Bruce Teeple: Business moves with times

Business centers — whether they’re furnaces or factories, malls or mills — rise and fall with changing times and tastes. Across our local landscape, old barns and mills are the few remaining relics reminding us of our agricultural past.

A mill wasn’t just an area’s first business; it often gave a place its name and identity. Early farmers drove their grain-laden carts over an ancient web of narrow footpaths through the thick forest. Once at the mill, large, flat stones with chiseled channels pulverized the grains into flour. Temperature and humidity fluctuations constantly required millers to monitor and fine-tune the milling process.

Mills were also community centers, so millers needed excellent social skills. Waiting in line provided a chance to get the news, argue over hot-button political issues and vote on election days.

Years later, as wider, straighter turnpikes came through, those mills and villages closest to the new highways thrived. If there was too much competition, or if a mill ended up along a back road, the customer base shriveled, causing financial ruin and stunting the village’s growth.

This was the case with “French Jacob” Groshong. A native of the French-German borderlands, Groshong arrived here in the 1750s, establishing several mills — along with a bizarre reputation — throughout the Susquehanna frontier. Rumors swirled about his magic spells controlling wild animals, curing diseases and opening his secret mountainside mine whenever he needed another silver bar.

But as populations swelled, people became more sophisticated. Shrewdness and efficiency were more sustainable marketing strategies than supernatural showmanship, so Groshong kept moving west, first to two remote spots in Union County, then a stopover near Lemont in the early 1790s before eventually settling in Kentucky.

In contrast to French Jacob’s antics, a turnpike through Woodward fostered long-term stability, enabling other activities to spin off from the Motz family’s mill. An inn provided food and rest for travelers; the lodgers’ hard cash, in turn, helped expand the local economy. Pine Creek supplied enough water to power a saw mill. Distilling rye grain into whiskey yielded higher profits than flour. The village store sold unbelievable and unprecedented quantities of mass-produced goods from the cities.

By the 1860s, this network grew more complex. John C. Motz opened a bank and issued credit vouchers to his neighbors, with farmers settling their debts at harvest time.

Shortly after the Civil War, railroads began cutting their own swaths across the countryside. Motz realized that Woodward and Aaronsburg were no longer East Penns Valley’s economic centers. To meet these changing needs, Motz moved his bank to the new commercial hub, Millheim.

Communities across the country repeated this pattern of connection and consolidation. Exchanges with distant markets proved to be more responsive and resilient compared to what local cottage industries, such as potters and weavers, could supply.

Even the walls of Woodward’s old mill found new purpose amid these changing realities. Upon demolition, contractors hauled the stones to State College’s Park Avenue and used them to build the houses facing Penn State’s White Golf Course.