From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 49, No. 1, April 2013
Have you ever driven down or by Clover Mill Road and wondered about the origin of its name? What is a clover mill and what is its purpose? This article continues our series on some of the lesser known mill types that were once in Mansfield.
As early as 1650, red clover (Trifolium pratense) was cultivated as a forage crop in England and was soon recognized for its ability to increase soil fertility. Like other legumes, clover plants contain symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobia within nodules in their root systems. These bacteria absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform it into ammonium compounds which aid the plant’s growth. This process is known as nitrogen fixation. When the roots and stubble are plowed under, the decaying plants then release the fixed nitrogen into the soil. Red clover is thus known as a “green manure” crop. Before the development of commercial fertilizers, clover was commonly used in a rotation system to prepare fields for later crops of wheat, corn or other grains.
When the first English settlers came to America, they continued the practice of planting red clover for both feed and to revitalize their fields. However the settlers soon found that red clover did not perform as well in New England as in their native country. Though considered a perennial, it behaved as an annual here due to the severity of the winters and the naturally acidic soil. Therefore it became very important to save the clover seed from each year’s crop.
In the days before mechanization, clover seed was collected in the same manner as cereal grains. The whole process involved strenuous manual labor. The clover plants were first cut and dried. Then they were spread on the barn floor upon sheets and manually beaten with flails to break up the flower heads and release the seeds. When the large plant material was removed, the seeds remained on the sheets, along with dust and small bits of broken stems, leaves and blossoms known as chaff. The chaff was removed through a process called winnowing. When there was a breezy day, the seed and chaff were placed on a winnowing tray and then tossed in the air repeatedly. The breeze carried away the lighter weight chaff while the cleaned seed fell back onto the tray. Undoubtedly much seed was lost using these manual methods.
Clover mills were developed to collect and clean the seed in a more efficient manner. The earliest mills utilized rough cut millstones that crushed the flower heads between them as they rotated. The millstones were carefully leveled and placed just far enough apart to perform this operation without injuring the seed. The seed was expelled out the sides where it was collected. A fanning mill was then used to clean the seeds of chaff. This machine was developed to perform the winnowing operation. It utilized a series of sieves of decreasing sizes that were mechanically shaken to screen out the larger material. Rotating fan blades created a breeze to blow away the lightweight chaff and dust.
In the first decades of the 1800s, specialized threshing machines were also developed to process clover seed. Andrew Meikle, a Scottish engineer, invented the first threshing machine in 1786. His invention harvested and processed cereal grain much more effectively than flailing and winnowing. It would revolutionize agriculture in the coming century. Thomas Jefferson was among the first Americans to recognize the significance of Meikle’s invention. He ordered one in 1792 for use on his Monticello estate and eventually owned three threshing machines – a stationary one run by water power and two portable ones operated by horses.
In the first decades of the 1800s, the U.S. Patent Office granted numerous patents for different types of threshing machines. There were variations to process all types of grains and seeds. The first American patents for machines to process clover seed were issued in 1802.
Most of the early threshing machines operated in a similar manner. They had a cylinder to which were attached sharpened, serrated bars. The cylinder rotated at a high speed within a concave, an enclosure shaped to follow the curvature of the cylinder. The plant material was fed through a hopper into the concave where it was broken up by the rotating bars. The grain and chaff then dropped down through a series of shaking sieves while the remainder of the plant material exited through a chute. A fanning mill was usually used in conjunction with the threshing machine to separate the grain from the chaff. Later threshing machines combined these two functions into one machine with the addition of fan blades to blow away the chaff.
The machines designed to harvest and clean clover seed were similar but also had to perform an additional operation. Clover seeds are in a small pod known as the hull that must be removed to ensure seed germination. Therefore the threshing machines designed for clover also included a rasp-like device that rubbed off the hulls.
There were three clover mills that operated in Mansfield in the first half of the 19th century. One of them was built in Gurleyville by Lucius Gurley, the grandfather of Governor Wilbur Cross. It was located below the falls on the Codfish Falls brook. Like many early clover mills, it was water-powered and utilized rough-cut millstones to extract the seed rather than a threshing machine. A partial millstone from this mill has been recovered. If complete, it would have measured only 18” in diameter, much smaller than those used in gristmills.
In 1822, Lucius Gurley paid $50 to William Loomis of Ashford for use of his patent for “a clover seed rubber” for a term of fourteen years. Loomis’ patent was among those lost in the disastrous fire at the U.S. Patent Office in December of 1836. However it was re-issued on July 2, 1836 as patent no. 9882X. The patent drawing shows a machine quite different from the typical threshing machine but it performed the same function.
Loomis’ invention featured a wooden panel that moved up and down within a narrow box-like structure. Sharpened bars were attached to the top third of the panel while multiple teeth studded the bottom part. Additional bars and teeth were attached to the interior walls of the box enclosure. The dried clover plants were fed through a hopper at the top of the machine. As the inner panel moved up and down, the upper bars tore the plants apart to release the seeds and the lower toothed section acted as a rasp to rub off the hulls. This new invention may have helped Gurley to increase his seed production. Nonetheless his mill was short-lived. It ceased operation sometime around 1830. Gurley dismantled the building and in 1832 he re-used the timber to construct a house opposite his own (now 673 Chaffeeville Road). [You can learn much more about this clover mill in Rudy Favretti’s book, Gurleyville and Hanks Hill.]
Another clover mill was powered by water from the pond known today as McLaughlin’s Pond. This pond is located about one-quarter mile north of Mount Hope Road where there was also a saw mill. Before 1806, the main road from Wormwood Hill to Mount Hope passed by this site. Experience Swift built the clover mill sometime after he purchased the property by the pond in 1809. The mill shows up in the 1824 deed when he sold the property to Jedediah Wentworth. Unfortunately no further record of this mill has been found.
About 1834, Thomas Lazel Barrows built the mill to which Clover Mill Road owes its name. Roberta Smith has done considerable research on the Barrows family and this mill. The Barrows family operated it for about 25 years. It was located south of Barrows Pond on Sawmill Brook, now part of Schoolhouse Brook Park. Remnants of the old dam and mill foundation are still visible. The foundation indicates that the mill was quite small, measuring approximately 24’ x 24’. The inventory of Thomas L. Barrow’s estate (he died January 7, 1865) included a winnowing mill, 1 clover sieve, 12 dry casks, grindstone, a business wagon and $40.50 worth of clover seed in chaff. Since no other equipment is listed, it’s likely that this mill, like the one in Gurleyville, used millstones to extract the seed rather than a threshing type machine. Entries in his brother Joseph’s account books show 6 ¼ lbs of clover seed sold to Henry C. Hall in 1853 for $0.65 and the same amount in 1855 for $0.78.
It’s unusual that this mill remained in business for so long. By the mid-19th century, most of the clover mills in New England had ceased operation. By then clover was cultivated extensively in Pennsylvania and other milder-climate states, enabling the establishment of commercial seed houses. These provided ample supplies of seed to farmers in New England and elsewhere. The small local clover mills were no longer needed.
I wish to thank Rudy Favretti and Roberta Smith for generously sharing their research on Mansfield’sclover mills and helping with this article. – Ann Galonska