- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

Colvin Run Mill, just a stone’s throw from busy Leesburg Pike in Great Falls, offers families a chance to step back in time and learn about the important roles the local gristmill and general store played in the 19th century.

“People would travel up to 10 miles to get to the general store,” says Mike Moran, a tour guide at Colvin Run Mill. “It was where people went to mail and pick up letters, buy whatever their farm didn’t produce, meet friends and get the latest news.”

Of course, 10 miles in the 19th century, when travel was by foot or horse, could take several hours, Mr. Moran says.

The general store is at the entrance to the Colvin Run Mill site and often is the first stop for visitors. Also on the site are the gristmill, the miller’s home, a barn and a blacksmith’s shop.

Fairfax County Park Authority bought and restored the gristmill in the 1960s, and it’s in working condition — visitors even can buy mill-ground flour and cornmeal at the general store. The miller’s home contains a small exhibit telling about the life of a miller and his family.

The barn features exhibits about simple machinery used in the construction and running of the mill and the importance of grain around the world.

The main focus of the barn exhibits is to show children how simple machines, such as pulleys, levers, axles and screws, work. Later, as they tour the mill, they can see those machines in action. For example, pulleys operate the mill’s elaborate elevator system, used to carry grain to the grindstone.

The barn also features a hands-on history trunk with old-timey items such as a rug beater, a bootjack, a washboard and a flatiron. Everything has a label, which tells visitors the item’s name and use, which is necessary because most children have no idea what these items are, Mr. Moran says.

Many children also have never learned how bread is made, where flour comes from or what grains look like, he says. During tours, he shows visitors examples of the different grains — buckwheat, wheat and corn — that were milled at Colvin Run Mill.

“Once I held up the buckwheat and asked the children what it was,” he recalls. “One kid said, ‘Is it oatmeal?’” he says, chuckling. “That’s a completely different grain.”

During the tour, children also can learn about the impact of climate and geography on grains. In the barn is a map of the world color-coded to show what grains are grown where. In East Asia, for example, rice is prevalent. In Northern Europe, barley is common.

They also learn that local geography had a lot to do with the decision to build Colvin Run Mill strategically between the many farms of the Shenandoah Valley and the port of Alexandria, Mr. Moran says.

This particular mill was a merchant’s mill, where the miller bought grain from local farmers and sold the finished product elsewhere. Other mills in the area were “custom mills,” where farmers brought grain to the mill and paid a fee to have it milled.

The mill is several stories tall and has an impressive 20-foot water wheel. Its grindstones weigh 2,000 pounds each, Mr. Moran says. It in heyday, the mill produced about 9,000 pounds of flour every day.

It was not only a large operation, but also a meticulous one. A miller had to make sure the machinery was clean and without mechanical flaws. If, for example, the grindstone wasn’t immaculate, it could create coarse or ill-tasting flour.

“The miller had to keep his nose to the grindstone,” Mr. Moran says.

The mill provides more than a lesson in history and engineering. For the youngest visitors, the docents turn themselves into puppeteers as they tell the story of Marvin the Miller and Fred the Farmer and a bunch of other characters in supporting roles.

Once the tour is over, families can enjoy the scenery, which is nice in three directions. To the north, Leesburg Pike cuts through the landscape.

Nevertheless, the roaring highway hasn’t scared away dozens of geese and ducks that roam the property (once owned by George Washington) in search of food and company. Visitors interested in feeding the fowl can buy grain bags for 25 cents at the store, Mr. Moran says.

On a more serious note, he says he hopes Colvin Run Mill can be a type of one-stop knowledge shop for children.

“The exhibits teach you history, geography, simple engineering, the importance of community,” Mr. Moran says. “Kids go back to school excited about history.”

When you go:

Location: Colvin Run Mill, 10017 Colvin Run Road, Great Falls.

Directions: Take the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Route 123. Take Route 123 south toward McLean for about four miles. Merge onto Route 267 west (the Dulles Toll Road). After about two miles, merge onto Leesburg Pike via Exit 16 toward Leesburg. Stay on Leesburg Pike for about three miles and then make a right onto Colvin Run Road.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesdays. Tours, which are required, are offered on the hour. The last tour begins at 4 p.m.

Parking: Free on site.

Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for students 16 and older (with ID) and $3 for children and seniors.

Information: 703/759-2771 or www.colvinrunmill.org.

Upcoming events:

• “Spring Reopening,” noon to 3 p.m. April 3. This free event features the miller grinding the year’s first batch of cornmeal and a tour of the mill.

• “Sailboats at the Mill,” 1 p.m. April 24. Children and their parents are invited to assemble and decorate wooden sailboats and test them on the site’s minilake. Fee: $10. Call ahead to make a paid reservation.

• “May Tea for Young Ladies,” 2 to 3:30 p.m. May 1. Open to girls ages 8 and older, the event features tea and crafts. Bring a smock. Fee: $15. Paid reservations required by April 26.

• “Paint a Pot for Mom,” 1 p.m. May 7. Children 4 years old and older can decorate a flowerpot for mom or grandma. Pots, paint and plants will be supplied. Bring a smock. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Fee: $5. Paid reservations required by May 5.

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