Not Your Run Of The Mill Mill
Here at microEXCURSIONS, we believe that travel is largely about serendipity. It cannot be done properly by sticking aciduously to a schedule or a prescribed route. The key to adventure is to yield to curiosity. Whether we’re driving down a country lane, hiking in a park, or even walking along a city street, we keep an eye out for any opportunity to take a detour.
They’re not hard to find.
One trick is to look for streets or small towns with the word “mill” in it. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, a country road named after a mill will often lead to an old grist mill, sometimes with its mill pond and waterwheel still intact. A few of these 19th Century mills still operate, serving as a link with our pre-Industrial Revolution past.
Peirce Mill, the jewel of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, still grinds wheat and rye every other Saturday from April through October. Similarly, the Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls is open on Wednesdays in the warm months. You can still buy flour on site in the general store.
It was this sort of bucolic scene that came to mind when, driving along Gorman Road in Howard County last month, Dawn and I saw a sign that said “Historic Savage Mill” and pointed north. We were already tired after a long day at the Alpaca Festival at the nearby county fairgrounds, but we said to ourselves, “We’ll just take a peek.”
This detour turned out to be a real discovery — at least for us. Of course, Savage Mill is probably well known to the people who live in the vicinity, or perhaps even as far away as Baltimore. But we had never heard of it, so we didn’t know what to expect.
To start with, the historic Savage Mill is not a little country grist mill. Instead of being a pre-cursor to the Industrial Revolution, it’s one of the thousands of big mills that brought the Industrial Age to America. Like the mills that line Jones Falls in Baltimore, it used waterpower to drive a massive manufacturing operation. In this case, Savage Mill was a textile mill.
Raw Southern cotton came to the mill by train, still a fairly new technology itself. In fact, if you approach from the south, the first sign of the mill is the historic Bollman Truss Bridge which used to carry a spur line of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad across the Little Patuxent to the mill.
This combination of water power and rail access wasn’t unique to Savage Mill.
One of the main reasons early industrial sites thrived in Maryland in the 19th Century was because Baltimore was the birthplace of the railroad, with tentacles of the B&O reaching out to company towns like Savage and Ellicott City. That made it possible for these factories to get their goods to market cheaply. The railroad also brought raw materials, like cotton, to the mills.
Savage Mill spun that raw cotton into yarn, which was then woven into cotton duck. For most of the 19th Century, its primary product was sailcloth. This fact was especially amusing to Dawn and I. Dawn, after all, is a handweaver and we’re both sailors, which heightened the irony of our never having heard of the mill. It’s worth noting, though, that by the 1870s, most of the world’s sailcloth was manufactured in Maryland mills.
At first sight, Savage Mill is an imposing complex. Its massive brick buildings sit high on the steep banks of the Little Patuxent river. For most of its history as an operating mill, it was powered by water. A dam about a mile upriver created an enormous mill pond which served as power storage — an early 19th Century battery. A mill race brought that water rushing downhill to the mill.
In the old days, the mill race ran directly under what’s now known as the Old Weave Building. There, the water plunged through a flume, driving the waterwheel before returning again to the Little Patuxent. A vast network of pulleys and leather belts snaked through the plant, sending power from the waterwheel to the looms and the carding and spinning machines.
Just before World War I, the mill race was diverted under the “New Weave” building, a new 40,000-square-foot plant added to the complex in 1913. During the Great War, production shifted to the manufacture of fabric for uniforms and tents to help the war effort.
The largest building in the complex is the old carding building. This is where great bales of cotton were prepared for spinning. The cotton passed through a series of great rollers that resembled enormous wire brushes, like gigantic versions the brush you would use to groom your dog.
These brushes aligned the fibers of the cotton, which exited from the carding machines as a soft, narrow, continuous strip called a sliver. These slivers were loaded onto large spools which were carted to the adjacent Spinning building to be converted into yarn or thread. That’s what was eventually woven into cotton duck to make sails.
Sadly, the mill and the company town that surrounds it, began to decline after WWI. Business suffered more during the Great Depression and, after a surge during the Second World War, the plant ceased operating as a textile mill in 1947. But Savage Mill is far from a ruin.
After successive owners made several brief stabs at other types of industrial operations, the mill underwent significant renovations in 1985 and was converted into a delightful commercial center. There are now dozens of specialty shops, antique stores, and art galleries spread through the various buildings of the mill.
Part of the charm is the diversity of these businesses. In the “New Weave” building, for example, there’s an excellent book store, a small candlemaker, a chocolatier, and even a fencing club where you can perfect your swordsmanship. Another shop sells signs and decorations constructed out of different varieties of living moss.
The “Old Weave” building houses a bridal gown store, a pair of high-end antique stores, and a spectacularly preserved great room that can be rented for weddings and events.
One of our favorite tenants at Savage Mill is Charities Closet, which sells previously-owned upscale women’s clothing and accessories. Everything in the store is $5 or less. Maybe more important, all the proceeds go to Success in Style, a nonprofit that helps unemployed people find a job by giving them work-appropriate clothing, fashion consulting, and advice on basic interview techniques.
In some ways, though, the Carding building is the most interesting part of the mill complex. It has been partitioned into a warren of studios, offices, and shops spread over four floors. The Carding building is also where you’ll find the Dive Bar & Grille, which has a broad terrace overlooking the river
Our favorite eatery, though, is the Roggenart European Bakery in the old Spinning building next door. The service is a bit slow, but they turn out Paris-quality croissants, quiches, and tarts — all baked on premises. They also make a mean sandwich.
Another must-see when you’re at Savage Mill is the HorseSpirit Arts Gallery in the old Cotton Shed. This is where the trains used to drop off their bales of cotton.
HorseSpirit isn’t like your neighborhood framing shop that happens to sell a few pictures. This is a large, well-curated collection of paintings, woodwork, and jewelery created entirely by local artists. One artist that stood out was Brenda Kidera, an old-school nature painter whose oil paintings would look at home in the National Gallery or the Tate.
In short, there’s a lot to do at Savage Mill — enough to make a daytrip out of it. But the real reason to go is the mill itself, especially the well-restored interiors. With their high ceilings and skylights and massive timber framing, the great rooms of the mill are astonishingly airy and pleasant to walk around in.
They’re also a testament to the inventiveness of engineers of that era.
These old 19th and early 20th Century factories were built before there was air conditioning or central heat, let alone electric lighting. To make them work, they were equipped with hundreds of tall windows for ventilation and to bring in light. In the weaving buildings, where weavers needed plenty of light for the tedious process of threading the looms, that light was magnified by windows high in the clerestory.
You don’t have to buy anything to appreciate the new life of the historic Savage Mill. It would be hard to find an old building that’s been put to better use.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.