WHITE HALL – Ivory Mills is not a pristine example of the gristmill it was in the 19th century.
The wheel is gone, lost somehow during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The upper millstone is missing and the mill itself houses some lawn chairs and an old McDonald’s “M” sign.
But Karen and Joseph Barbacane saw enough — and worked hard enough over the last 20 years — to win the mill and surrounding farm buildings a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The property was listed in July as an example of the gristmills that were once common throughout the area.
The roots of the Harford County site go back to the late 18th century, when Matthew Wiley bought the property, and the current mill is 179 years old.
Of all the things they have found around the property, Mrs. Barbacane’s favorite is an old, partially burned ledger. In it are records of mill transactions from the 19th century, along with the scrawls of a child learning the alphabet.
“When you get involved in the historical aspect of anything, you become a part of that history,” said Mrs. Barbacane, 50. “(But) we’re just the caretakers. It will always be the Wiley Mill.”
“It would be a shame to lose it when we’ve kept it this long,” said her husband, 51, of the property they bought in 1975. “It has the importance to be a national treasure.”
Gristmills like the Barbacanes’ were once common throughout Harford County, said Mabel Andrews of the county’s historical society. But after cheap Midwestern flour became available in the 1920s, most of the mills in this area fell into disrepair or were destroyed to make room for new roads and houses.
Ivory Mills, where the Wiley family had produced flour since the late 18th century, survived probably because of its inaccessibility, Andrews said. It rests on a one-lane country road in a foggy valley eight miles from the nearest grocery.
The mill is the centerpiece of a cluster of historic buildings that reflect Harford County’s agricultural past.
Matthew Wiley, the son of Irish immigrants, bought the land in 1781 for 16,000 pounds “current money of Pennsylvania,” according to county records. His family milled on the property for five generations, up until the early 20th century.
James Wiley, a White Hall farmer and descendent of the family of millers, remembers his father, Ross, telling him about the excruciating noise at Ivory Mills, which used a turbine in place of the conventional vertical wheel.
The Wiley family sold the mill to a developer in 1973, who in turn sold it to the Barbacanes in 1975.
When they bought it, the Barbacanes found two centuries of wear and tear. The floors of the mill were a foot deep in chicken manure and renters had painted the bedrooms of the antebellum house “Day-Glo pink and horrendous purple,” said Mrs. Barbacane.
Besides missing its waterwheel, there is no trace today of the channel in which the wheel turned. The upper millstone, which ground grain into flour, is missing. The Barbacanes think it was stolen.
But beneath the date “1818” inscribed in the wall, visitors can see the grooves on the massive fixed grindstone that let the ground meal fall into a chute visible in the basement.
Mrs. Barbacane inherited a passion for history from her antique-collecting parents and her husband, a marine engineer, is a consummate handyman. Together, they invested in what was to become an obsession.
The Barbacanes make use of several structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries on the property. A former granary is their storage shed and an old carriage house serves as the garage. Part of the house might date to the 18th century.
The couple spent more than $100,000 repairing and improving the house bit by bit, proceeding to “live in one room at a time while we renovated the property,” Mrs. Barbacane said.
“Many times we did things at least five times, maybe more,” she said. “We didn’t have the money to pay for contractors.”
After completing the house, the Barbacanes moved on to the mill, a massive repair effort that tested their patience many times.
“When I was nine months pregnant and scrubbing these beams with a toothbrush, that was one of them,” Mrs. Barbacane said.
The property is now worth many times the $45,000 they paid for it, but the Barbacanes have no plans to sell.
“Owning this old house is a constant battle,” Mrs. Barbacane said. “On the other hand, I can’t imagine living in a perfectly square home with perfectly square corners. There’s no sense of character in a new home.”