- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

The first question is always the same, and Russell Lahti, a park ranger at Rock Creek Park, smiles as he recites it.

"People always want to know if it´s 'P-i-e´ or 'P-e-i,´" he says. "It is confusing, I´ll admit."

The answer is "P-e-i," the beginning of Peirce Mill, a little-known part of Rock Creek Park and the District´s history. The two spellings can be found just about everywhere, from signs that direct visitors to the mill along Beach Drive to the brochures and literature inside the mill itself. Mr. Lahti pulls out maps from the 19th century that show "Pierce" and "Peirce" used almost interchangeably.

For now, he says, Rock Creek is calling the mill "Peirce Mill" after its original owner, Isaac Peirce, who in 1794 bought a 150-acre piece of property that included the mill. His family also spelled its name "Pierce" and even "Pearce," according to U.S. Census documents and other papers from the period, sparking much of the persistent confusion.

Today, Peirce Mill is silent, but it still serves as a hands-on museum dedicated to the craft of milling and rope-making. The mill was the only functioning gristmill in the National Park Service system until 1993. That year, the government determined that the water wheel and mechanical components attached to it were too deteriorated to operate safely and shut it down.

The Friends of Peirce Mill, a nonprofit organization of volunteers, is working to raise the $1 million or so needed to repair the wheel and get it operating again, but until then, the mill has plenty of artifacts and attractions in and around it to delight families. Its proximity to the National Zoo, only about a mile away, makes it a pleasurable weekend diversion before or after visiting the zoo.

"I think because the mill isn´t working right now that people don´t often think about it even being here," Mr. Lahti says. "It´s small and kind of out of the way. We´ve had people come in who have driven past here every day to work for 30 years, and they come in and say, 'Hey, I didn´t know you were here.´"

Families that do find Peirce Mill when it´s open, which right now is noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, have several opportunities to experience what life was like for a miller or rope-maker during the 1800s. Mr. Lahti says milling and rope-making were two of the most popular occupations in that century. During the 1860s, as many as 12 wagons a day would arrive at the mill, and millers could grind more than 70 bushels of grain a day on the huge grindstones, several of which are on display at Peirce Mill.

Mr. Lahti says he and the other park rangers show children how the mill worked by allowing them to grind some corn kernels by hand themselves and then sift the results through a sieve box to separate the flour from the coarser kernels.

"I ask them which they would like to use to make pancakes with, and they ask about what happens to the kernels," Mr. Lahti says. "It helps them understand what went on here on a much larger scale with the grindstones."

Upstairs, families can make their own 6- or 7-foot ropes by turning the fiber and flax themselves. They also can see the wheat bolters that helped grind wheat.

The mill schedules family activities every weekend, from bike rides to the making of dolls from corncobs or corn husks to water-quality testing in Rock Creek, which flows by the mill.

"It´s one thing to say, 'Yeah, Rock Creek is pretty dirty,´ but it´s another thing to show kids the numbers and them see for themselves," Mr. Lahti says.

The mill also has a collection of videos families can watch upstairs in the mill building to see what life was like at the mill during its peak. The videos trace the history of the mill during its ownership by the Peirces through its ownership by Pierce Shoemaker, who bought it from the Peirce family in 1851 and owned it until 1891.

Shoemaker ran the mill during its peak in the 1860s, but by the 1880s, steam-powered mills had eclipsed water-powered ones, and Peirce Mill went into decline. It continued to operate until 1897, when the main shaft of the mill broke. It was restored in 1934 and operated until 1993.

Rock Creek Park spokeswoman Laura Illige says the restoration process has three parts, the first of which, restabilizing the building, is going on now. After that, the mill machinery, including the water wheel, must be replaced, and then water must be diverted to the mill, because there isn´t enough natural water power to drive it now.

Richard Abbott, president of the Friends of Peirce Mill, says the group has raised about $260,000, part of which has gone to paying for architectural and engineering studies to help plan the restoration process and meet Park Service requirements for restoring historic buildings. His group also has been researching and contacting various businesses and charitable organizations to seek contributions to the project. He says Georgia Pacific, Chevy Chase Bank and Pepco are among the businesses that have contributed.

"I´ve been pleased with the way things have gone," says Mr. Abbott, a former volunteer at the mill who divides his time between a part-time consulting job and heading up Friends of Peirce Mill. "It´s been much slower than I expected, but that´s the way it goes sometimes. We have a number of grant requests processed already, and we´re going to be going into the second round with some of them."

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