History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Mohawk Valley, Volume 3, Number 9, Summer 1982
by Richard Triumpho
When Jacob Zimmerman pegged together the last roughhewn boards of his mill and diverted the flow of the nearby creek to turn his waterwheel, his intentions were modest-to grind grain for himself and his neighbors. Little did he realize that more than 200 years in the future the enterprise he started would be flourishing as one of the oldest continuously operating grist mills in New York State.
Jacob had come to America with four of his brothers in 1710 as part of the great migration of the Palatine Dutch to the Schoharie Valley and the Mohawk Valley. The Zimmermans-or Timmermans as they were sometimes called-were Swiss, as were many of the Palatines.
Jacob became an Indian trader along the Mohawk River, and about the year 1719 he married an Indian Princess of the Lower Mohawk Castle (Fort Hunter), christened Anne Margaret. A few years later, in 1725, Jacob acquired land at what was to become St. Johnsville. He secured the land from the owners of the Francis Harrison Patent; they had bought a vast tract of land from East Canada Creek to Caroga Creek for 700 beaver skins.
The exact date Jacob built his first grist mill is not recorded, but can be assumed to be shortly after 1725. He ground corn and wheat for his neighbors, both Palatines and Indians. Many acres of wheat were grown by the settlers; indeed, the Mohawk Valley was known as the breadbasket of the colonies.
Jacob and his sons had the foresight to build a stockade around their mill. This precaution proved wise, for storm clouds of the American Revolution were an the horizon, and hostile Indians known as "Johnson's Incendiaries" had begun burning and pillaging up and down the valley.
Fox's Mill, a few miles to the east of Caroga Creek, was burned by the Indians. It was never rebuilt, and Zimmerman's Mill prospered as, a consequence for the next 25 years following the end of the Revolution.
The mill itself was the nucleus around which a settlement crystallized. By 1802 there were enough houses built to encourage the opening of the first general store.
Progress came with swift strides in the valley in the ensuing years. The opening of the Mohawk Turnpike in 1802-1804 provided a new highway to replace a crude road which hitherto had followed the meandering Indian trails. Traveling boomed, and as a consequence taverns sprung up all along the new highway.
So great was the demand for traveling accommodations that the Zimmerman family became tavern keepers, and neglected the milling business. Indeed, their attention waned enough to encourage David Quackenbush to construct a rival mill a half mile upstream at what became known as Klock's Hill.
The mill suffered a further decline as a result of the War of 1812. Many local soldiers saw service at Sacketts Harbor along the Canadian frontier, and returned with tales of vast stretches of fertile farm land along Lake Ontario. "When peace came again", according to a local historian, "many turned their thoughts and their footsteps to Jefferson County as a more promising field." Among those who left was Jacob Zimmerman Jr., and one may assume that the fortunes of Zimmerman's Mill, or Zimmerman's Fort as it was also known, were, at a very low ebb.
Indeed, a letter written by a visitor in 1815 mentioned the 'ruins' of the old fort as being used for a sheep pen. The mill was very new to dying a natural death when in 1838 it received a new lease on life.
At that date most of the Zimmerman land holdings were sold to one Azel Hough. He hired a local carpenter, John P. Kneeskern, to rebuild the mill. Construction was completed in 1850, providing a structure substantially the same as the one that stands today. The old waterwheel was replaced by a new cast iron radial flow turbine, of the type invented by James B. Francis of Lowell, Massachusetts just one year previously, in 1849.
Jabez Butler was hired to run the mill, and for the next eleven years the business prospered.
In 1861 Adam Horn, a German immigrant, was hired as an extra mill hand. So adept did Adam prove at the grist mill trade that three years later, in 1864, he purchased the business-lock, stock and barrel.
Then the mill began a new era. For the next 100 years, the grist mill trade was conducted by the male members of the Horn family indirect paternal line - father, sons and grandsons.
Upon Adam's death in 1881, his sons, Fred and Jacob, continued to operate the business. They in turn were followed by Adam's grandsons, Bertram and Carleton.
Electricity came to the mill in the 1920s, but the water turbine continued to play a major put in operating the physical plant, from grinding grist to powering jackshafts and pulleys that elevated corn, and oats to the upstairs bins. It was not until the 1950s that the mill pond was allowed to run dry, and the mill was re-wired for complete reliance on electrical power.
The saga of Horn's mill came to an end in 1961 when Bertram and Carleton retired. Bertram's son, James, did not elect to continue the grist mill business. The mill was sold to the Fort Plain GLF feed store, which in a few years changed its corporate name to Fort Plain Agway.
On July 1, 1975 the mill again changed hands, being purchased by John and Patricia Case. Originally from Troy, Pennsylvania, John is a 1962 graduate of Cornell with a degree in General Agriculture. He and his wife operated a dairy farm for seven years following his graduation from Cornell. The next five yews were spent in construction with his father's contracting firm, F.P. Case and Sons, putting up feed mills for Agway Facilities Engineering.
It was while putting up mills in the Mohawk Valley area that John learned the old Horn's Mill was available for sale. He bought it, and has since expanded operations to make it one of the major mills of the area. In addition to grinding grist, Case's Mill offers bulk feed and fertilizer service, crop spraying, pole barn construction and milk pipeline installation. The mill also sells a full line of horse and pet supplies, as well as garden seeds and hardware.
If you yearn for nostalgia in this hectic age, stop in at Case's Mill. There you can walk on a plank floor under wooden beams a hundred years old and hear the humming sound of the grist mill grinding corn and oats for local dairy farmers just as Jacob Zimmerman did 200 years go.
Copyright © 1998 Richard Triumpho. Used with permission.
Note: From Town of St. Johnsville: Mr. Hough operated the store and the post office was at that location when he became postmaster in 1845. In 1848 this progressive citizen built the residence that was the home of his granddaughter, Miss Katie Hough, at the corner of South Division and West Main Streets. In 1849 he built and operated the grist mill which was sold to Adam Horn in 1864, and is now Case's Mill. Mr. Hough was at one time a local Justice of the Peace and also served as a school trustee before the days of free schools.
The Mill built by Jacob Zimmerman was across the road and to the north a few hundred feet. Case's Mill was built by Mr. Hough in 1849. A marker can be found on Church Street.
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