December 1, 2011 in Washington Voices

Landmarks: Neglected gristmill near Cheney succumbs to age

By Correspondent
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

The ruins of the Dybdall gristmill sits in a wooded area near Chapman Lake near Cheney, Monday. The mill, built by Ole Dybdall, was a complex water-powered operation with an eight-stage grinding machine. At left is the flume that brought water to power the mill, which ground flour and also powered a sawmill.
(Full-size photo)

About this feature

Landmarks is a regular feature about historic sites, buildings and monuments that often go unnoticed – signposts for our local history that tell a little bit about us and the region’s development. If you have a suggestion for the Landmarks column, contact Stefanie Pettit at See past Landmarks columns at

There was a time when the old Dybdall gristmill was known throughout the region for producing the finest baking flour available. But that was a long time ago, and today the mill, though on the National Register of Historic Places, is a declining reflection of what it once was. It is pretty much falling apart.

“I wish we could go back 30 years and put it back the way it was,” said Mary Kaplan, daughter of the mill’s owner, Margaret Kaplan. Back then a millwright in Portland had offered to dismantle the vacant gristmill and put it back together again in a new location.

“We should have done that,” Kaplan said. Instead, the family made arrangements with an historical preservation group to look after the mill, but nothing seemed to have come of that.

She noted that a special feature of this wonderful old landmark structure is that “most everything is held together with pegs which were driven into holes bored by hand. Unfortunately, that is something that was unique and, sadly, the historical society may not have been aware of. Otherwise they may have made more effort to preserve it.”

Located near the southern end of Chapman Lake south of Cheney, the gristmill was built in 1897 by Ole C. Dybdall as a three-story, single-wall board-and-batten building with a braced frame construction. It was roughly 30 feet on each side and with a saltbox roof. Rock Creek runs in front of the mill, which is built on a hillside rising from the creek bed.

Dybdall, a Norwegian immigrant, was both a skilled sawyer and miller who operated both the gristmill and a nearby sawmill until his death in 1919. His son Ole Jr. kept them both in operation until 1955, after which he occasionally sawed lumber for select individuals. Upon his death, the gristmill passed on to his niece Margaret Kaplan (the sawmill was long gone).

At the peak of its operation in the 1920s and ’30s, the gristmill produced 30 barrels a day. Its unique eight-stage roller grinding process produced an exceptionally fine product. The six-stage equipment in more common usage elsewhere resulted in a coarser and less desirable flour. By 1934 the Dybdall Gristmill was the only mill of its kind located in a major wheat-producing area. One report indicated that some farmers traveled 100 miles to the gristmill to ensure the proper grinding of the specific grade of grain they grew.

Material was moved between floors at the mill by an enclosed belt bucket conveyor (kind of an elevator) and gravity chutes. Power to the machinery came through an elaborate system of jack shafts, belts and pulleys that were connected to a water-driven turbine located on the lower level of the building. The second story served as the main floor, entered from the back side at ground level due to the slope of the terrain, and it is there that the work flow began and ended. The main mill equipment was in the lower level, and the third floor was home to the cleaning, conditioning and sifting processes.

Descriptions of the grinding process employed at the gristmill indicate that great care was taken so that … “grain was first cleaned and conditioned and later sifted before being sent down to the grinding apparatus and then returned for further purification. It was a complex cyclical process where the material was repeatedly ground into finer grades. At each stage, the flour was sifted, and that which had already reached the proper consistency was removed. Bran was separated in the final sifting and bagged separately.”

When the gristmill was placed on the National Register in 1976, it contained the following machinery – a grain scourer for cleaning and conditioning; four two-stage roller grinders; a plan sifter, dust collector and reel (sieve) for bolting; middlings purifier, sifter and bran duster for purification; and a packer for collecting and bagging.

Most of the equipment that produced perhaps the finest baking flour in the Inland Northwest is still on site, left in place, ghosts of the past inside a once proud and productive building – and a quiet tribute to the legacy of Ole Dybdall.

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