills” (2001).