BOYD'S WIND GRIST MILL
.... and now
Aquidneck Island offered the early farmers low,
gently rolling hills and ridges, clear of woods except
for orchards and covered by rich, rocky, productive soil
in which they planted wheat, corn and other crops and on
which they raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs for
sale to merchants in Newport and elsewhere.
Mother Nature provided only small intermittent streams on
the island with insufficient water power to operate
grindstones. Therefore, early entrepreneurs turned to
the only other alternative, wind power, and built wind
grist mills across Aquidneck Island.
Boyd’s Eight-vane Wind Grist Mill is one of the last two
survivors of more than twenty known wind mills which
once worked to supply the daily needs of Aquidneck
Island. It is the only eight-vane smock mill ever built
and operated in New England and one of the very few
survivors in the United States.
In 1810, John Peterson built this mill and a house on
fifty-six acres of land near the intersection of Mill
Lane and West Main Road in Portsmouth, Rhode Island and
where the mill remained for 185 years. William Boyd
first leased the mill then bought it in 1815. It has
been known as Boyd’s Wind Grist Mill ever since.
The oak timbers were cut in Wickford Village in North
Kingstown and floated across Narragansett Bay to
Portsmouth on Peterson’s schooner. When his schooner was
wrecked, he used the oak knees and other ship timbers in
constructing the mill.
Peterson and two millwrights constructed the mill in an
octagonal "smock" style, so-called because of an alleged
resemblance to a man in a smock – the loose garment our
forefathers wore during weekdays.
It was a basic four-vane mill of three floors without
sophistication. It is eight-sided, the tower 30 feet in
height with a round top, or cap, 8 feet in height making
the total height of the mill 38 feet. It is 18 feet wide
at the bottom and 15 feet in diameter at the top.
The usual pattern of smock mills was based upon eight
sides, the key structural members are the stout cant (or
corner) posts which form each corner. This departure
from square jointed construction and the fact that the
corner posts are closer together at the top (15’) than
they are at the base (18’) and to form good joints that
were leaning in two dimensions called for all the
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the erection of
the mill in 1810 was the ability of the millwright to
lift heavy weights from ground level to the higher
levels of the mill: for instance, placing the two
millstones, each weighing two and a half tons, on the
second floor. Even more difficult was raising the
two-ton cap to its position atop the tower.
The whole mill was completely shingle covered and
mounted two feet off the ground on large rough rocks.
The mill as built, had four common vanes, each 28 feet
long and 7 feet, 4 inches wide.
Except for the first five years until Peterson, the mill
was owned and operated by three generations of Boyds.
William ran the mill from 1815 to 1851. He then sold the
mill to his son, Leander, who ran the mill from 1851
until 1879, when the mill was passed to his son,
Benjamin F. C Boyd who continued its operation for the
rest of its active life.
In 1884, Benjamin Boyd made extensive repairs and
improvements. A Kerosene engine was installed requiring
the millstones to be offset from the center. In the
mill’s 1998 restoration, the eight vanes were restored
and the millstones returned to their original positions.
In 1884, Boyd bought new granite millstones in Fall
River (5 feet in diameter and 2-1/2 tons each) to
replace the stones continually in use from 1840. (One of
the broken stones can be seen on the footpath leading up
to the mill.) The upper stone measured twenty-two inches
thick when installed in 1884. In 1934, that stone
measured but nineteen and a half inches thick indicating
the wear and tear on the stone.
In 1901, the third Mr. Boyd remodeled his mill from four
vanes to eight vanes. The main advantage of eight vanes
was the ability to work in light winds and thus be
capable of work on more days per year. However, the
effectiveness of Boyd’s eight vane design is in some
doubt because in 1916 Boyd converted the mill to
gasoline power and the eight vanes were removed. No
longer was the miller dependent upon the ever changing
wind conditions, which made the milling operation
significantly less difficult and less dangerous.
Boyd’s mill was built originally to provide feed for
fattening beef, pork and poultry and to produce some
selected grists for family use and for trading. For
years, feed grinding was the principal business and it
has been stated that from 1840 to 1884, grain from
almost every Aquidneck Island farm passed through the
However, with the development of the West, with its
cheap grain and meat products, it became evident that
the grinding of feed locally was a vanishing industry.
Therefore, the Boyd family concentrated on the grinding
of Rhode Island Johnny Cake Meal until that proved
For 135 years, the mill served Peterson and the Boyd
family. For almost fifty years after the mill ceased
operation, the mill languished in disuse.
For 185 years the mill never moved from its original
Portsmouth location until 1990 when the Boyd family
donated the old mill to the Middletown Historical
Society for its relocation and restoration that began in
Windmills represent an important part of Middletown’s
and the Island’s technological history. A windmill has
been associated with Aquidneck Island since the 17th
century. A windmill is portrayed on Middletown’s
official coat of arms which reflects on the importance
attached to the windmill as a part of the town’s rural
Time and the elements destroyed mill after mill and an
important part of the town’s heritage slipped almost
unnoticed into oblivion. While it may not be possible or
desirable to try to preserve every historic site, there
are many sound reasons in favor of ensuring the survival
of some. Thus the Society’s struggle to save Boyd’s
Fortuitously, the mill became available at the same time
that Paradise Valley Park was being developed thus
providing a perfect new setting deep in the heart of
historic Paradise Valley.
Through the combined efforts of countless craftsmen,
volunteers, and benefactors, the mill has been fully
restored and now serves as the centerpiece of the
Historical Society’s preservation efforts.
The mill is open to the public on Sunday afternoons from
May through September and guided tours are provided by a
team of knowledgeable volunteer docents. For safety
reasons, we are unable to allow visitors in the mill
when it is operating.
back to PROJECTS, PRESERVATION,
March 23, 2014