On Thursday, June 2, I was honored to be a last-minute addition to LancasterHistory’s Summertime Picnic at Sickman’s Mill. My job was to provide guided tours of the ancient 1862 4.5-story stone structure. For those unable to attend, here is a copy of the information I shared.
Welcome to Sickman’s Mill, located in Conestoga Township along the banks of the Pequea Creek. Pequea is a Shawnee word meaning “dust” or “ashes.” This group of Native Americans once lived near the mouth of the creek about 6.5 miles downstream from the mill.
The mill falls in an area known to local “old timers” as Horse Hollow. Legend has it that the name dates back to the Civil War when the Union Army tethered their horses here in June of 1863 while Confederate forces threatened to pour across the Susquehanna River. Had the rebels proved successful, the retreating Union troops planned to retrieve their freshly rested mounts and flee.
However, evidence of the valley’s naming predates the Civil War, possibly to this tragic tale. On December 1, 1845, Frederick Pfeifer was driving to the mill in his wagon loaded with wheat on an icy, wintry day. As he approached the hill into the valley, Pfeifer found his team of horses slipping toward the cliff, unable to make the turn. Pfeifer attempted to jump from the wagon but got caught in the rigging and was dragged over the high bank with deadly results. Click here to read more about Horse Hollow.
A mill has existed in this location since 1752. Over the decades, it has had many owners and uses, including a flour mill, grist mill, oil mill (think cooking oil, not motor oil), sawmill, and distillery.
The first substantial owner was Christian Shenk, who took possession in the 1770s. He built a three-story, 30′ by 40′ structure for use as a distillery. It is unknown what alcohol he produced, but it was likely whiskey. Colonial frontier distillers also made apple and peach brandies, so these are possible options as well. His son, Jacob Shenk, continued the family operation until 1842.
Local legend says that George Washington may have stopped here for a drink, possibly around the time of his June 4, 1773, Lancaster visit. Click here to read about Washington’s five trips to Lancaster.
Jacob B. Good purchased the mill in 1842 and discontinued the distillery business due to tax changes.
The mill changed hands several times in the intervening years, eventually coming under the ownership of Daniel Good in 1857. Between 1862 and 1865, Good enlarged the building to its current 40′ by 60′ size with four and a half stories. While expanding the mill, a 30-inch thick stone exterior was added. The mill also has massive timbers running the length of the structure. One is 55 feet long, 17 inches tall, and 12 inches wide. According to the current owner Joe Devoy, it was shipped from Canada.
The mill changed hands a few more times until George Buckwalter became the owner around 1899. Fred Sickman was his miller, and the mill soon became known as “Sickman’s Mill” despite Buckwalter being the owner. In August 1906, Fred Sickman purchased the mill from Buckwalter, becoming the owner and operator. Sickman ran the mill until his death in January 1930.
It passed to Warren Sickman, who continued operating it as a flour mill until May 1967. At the height of its operation, the mill could produce 1,900 pounds of flour a day.
On the second floor, one person could operate the entire mill from this location (left image below). The miller would turn the horizontal wheel which opened a floodgate to allow water to cross the paddle wheel. He would adjust the wheel, listening to the sound of the speedometer’s (right image below) bell. If the wheel was moving too fast, the bell would quickly ding. Alternatively, if the wheel moved too slowly, the bell would also chime slowly. It would make no sound when it reached the optimum speed.
The paddle wheel mentioned above turns the 80-hp water turbine pictured below. It is the heart of Sickman’s Mill powering most of the equipment. There is a second 40-hp water turbine. It is visible in the image below beyond the extension cords. Interestingly, the teeth of the horizontal gear are wooden. If something becomes jammed in the gears, the wooden teeth will sheer off instead of creating more catastrophic and difficult-to-repair damage. A new wooden tooth is visible in the image below, ready to be slotted in to replace a broken one.
In 1968, under the new ownership of Michael and Mary Lou Gress, the mill reopened as a tourist attraction. Over the years, it changed hands and functions multiple times, seeing use as an antique store, museum, campground, haunted house, tubing destination, and events venue.
Legend has it that the cavernous stone building is haunted. When the property was used as a campground, more than one camper reported seeing an eerie, glowing green light coming from various third-floor windows of the mill at night. Could the ghostly glow belong to Frederick Pfeifer, who, unable to reach the mill in life, is forever trapped there in death?
Devoy mentioned that more recently, his wife has heard whistling inside the mill despite being empty when locking up at the end of the night. He said, about the ghost, “At least it has good taste.” 🙂
Sickman’s Mill Today
Today, Sickman’s Mill is a popular summer destination for tubing, drinking, and live music. Jimmy’s Place is open seven days a week from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm, serving PA’s finest brews, spirits, and world-renowned Jimmy Juice. When tubing at Sickman’s Mill, you enjoy a two-hour float down the Pequea Creek through Horse Hollow and past the Pequea Magnetic Ore Mine ruins that date back to the 1880s. Click here to read more about the abandoned mine. I took a trip last summer. It was awesome!
You can also rent the entire Sickman’s Mill facility to host your wedding or other large group parties. Sickman’s Mill is located at 671 Sandhill Road Pequea, PA 17565. For more information, click here to visit the Sickman’s Mill website.
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Haunted Lancaster: Sickman’s Mill Ghostly Green Glow
In the 1970s, Sickman’s Mill operated as a campground. Patrons on multiple occasions reported seeing an eerie green light coming from the third-floor windows of the mill at night. Could the glow belong to Frederick Pfeifer, who died nearby on December 1, 1845, while on route to the mill with a load of wheat? Click here to read more.
Rediscover the almost-forgotten Pequea Magnetic Ore Mine deep in the heart of Horse Hollow
Deep in the heart of Horse Hollow, spanning both sides of the Pequea Creek, lies a half-mile series of multi-tiered stone foundations for a once massive mining but rarely profitable operation. Click here to read more.
Forgotten Places: Conestoga Centre’s Horse Hollow
Just outside the town of Conestoga is a hidden valley known to old timers as “Horse Hollow.” Legend holds the name comes from the Union Army herding their reserve horses there during the Civil War. Is there any truth to this tale? Click here to read more.
- Sickman’s Mill (website) History
- Mill Monday: Sickman’s
- Sickman Mill / Pequea Roller Mill
- The Old Home Scene Coestoga by Larry E. Hess
- Sickman’s Mill: A stone monument to a forgotten time