Water-powered ice cream helps mark community bicentennial
by Nancy Sorelis, Contributing Writer
It was with great optimism that John J. Rife stood alongside the spring-fed stream in what would soon become the village of Dayton in Rockingham County, Va., and pondered the possibilities.
It was the fall of 1822. The young Brethren man had just received permission to build a dam to provide waterpower for the mill he hoped to build, and create an 11.5-acre body of water that would become Silver Lake.
However, even a talented go-getter like Rife, who ran a grain mill and a sawmill running at the site, might be surprised at the legacy of the complex he launched.
On a Saturday afternoon in August, more than 150 community members would call that story a “sweet success,” as they licked freshly churned ice cream off wooden spoons while exploring the mill and the area around it.
A three-gallon ice cream freezer, cranked by the whirring, water-powered gears on the ground floor of Silver Lake Mill, produced 15 gallons of smooth vanilla and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream that afternoon.
A cross-section of the community — young and not-so-young, a large number of Old Order Mennonites, families out for a drive in the country and even Dayton’s mayor and vice mayor — eagerly sampled the confection from Silver Lake Mill, believed to be the only water-powered wheel in the country that yields ice cream.
The mill’s original product was flour, but grain has not been ground there for 60 years. Water flowing over the 1909 Fitz Water Wheel and turning attached gears on the other side of a stone wall has been nothing more than a pretty picture for a long time.
Until this summer.
It was high time the mill went back to work, jokes mill owner Cheryl Lyon and her Mennonite friends and neighbors, the Rohrer family.
“I’ve been around this mill all my life and I’ve never known the mill wheel to do something profitable,” Leon Rohrer said with a smile. “It has always been in my mind since it was restored to see the wheel do something profitable.”
The ice cream social at the mill was part of the ongoing bicentennial celebration for the mill and the lake. Lyon, who acquired the mill in 1999, has spent years restoring the structure and researching its history.
That research led to the creation of a 104-acre National Historic District in 2019, but, along the way, she also discovered that Rife started the water wheel turning, so to speak, 200 years ago.
With that historic date in hand, the Silver Lake Bicentennial Committee is leading “a community celebration honoring 200 years of life and industry around Silver Lake.”
An illustrated book will mark the year-long celebration, which has included, or will include, a capella singing, dinner theaters, floating trees lit with lights and ice cream socials.
Using the waterpower to make ice cream is probably the most out-of-the-box event of the bicentennial. Lyon, a diminutive woman with a wave of silver hair and green eyes that sparkle when she talks about the mill, says she has been thinking about the project for nearly 10 years but needed the help of neighbors.
Rohrer continues the story. “Someone said something about ice cream and someone else said it couldn’t be done. I am not one to be told that something can’t be done, so I took that as a challenge to make it happen,” he says.
“First we had to figure out the RPMs, and, once we had those figured out, then we had to figure out how to get those RPMs off the shaft and hold that revolution for the freezer,” he explains.
To accomplish that, he teamed up with his friend, Lloyd Horst, who runs a machine shop nearby, to make some parts.
There was one more complication. Ice cream is made by pouring a mixture of milk, cream, sugar and flavorings into a canister with an inside dasher that scrapes the slowly freezing mixture off the walls of the canister, which is surrounded by ice and salt.
Because dairy fat freezes at lower temperatures than water (i.e., ice cubes), salt is the key ingredient to lower the freezing temperature of water, so the ice mixture is cold enough to turn the product into ice cream.
But turning an ice cream freezer with a shaft from a water wheel could damage the churn when the ice cream begins to harden and inhibits the turning shaft.
To a mechanically minded person like Rohrer, that was no problem. An idler and a spring were installed so that the system could start loosening the belt once the ice cream began to harden, sort of like having a clutch.
After that, it is “simple,” he notes. The team can produce three gallons of Silver Lake ice cream in 23 minutes, making sure to get the right amount of water flowing over the water wheel and adding the appropriate amount of salt. In two-and-a-half hours, the men running the “milled” ice cream produce 15 gallons of pure delight.
While the neighborhood crew was figuring out the mechanics on the production end, Leon Rohrer’s wife, Elaine, was in charge of perfecting the proportions of ingredients for a three-gallon container and getting the flavorings just right.
Homemade ice cream has always been a favorite in the Mennonite community, she explains, and her nine grandchildren make short work of any batch she produces at home.
For this day’s offering of chocolate-peanut butter, Elaine Rohrer tinkered with the proportions to get just the right taste. “For me, the best part is the reactions of all the people. That’s what makes you know you have it right with the flavors. It has been fun,” she says.
“Events like this and places like this bring everyone together. The mill becomes the melting pot of our community.” — Cary Jackson, Mayor of Dayton
Although the late summer ice cream social was the last of the water-wheel-powered delicacy, there were hints of more to come, perhaps even peppermint-flavored ice cream at Christmas.
200 YEARS OF SILVER LAKE
For now, the event takes its place in the annals of Silver Lake history. Like all histories, Silver Lake’s is filled with both joy and sorrow.
For much of its life, the mill was owned and operated by members of the German Baptist community, today called Church of the Brethren. A pacifist sect that practiced adult baptism, the Brethren often used the shallow waters behind the mill dam for joyous baptism services. During the Civil War, the Brethren took a neutral or Unionist stand and suffered persecution from their neighbors.
Sadly, their moral stance against slavery and the war did not prevent tragedy from striking the mill in the fall of 1864 when Union forces under Gen. Philip Sheridan burned the mill and many other mills and barns of Rockingham County.
After the war, the mill was rebuilt on its surviving north limestone wall. More than a century later, during the mill’s restoration, the outer faces of those rock walls broke off, releasing the acrid smell from “The Burning” of 1864.
The stories of the mill and its community touch all the senses, says Lyon, who is an artist. “I love this mill, and all its textures and its stories,” she adds. “It is not a static story, but one that’s still being written.”
Dayton Mayor Cary Jackson agreed. “Events like this and places like this bring everyone together. The mill becomes the melting pot of our community. Cheryl doesn’t like to toot her own horn, but she is the driving force in bringing this all together. She made sure that the mill was back up to the condition it is now. She is a true leader. She has the vision and then sends everyone out in the community to make that vision a reality,” he says between spoonfuls of chocolate-peanut butter ice cream.
While standing near the noisy shaft turning the ice cream freezer, Dayton Vice Mayor Bradford Dyjak wholeheartedly agrees: “This brings out the best in our community. Here we are standing in a centuries-old mill eating ice cream. That’s what small-town living is all about.”
The vice mayor might have discovered the day’s secret ingredient — since time immemorial, mills have served as community gathering places.
“People would gather and exchange information while they were waiting for their wheat to be ground. Today was not just about ice cream. Silver Lake Mill is still a place to gather,” Lyon says.
And, if the gathering includes chocolate-peanut butter ice cream freshly made using the waterpower of the mill, then that is a sweet bonus.
FOLLOW THE SWEET SPOTS TRAIL AND WIN $100
Through November, visit any of the spots on our sweet spots trail. Snap a pic of you or your family in front of the shop. Make sure the store can be identified in some way. Email the photo with yourname, hometown and treat to [email protected]. We’ll post the best at facebook.com/cooperativeliving, using the hashtag #SweetSpotsCL. At the end of November, we’ll take the entries and choose a random winner for a $100 gift card.
Go to: co-opliving.com/sweetspots for map and contest rules.