El Molino Viejo (The Old Mill)

Feb 28, 2011

This was the first water-powered mill in California, built in 1816 as part of Mission San Gabriel’s vast operations. Father Zalvedia chose this spot because of its water source, and he and his fellow padres then recruited Joseph Chapman, a Yankee and former pirate with keen logging and engineering skills, to handle the monumental construction job. With the help of the kindly Tongva, now renamed the Gabrielinos, they cut trees in Santa Anita and Altadena canyons, about six miles north, and rolled and dragged the massive logs south to the molino, in the process getting milled by the rocky land; most of these original logs still frame the building’s structure. When the mill was completed, several obstacles became apparent. First, the millstones wouldn’t turn under the force of the water, due in part to bad spoon-shaped paddles that didn’t encourage fast water flow. The Gabrielinos may actually have spent their days pulling the great millstones with leather ropes—in essence, operating the mill with manpower alone. Also, because the mill was built right on top of an underground stream, the floors and walls were continually damp, making it impossible to store the milled flours, so extra manpower was demanded to transport the flours to the mission three miles south.

The mill still stands today, thanks to preservation efforts by Henry Huntington, who purchased it in 1902 and later used it for a clubhouse for his hotel’s golf course. Maintained by the renowned Diggers Garden Club, the grounds are planted with period specimens (citrus, quince, plum, calla lilies, coral bells) and include pathways, benches and an old fountain. In the summer, the Pomegranate Patio hosts concerts by the California Philharmonic. You can wander on your own or take a tour with one of the excellent docents. And make sure to venture upstairs to see the plein-air paintings at the California Art Club gallery. This is one of the prettiest and most serene slices of Euro-California history in the region.

1120 Old Mill Rd., San Marino
Open daily 1-4 p.m.; closed Monday
Donation requested



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