Meet the Man Who Made the Oruktor Amphibolos!

Oliver Evans who invented ways to automate flour milling including the ingenious hopper boy (pictured) will be represented at the Engineering Then and Now program at Colvin Run Mill on May 20th. Evans also invented a self-propelled amphibious digging machine and other nifty ideas. Hands on fun and an entertaining production on the use of simple machines in the Air and Space Museum will add to the experience. For details on the machine, the man, and the mill's program, click on "Read More."

Gears to the Water Wheel!
Round and Round and Up and Down

At Colvin Run we seldom have the opportunity to explain other types of water wheels and functions of water-powered mills other than grinding grain. Well, here is my chance to explain and your chance, if you are so inclined, to learn by clicking on "Read More" below. 

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Can you imagine that the Potomac River was once promoted as a water way to the west? George Washington explored and promoted this "grand idea," toasting to the successful navigation of the river. Learn about the motivations and history of Washington's vision by clicking "read more."

An Astonishingly Invisible Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac Water Way to the West

General Store: Comfy, Cozy, Cornucopia

General stores are a part of America's frontier history. Colvin Run's general store is typical of its kind and boasts antiques that, if you squint a bit and let your imagine run, may conjure up impressions of the "old days." Times moved on to RFD and catalogue shopping then to automobiles and self-shopping. But the general store at Colvin Run Mill still captures that comfy, cozy, cornucopia of yesteryear. For details click on "Read More."

Grits Head-to-Head Results

Loyal readers have asked about the results of the tasting  anticipated in the "It's Grits; They're Great blog matching Colvin Run Mill grits against those from the iconic Marsh Hen Mill of Edisto Island, South Carolina. To see the outcome, click on "Read more."

How About Them Apples?

Cider making time at the mill. Delicious, fresh, sweet, tangy unfiltered juice. Apples are common and have insinuated themselves into our everyday lives, from food to language to computers. But did you ever stop to wonder where they came from and how that Granny Smith or Golden Delicious came to be? Clink on "Read More" to find out what I learned.

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It's Grits. They're Great. No Regrets

What are (is?) grits. Where did they come from? How are they used today? Read about the origins and revival of this native nutritious food, a premier product of Colvin Run Mill. And puzzle over a bit of grammar.

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Mystery of the Mill Stones or Why Do Fossils Make Finer Flour?

How can one-ton mill stones gently grind the little wheat berry? How can those rough looking one ton stones produce fine white flour? For answers, read more!  

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Around the time the Millard family operated the mill, gardening for pleasure was taking hold. A place of beauty and tranquility around the house became one of life's pleasures. The Friends have initiated a project to rejuvenate the family garden on the south side of the house. You too can join in to see how our garden will grow.

Archimedes Screw. Say Who?

Simple machines used in the mill make work easier. One of those is the Archimedes screw. No one on a tour has yet to ask "Say who?" But just in case, I did a little digging to be prepared for the question. Click on "Read more" to find out more about Archimedes and the screw.

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Tunnel to Nowhere? Two Cents for the Parks!

The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) has not budgeted for a trail on the south side of the tunnel being constructed under Route 7.  The tunnel could lead to nowhere! 

The FCPA needs more funds for day-to-day operations. At present, its general budget accounts for 0.6 percent of the county's total budget, the equivalent of one cent of revenue from our real estate taxes. Thirty years it was 2.5 cents. How about raising it back to  two cents. Two cents for the parks!

Find out more at the
"Read more" link to get a PDF version with pictures or scroll down for the text.

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No Tunnel to Nowhere: Two Cents for Parks

Visitors to the park over the last two years have been treated to dust, din, and diesel fumes from the construction to widen Route 7. We need to constantly remind ourselves of the project’s positive benefits: faster, safer transport, more exposure of the mill to passersby, and a reunion of the south side of the park with its more known northern part. The two were torn asunder in 1941 when Leesburg Pike was straighten out, by passing Colvin Run Road. Mr. Bailey, the mill’s owner, at the time, battled the decision in courts, but the county prevailed. His cows grazed on the south side and had to cross the road to get to their barn. Must have been a sight, seeing a herd of cows waiting for a green light.

The happy reunion will be courtesy of a truly large, magnificent tunnel, suitable for people and, if they were still living, Mr. Bailey’s cows. The tunnel will allow visitors to walk the original grounds, see remnants of the old mill dam and pond, and delight in more nature trails. Hikers on the nearby Cross County Trail and Rail to River Trail could easily take a short detour to explore the mill. Families could park at the mill and take a pleasant 1.5 mile walk to Lake Fairfax.

There is one catch: this big, beautiful tunnel might lead to nowhere! “How can that be?” you might reasonably ask. Simple answer: no funding for a trail on the south side.

Lack of funds is not specific to this project. The Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) budget has been squeezed. The FCPA’s General Fund for day-to-day operations, is about $27 million, accounting for a miniscule 0.6% of Fairfax County’s budget, down from a tiny 1.3% thirty years ago. Put another way, in 1988 about 2.5 cents of our real estate taxes went to the FCPA; now it is one cent. As a result, funding for services and personnel have not kept up with needs. Take a good look at your park, and you will see what I mean.

Over the same period, fees and charges have jumped from a little over a third of FCPA’s total budget to two-thirds. Wow! A two-handed economist might say, on the one hand, it is good that people who use the parks pay for the parks; but on the other hand, tax dollars are supposed to pay for public services and not all parks can charge fees, and those that do, like golf courses and rec centers, might have to charge higher fees to cover costs, discouraging those who cannot afford them. As President Truman once famously quipped: “Give me a one-handed economist!”

The 420 Fairfax County parks provide recreation spaces, green spaces, and plenty of trees – healthy for our bodies, souls, and the environment. Certainly the county could and should do better. How about setting a target to get FCPA’s general budget back to two cents of the real estate tax? Two cents for the parks!

Another reasonable question you might ask is why don’t the hearty band of Friends of Colvin Run Mill spend a couple of days with weed whackers and chain saws and blaze a trail? After all, we are talking less than 200 yards. Free eats and drinks might attract eager, fit, and hungry volunteers.

Not so fast. FCPA officials rightly point out that amateur trail building might disturb important archeological remains, may not be on the optimal topographically route, may result in a less stable trail requiring higher maintenance, and not be on the official Trail Buddy app so hikers could easily navigate from the trails to the tunnel. Proper signage and a small fair weather crossing where Colvin Run is narrow and, in dry times, shallow, need to be part of the project.

Fair enough. But no budget means no official trail. What might happen then? Well, curious hikers might blaze their own trail. This carries all the disadvantages of a FOCRM undertaking plus one more: the destruction of protected, delicate wetlands in the area immediately in front of the tunnel’s south side. Rather than a source of natural beauty, the risk is that intrepid day hikers, without the benefit of signage or the Trail Buddy app to the official trail, might tramp around the south side to reach the tunnel. Not good for nature, the landscape, or, I submit the hikers.

If you share the view that the tunnel would be a boon to visitors to the mill, to families who wish to take a stroll to Lake Fairfax, to Cross County Trail hikers who want to experience historic aspects of the area, and to naturalists who enjoy investigating wildlife, please write to your Fairfax county supervisor as they consider the budget in April with two simple pleas: Please: “Give Two Cents for the Parks!;” Please: “No Tunnel to Nowhere."


During tours of the mill we point out products produced by the grindings: corn meal and grits, whole wheat flour, and buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is not really wheat, we note. But how different is it? How is it used? Where did it come from? And why is it not so easy to find on grocery shelves? After a bit of investigation, I found answers that at least satisfied my curiosity, and, on more than one occasion, my appetite! .

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From the President's Grindstone

I thank the board of the Friends of Colvin Run Mill for the faith and trust they have shown in electing me president. I will do my best to live up to the rich tradition and vision of past leaders as we continue to work with the excellent site staff to enrich visitors’ experiences.

The combination of history, technology, nature, food, and economics that initially drew me to Colvin Run continues to fascinate. Visitor’s queries challenge me to learn more and ask myself follow-up questions. No better way to learn than to teach.

But what should I do with the new facts I learn or new ideas or approaches I heard about? I can share them with visitors on my next tour. But that audience is rather limited, to say the least. So I thought I would share them with friends, Friends of Colvin Run Mill that is, through this new blog.

The topics could include history, cooking, gardening, applied technology, or the natural surroundings of the site. The first topic is the role of Alexandria in the flour trade. A question that usually arises in a tour is: Why was Colvin Run built as a merchant mill? The standard answer is because in addition to local demand, some of the flour was hauled to Alexandria for onward export. But why Alexandria? Where did the goods go and why?

After doing a bit of research, I try to answer these questions in the attached piece: Alexandria and the Flowering of the Flour Trade. I am not a professional historian by any means, but offer my humble interpretation.

I hope you will enjoy this journey of discovery with me. Keep the wheels turning,

James Wallar