By: David H. Pragoff
School and Group Programs Team Leader
Delaware Nature Society
Located south of Newark near the corner of Old Baltimore Pike and Route 72, Cooch-Dayett Mills is one of the last remaining water-powered mills in Delaware and a reminder of a bygone era.
Mills were a vital part of colonial society. They served as centers of commerce and socialization for the surrounding community. Farmers depended upon the specialized machinery in mills to cut timber for lumber or, as with Cooch-Dayett, to process wheat and corn from their fields into flour and cornmeal to be used as food for people and animals as well as to sell.
The mill building at Cooch-Dayett Mills was originally constructed in the 1830s by William Cooch, Jr. however there is evidence of mill activity on the site as early as the 1720s. The property was well suited for milling in the pre-industrial era using flowing water from the nearby Christina River as a power source to run the machinery.
Water from the river was diverted through a man-made channel or “race” just north of Cooch’s Bridge. The race directed water past the mill and turned a water wheel before rejoining the Christina.
A system of gears and pulleys connected the water wheel to the equipment inside the mill. Mechanisms in the mill carried wheat and corn up and down the four floors of the building and moved it through stages of processing to become flour or cornmeal. Oliver Evans, a Delaware native from Newport, is credited with designing the interconnected machines that allowed one person to successfully operate a mill with several floors of equipment running simultaneously.
Cooch-Dayett Mills survived two fires and was rebuilt, updated and retrofitted over the years enabling the facility to remain in operation into the 1980s. The State of Delaware purchased the mill, adjacent structures and surrounding property in 1996 to preserve this special cultural resource and with the intent of developing the site as a museum. The Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs assumed control of the facilities and property and has performed significant work cleaning up the site from years of industry and also preserving and stabilizing the aging structure. The Division, however, did not have the capacity to keep the site open and accessible to the public.
Enter the Delaware Nature Society. Through a partnership with the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, Delaware Nature Society (DNS) has opened the doors at Cooch-Dayett Mills and is actively using the Mill and surrounding property for education programs. School students and Scout groups visit to participate in hands-on programs that explore the water cycle, how water is used by wildlife and by people, and the means by which people harness the power of moving water to do work. The specialized machinery in the mill also provides the opportunity for students to investigate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) principles in practice as they search the first floor of the Mill for various simple machines and discover how they worked.
Cooch-Dayett Mills is open to the public on select days throughout the year and to school and scout groups by appointment.
The partnership between the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs and the Delaware Nature Society extends beyond Cooch-Dayett Mills. DNS also operates the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford, a second historic mill owned by the Division. As with Cooch-Dayett, Abbott’s Mill offers education programs for families, scout troops and school groups, but while Cooch-Dayett Mills is open only on select dates and by appointment, Abbott’s Mill operates a visitor center and maintains public hiking trails. The mill at Abbott’s is operational and open house ‘Running of the Mill’ days are held on select Saturdays from June through November and include guided tours of the mill.
For more information about the Delaware Nature Society or program opportunities at Cooch-Dayett Mills or the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, visit www.delawarenaturesociety.org.