Gowell Mill & Dam
Excavation & Research 8/00-12/00

Bridge Overview...Looking southeast across the bridge away from the mill, this image illustrates the current state of the bridge with a layer of vegetation growing on top and only two iron fence posts left in situ on the left. Three similar posts were located in the water around the bridge.

The following is a brief description of the investigations of the Gowell mill and dam site conducted by an archaeological team from Michigan Technological University in August of 2000. A full report of the Gowell mill and dam site was submitted to the Huron-Manistee National Forests in December of the same year. All photos are by Elizabeth Norris & Michael Madson.

Bridge Profile...A view of the upstream side of the bridge associated with the Gowell mill and dam, facing east. The earthen dam with a retaining cobble stone wall extends from the left-hand corner of the bridge (out of view) northwest approximately twenty-five feet.

As one of the earliest settlers in the area, John Gowell built a gristmill around the turn of the twentieth century in Beaver Township along the Big South Branch of the Pere Marquette River. Like other mills in remote areas, the Gowell mill provided local farmers a convenient way to grind a variety of crops. The mill is thought to have been in operation from 1902 until it burned down seven years later.

Bridge View...With the rapids flowing underneath, the Gowell bridge helped to direct water into a narrow channel to be harnessed by the mill. Here, the downstream side of the bridge is pictured. From the central support (middle, under sign) a wall extended further downstream to help channel the water. This wall was partially removed prior to the present investigation.

Nothing in the historical or archaeological records suggest that the mill was rebuilt after the fire, and since the first decade of the twentieth century, the Gowell mill and dam have remained unused and subjected to the elements. The property upon which the mill sits changed hands a number of times, but a part of it remained in the Gowell family until 1939.

Mill Overview...The Gowell mill looking west with three of the four surviving foundation walls of the main mill room (Feature 2). The foundation pictured at the center is shared with the smaller room of the mill (Feature 1). Because the mill building was not maintained after burning down, sedimentary deposits and vegetation today cover the floor and part of the foundation.

Today, the Gowell property is under the jurisdiction of the Huron-Manistee National Forests and is open to members of the public such as tourists, fishermen, and hunters. Unfortunately, over the years visitors to the site have left their imprint, as evident in the artifact analysis of this report. The present investigation was partially conducted in the hope that the Forests could maintain and interpret the locally significant site for future visitors.

The mill building was a two story wooden structure of at least three rooms and a cobble and concrete foundation and concrete floor that is still visible. The medium sized room to the northeast with only three walls was used to load the grain into wagons.

Wall Condition...Some of the wall faces of the mill and bridge had a thin layer of plaster on top of cobblestones anchored in cement. In its present condition, the walls of the Gowell mill indicate deterioration as a result of weathering and the removal of cobbles. Photo is eastern half of Feature 2B with the bridge (Feature 3) in the background off to the left.

Although an informant suggested that the mill building was also home to some of its workers, the lack of personal and domestic debris within the archaeological assemblage does not support that statement.

Turbine Location...A view from the bridge looking north toward the mill shows the area (bottom right) believed to contain either a waterwheel or turbine used to power the grist mill during its operation from 1902-1909.

Either a turbine or undershot waterwheel powered the mill through a series of vertical and horizontal shafts. There is no direct evidence or the exact location of the turbine or wheel, but it is believed to have been near Feature 6 (whose poor condition could be due to constant stress of water).

Turbine Wall...This portion of the exterior wall for the mill (Feature 6) is very unstable due to erosion caused both by animal and water activity. Further management of the site will consider impacts on this particular feature.

In the main room of the mill, various machinery artifacts excavated from Feature 2F.2 nearby a concrete block suggest the location of milling machinery.

Machine Anchor...Machinery associated with the milling operation could have been anchored on this concrete block located on the inside of the mill near the waterwheel or turbine area pictured above. Excavations around the base of the block suggested that machinery was indeed located in this section of the main mill room. Photo is a detail of the eastern half of Feature 2B.

The exterior wall of the mill (Feature 2C) also has interesting characteristics such as the two square insets and a series of concrete ledges that also related to the mill's power source.

Mill Room...Looking northwest into the main room of the mill (Feature 2), a visitor to the site today only receives a glimpse of the building as it would have appeared while in operation. An entrance to the second floor of the building at the bridge (off to left) level was straight ahead. Another entrance was off this image to the left (see Mill Entrance photo). The present stone and concrete remains used to be the foundation for a two story wooden building whose burning down ceased operations at the mill.





Mill Entrance...Entrance to the mill was either from the southwest (road level) through the second floor doorway or through this entrance. This image shows the lack of wall construction for approximately a meter in the northeastern corner of the main mill room (Feature 2). Separate entry into the room with heavy machinery was an important feature especially for wooden mills that feared the destructive nature of fires.

Mill Room Small...A smaller adjacent room to the mill (labeled Feature 1) is northwest of the main mill room. This smaller room measures 8.25 meters by 3.5 meters and has foundation remains for only three walls. Unlike the main mill room (Feature 2), there is no concrete floor suggesting that this room had an alternative function than simply containing heavy machinery. Feature 1 was probably where farmers loaded ground grain from the second level (where the grain was ground) into horse-drawn carts below. Such carts would then be able to exit the mill toward the northeast through a doorway that acted as the fourth wall.

Excavations concentrated in the main room of the mill, Feature 2, and yielded over 2,850 items.

Excavations...Although archaeological investigations explored other areas around the site, the primary focus of excavations concentrated inside of the mill. Three units pictured (Features 2F.1, 2F.2, and 2F.3) sampled the floor of the main mill room. The patterns of grooves and squares set into the concrete (most visible in the central unit of this image) possibly related to the movement and anchoring of the mill's machinery.

Approximately half of those artifacts were nails, of which 80% were measured for analysis. Most of these nails (94%) came from units near the wall and were the size and shape of nails used in modern frame construction of walls and floors. The second largest type of nail was of a smaller size 5d or 6d. Only two square nails were found, a surprisingly low number given the time period of the mill and the extensive amount of wire nails. The next largest artifact group was glass, numbering over 780 fragments. Only one brown glass bottle could have dated to the mill period, the others were recent beer bottle fragments. Over half of the clear glass was so deformed by heat that function was undeterminable. In comparison to nails, there were not many screws but of those found, most were wood screws with regular flat heads, although some were rounded. Most of the cast iron objects were so fragmentary or small that their significance was impossible to determine. The cement and mortar samples taken represent the different types used around the mill site both between cobblestones and as a facing or concrete addition (such as the sills or the concrete block). Some of these bits of concrete had nails embedded in them, others differed between grit and condition because of erosion.

Regarding plans for management of the Gowell mill and dam site, we suggested that the Huron-Manistee National Forests take some action to help preserve this locally significant mill. The mill's predominantly modern artifactual content (including beer bottle glass and caps, a Pepsi bottle, a firecracker shell, .22 caliber shells, barbed wire, fishing hooks, and pieces of tin) is an indication of how it has been mistreated in the past by negligent visitors. Perhaps if information regarding the mill were provided for the public, they would be more inclined to appreciate the site. Interpretation could focus on familial history, archaeological investigations, historic photographs, and a visual reconstruction of the mill and could be accomplished with simple signage. Information regarding the area would help to eliminate the collection of modern debris within its walls and preserve the Gowell gristmill and dam for future visitors.