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Prymill

December 31, 1997

Editor's note: This is the 99th in a series of articles on the historic and architectural treasures of Washington County, an area with more listed sites than any other in Maryland.

By PAT SCHOOLEY

photos by Ric Dugan / staff photographer

click any image to view larger version.

Just above the confluence of Little Antietam and Antietam creeks in the southern part of the county, Keedysville Road makes a sharp turn and heads east along the north bank of Little Antietam Creek.

A small community of buildings gathers at this turn in the road, remnants of a commercial complex that developed in the early 19th century. The focus of this community was the gristmill, which is settled at the edge of the creek, well below the road and just visible as the corner of the road is turned.

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A driveway descends to the mill and divides to pass along the north side of the building at the second level and to meet a door in the east end of the building on its lowest level.

The setting is tranquil and private, another world nestled beneath the road and the homes above. Stone retaining walls are set into the bank that rises to the road, and old foundations extend from the west side of the mill along the creek. These foundations and the ghost of a gable on the mill's west wall are the last vestiges of a sawmill that once shared the property.

The mill is five stories, with its foundation anchored in the stream on the south side. The first two stories are stone with quoined corners. The upper three levels are brick laid in common bond, and there is a cross gable at the west end of the roof. At each level in this gable end, there are doors that open into space for no porches or stairs project beyond them. These have been converted to windows. Wooden lintels top the windows and doors in the brick section.

Joseph Chapline, the founder of Sharpsburg, and the owner of vast tracts of land, conveyed 20 1/4 acres of land to Andrew Baker, who later passed it to Robert Smith.

Typical mill site

The parcel of land was typical of a mill site: long and narrow, including both banks of the creek. This elongated property allowed the miller to control enough of the stream to assure that other millers would not flood his mill or be able to access his pond, the source of his power.

Charles Varle's 1808 map of the area shows a house with the name R. Smith in the immediate area but no gristmill, indicating that the mill had not yet been built.

In 1818, Smith's will bequeathed the 20 1/4 acre mill property to his grand-nephew, Samuel Merritt Hitt, who apparently built a stone mill on the parcel. Hitt also was influential in the 1830 construction of a bridge over Antietam Creek just below his mill (now known as Hitt Bridge) and, in that same year, was party to an Article of Agreement with the Justices of the Levy Court, in which he agreed to repair the road from the bridge to the summit of the hill toward Hess's Mill in Keedysville. When he made these repairs, he changed the course of the road so it passed beside his mill, as it still does.

Hitt and his family moved to Illinois, and, in 1846, sold the mill property to Lewis Watson, who resold it the following year to Samuel and Philip Pry. Samuel became the sole owner in 1850, and the mill remained in the Pry family until 1941.

Samuel Pry rebuilt the two-story stone mill with brick, and the mill assumed the shape it still has.

The first two levels are the coursed stone of the original mill, which is fully exposed on the creek side and is pierced with segmentally arched openings. There was a small corner fireplace on the second level, probably where the office was. Because of the grain dust, mills were a dangerous place to have a fire, so heating in them was quite limited.

Great hand-hewn beams carried on chamfered posts support the upper levels. The posts on these two original levels are topped with short horizontal members that spread the weight carried by the beams. On the upper three floors, the posts are not chamfered and are supported by a pair of diagonal braces between the posts and the beams.

Legends of war

The mill prospered under Samuel Pry's ownership, but this prosperity was interrupted during the Civil War, when Pry Mill was chosen as one of seven Union Hospital sites before the Battle of Antietam. It was a bloody place after the battle as the wounded and dying soldiers were treated. A wagon full of wounded, from Sunken Road accidentally was dumped into the creek on their way to the mill, and some of the young doctors later were censured for drinking the distilled spirits instead of dispensing them to the wounded. Local legend claims that the Pry women baked bread for the wounded soldiers.

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