The Wench Mill

“The subscriber is the owner of two black children, the one a male, aged, as near as he can recollect, eighteen years. His name is Wan. The other a female, aged, as near as she can recollect, fourteen years. Her name is Isabella Roch.”
Abel Sands

Dated at Middletown, March 20th, 1818

Here is what the old stories say: There was a grist mill in Dunraven. Before the anti-rent war, before the reservoir.

The mill belonged to George Sands. There was a farmhouse, too: the homestead of the Sands family, and later, the Sanfords. It was all torn down to make way for the Pepacton, like everything else in that valley.

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It wasn’t very long ago, not really. The pine floorboards in the house I grew up in, in Woodstock, broad as two hands spread wide, were older than that mill. But we have already forgotten the mill.

Here is what we know: George Sands was a prominent man, a Freemason and a soldier of the Revolutionary War, from a large and prosperous family on Long Island. In Dunraven, just downstream on the East Branch from what would become Margaretville, he kept a farm, and a store, and a tavern license. He and his wife Jemima Smith Sands were among the first white settlers in the new town of Middletown, incorporated 1789. They raised ten children here.

Here is what was told: Every year in the fall, when the creeks were low, the mill wheel stopped turning. There wasn’t enough water in the river to turn the wheel and grind the grain. But there was a beam in the mill that could be used to turn the stone. There were young girls on the Sands farm. The girls were slaves.

Here is what George Sands did in the fall, when the streams were low: he powered his grain mill with girls. And so the mill became known as the Wench Mill.

“They went round and round on the dirt floor in bare feet pushing the thick pole,” writes local historian Ethel Bussy in her 1960 book, History and Stories of Margaretville and Surrounding Area. And then, having let drop this line out of a true Gothic horror story, Bussy moves on with characteristic briskness, to discuss the provenance of another local farmhouse.

In all my travels around the Catskills, I never heard so much as a whisper about the Wench Mill. Not from my grandmother in Margaretville, who was related to half the town; not in social studies class at Onteora, where I was about the right age to turn the wheel myself. Not around my neighborhood now, a half-hour’s jog from where the Wench Mill once stood. I found the mill via a more impersonal route: a new statewide database, launched earlier this year by a team at CUNY, called the New York Slavery Records Index.

The slaves of Middletown are not named in the database, but their owners are. I searched for my town, and scanned through the names on the screen, heart in mouth: Sands, Whipple, Van Waggener, Cockburn, Newkirk. I am sure I am related to some of them, somehow, but I was relieved not to find a Birdsall among them.

It is a thin fiction we tell ourselves, that slavery has not stained the earth on which we stand. New York was a free state, a Northern state, no? Home to Sojourner Truth, to be sure; we all heard that story in school.

Hers is a story filled with suffering, but there is purpose to it. A clear, ringing story. There is an element of local pride in it, as it’s told around here. Not like this one: a hollow place in the ground, a ring worn down by bare feet, a shaft hitched to a stone that grinds on and on. The story of the Wench Mill has no moral, except that it should never have been at all

Here are the names historians have of the slaves in my town: two teenagers, a boy, Wan, and a girl, Isabella Roch, named by George Sands’ son Abel in an 1818 affidavit filed with a local court. Under New York State’s Gradual Emancipation Act, passed in 1799, the children were promised freedom in their mid-twenties, but until then, they belonged to Abel.

The history of slavery in Middletown is short and sparsely documented. In the first U.S. Census in 1790, there were six slaves in Middletown, three of them in the Sands household. In 1810, the town’s enslaved population numbered eleven; by the Census of 1820, according to the database, the number was down to three. Two of them belonged to Abel.

In 1827, the last few slaves in the state of New York aged into their freedom under the Gradual Emancipation Act. It hardly seems a coincidence that Wan and Isabella, if they were still enslaved in New York by 1827, would not have reached the respective ages of manumission for men and women until around that year.

Abel Sands is buried in the old Sanford cemetery, among many weathered and illegible stones. His father George is there too. No final resting place for them: their bones were disinterred from doomed Arena in the 50s, when the Pepacton Reservoir was built, and trucked over land to New Kingston. That indignity, at least, is well remembered in town.

Where the slaves of the Sands family were buried, whether they left Middletown after the law freed them, whether they have living descendants, whether any of them were the Sands’ own children — these things we do not know.

After searching the database, and then finding George Sands in Bussy’s history, I contacted local historian Diane Galusha to see if she knew more about the Wench Mill. She kindly gave me some research notes, mostly on the Sandses, and told me that she and some other local historians were thinking about hosting a public program on slavery in the area. Perhaps next year.

“The county historian is up for it, but her current passion is documenting the lives (and deaths) of [Delaware County] Poorhouse residents, and the ‘indenture’ of children whose parents couldn’t care of them. Lots of misery of one form and another,” Diane wrote to me. More stories I never heard in school.

There isn’t much left of the Wench Mill and its legacy. “Sands” isn’t a name one hears around town these days. But Diane says that after the house on the old Sands farm was torn down for the reservoir, pieces of it were used in the building of the Arkville Free Methodist Church.

That building is now home to Pepacton Bait and Tackle, a business that rents kayaks for boating on the reservoir. It’s a small town. We are never very far from our forgotten stories.

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