Chapter 4: McAllister’s Mill

Jennie set aside the stack of trousers and looked up at her mother. Sunlight streamed through the window of the small house on Breckenridge Street. Her mother had upholstery for a carriage at a small table in the front room. Her hair was pulled back, and beads of sweat had formed on her forehead. Georgia was next to her mother mending a dress shirt.

“I have finished my work, Mama,” Jennie said. “May I go out now?”

Her mother’s brow furrowed, and she stood. “Let me see that work. Can’t have been good if you are already done.” She moved over to the chair where Jennie sat and picked up a pair of trousers. She ran her finger down a seam, flipped the trousers and ran her finger down another seam. “Hmm,” she said. She dropped that pair and picked up another. She repeated the operation.

“A seam is not hard, Mama,” Jennie said.

“No it’s not,” her mother said while picking up another pair of pants. “That’s why I have you do them.”

“I am getting quite good and it takes me little time at all.”

Her mother set down the trousers. “Who are you off to see today?”

“No one in particular. I just like to be out when the weather is nice. Maybe go to Rock Creek or walk along the railroad.”

Her mother peered over her reading glasses at Jennie. “I know you run around with the Skelly boy and the Culp fellow. And I know you see your older brother.”

Jennie flushed a bit and swallowed. “The Skellys are like our family, Mama. And James, well, James is our family.”

“Your family anyway,” said Mary Ann. She sighed. “Don’t you have any girlfriends to run around with?”

Jennie nodded. “I’m friendly with a lot of the girls at school. We play during breaks. I like Sallie Myers. She asked me to mend one of her dolls once.”

“And did you?”

“On my own time, Mama. It was just a small hole that needed a stitch or two. Her mother could have done it, but Sallie was afraid to tell her about it.”

Mary Ann sighed again. “Well don’t go giving away too much free work. Lord knows we need the money around here since your father went away.”

“It was just a stitch or two, Mama, I promise.”

Her mother pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “Go on and be about you. Home by dark. Someone here ought to get to act like a kid.”

“Thank you, Mama,” said Jennie, as she stood.

“And you be careful about that Skelly boy.”

“Why is that?” Jennie asked as she headed for the door.

“He’s keen on you, and he’s three years older than you, and you’re entirely too young for any of that nonsense.”

“Keen on me?”

“Yes, keen on you. I know how he looks at you and what that means.”

Jennie rolled her eyes. “Mama, we lived in their house for two years.”

“You just mind what I say, you hear?”

“Okay, Mama.”

Jennie had told no lies, but she had left out some important points because she couldn’t gauge how her mother would feel about them. She headed north through the town center, and later she would be going east, but for now, she came to the farmland run by the almshouse. Sometimes Papa was out there working with the able-bodied. Sometimes he wasn’t. Today, he was.

She could make out his form easily enough, and she saw one of the almshouse workers standing in the middle of the inmates, supervising. Each person had some kind of farm implement—mostly hoes, but a shovel or two among them. They worked away along a row of what Jennie thought were green beans.

Jennie didn’t try to sneak up. She simply left the road and walked across the field, and sure enough, here came the supervisor to meet her.

“Hello, Virginia,” the slim, sweating man said as he drew near.

“People call me Jennie, Mr. Ford,” she said.

“But your name is Virginia, is it not?” said Jared Ford with a smile.

“Well, it’s actually Mary Virginia if you want to be totally accurate.”

And Mr. Ford laughed at that. “Come to see your Papa I reckon?”

“If he’s in a good frame of mind and if it’s quite okay with you,” said Jennie.

Mr. Ford motioned with his head toward James Wade and said, “Not sure about his frame of mind. He’s kind of just his sour self. But you can go see him if you don’t distract him too much. We want to finish a bunch of these rows by nightfall.”

Jennie moved quickly past Mr. Ford and toward her father, being careful not to step on any of the growing plants. He held a hoe in both hands and startled suddenly when she touched his sweaty right arm and said, “Hi, Papa.”

He turned quickly with a grimace and said, “You must be careful not to startle men with weapons.”

Jennie’s forehead creased. “That’s a hoe, silly.”

“If I swung it at you, what would you think of it then?”

“I suppose then it would be a weapon. Have you struck people with hoes, Papa?”

James grunted and let the blade drop to the ground. He leaned against the handle, pulled a handkerchief from pocket, and wiped his sweaty brow. “With the tales you all told the constable, these people believe I would swing anything at a man.”

“We didn’t lie, Papa,” said Jennie.

James gave her a long look, and his gaze softened mildly. “I suppose you didn’t. What would you know about what I’ve done other than what you’ve seen? You’re just a child.”

“I’m almost ten,” Jennie said.

James looked away for a moment and glanced at the afternoon sun moving gradually west. “What are you doing here?”

“Just came to see you is all, Papa,” Jennie said.

“You haven’t forgotten me then.”

“No one has forgotten you. Mr. Foulk asks after you when he drops off his orders. So do the other customers. Georgia, James, John . . . everyone just wants you to get well.”

“I’m well enough,” James said. “So your mother has kept the business going, then.”

“Georgia and I are helping her. Doing things just the way you taught us.” Jennie took his right hand and turned it over to reveal his palm. “Do they have you sew at all? Your hands look like they are doing a lot of farming.”

James patted Jennie on the head with that right hand, ran it down the back of her neck and patted her back. “I do a bit of farming, a bit of sewing, a bit of cleaning, and a bit of whatever else that needs to be done when they think I am well enough.”

“Have you not been well?”

“I have been well enough every day, but some days, they think I am not and they keep me in my room all day. And every now and then, they chain me to a wall. It gets very hot in the summer in there, you know.”

“That sounds awful,” said Jennie. “I’m sorry for that. You must do your very best to let them know you’re okay.”

She looked at him with earnest eyes, and he said with a sigh, “I suppose I must.”

Jennie suddenly pressed herself against him and hugged him, then pulled back and said, “Well, I must be off. Mr. Ford said you all must finish several rows of beans, and I must not keep James waiting.”

“You’re seeing James?”

“If he shows up,” said Jennie.

“Well, tell him . . . tell all the kids that they can come visit me.”

Jennie saw that his face was soft, sad, missing the anger that it often had. “I will tell them.”

And with that, she turned and started back across the field.

Next stop was Rock Creek. She found her way to the banks in an open farm field, then started southeast along it until ran into the tree line near the Spangler property. She settled in the shade and sat against a large oak and watched the creek trickle by. The water was low in the summer heat; it hadn’t rained for a least ten days, so it was easy to see the rocks and small boulders on its bottom. She looked around hoping that James would appear, as he did on most, but not all, Saturdays. Different birds called over and around her, and she watched when she heard rustles in the leaves above. Sometimes, it was a bird flitting from one branch to another, and sometimes it was a squirrel skittering along and leaping branches.

Bushes rustled behind her. She turned but saw no one and detected no movement. She settled back against her tree. Next, a twig snapped loudly, this time off to the left and behind her. Again, she looked but saw nothing. But now her mind was awake to the idea that someone was around. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw an object hurtle toward the creek and hit with a splash. That had to have been thrown.

“James!” she called. “Is that you?”

Silence except for the birds and squirrels in the treetops. And then suddenly, he broadsided her and knocked her flat. She squealed and tumbled over, trying to push him away.

“Behave, woman!” James commanded in a false deep voice.

“I will not!” she said back. “Because I am no woman!”

Jack laughed, released her, and sat up. “Well, then there must be some misunderstanding.”

“Indeed,” said Jennie.

“I am a great Comanche warrior, and I intended to carry you off as my prize, but I do not bother with small weaklings.”

Jennie rushed him and knocked him off his seat, and he laughed harder. “On second thought, maybe I will take this one.”

At last, Jennie stood and brushed herself off, then settled back next to him. “I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“You say that every week,” he said.

“Well, sometimes you don’t.”

“Well, sometimes Mr. Foulk has weeds he wants pulled on the farm or materials picked up for his carriages, and I am sorry, but you are definitely second place to a weed.”

Jennie punched his shoulder hard.

“Oww!” he said, then laughed at her again.

“You are a rascal.”

“Which is obviously why Papa parked me in the poorhouse and then got me bonded out.”

“Has that taught you anything?” Jennie said with a smile.

“Well, given where Papa is, I’ve learned that you reap what you sow, as they say in church.”

Jennie lowered her head and shook it. “You are a wicked, wicked boy.”

“I didn’t put him there,” James said. “You did!”

She moved to punch him again, but he caught her wrist and wrestled her back to a sitting position. Then, he said, “How is your mother? Is she keeping up okay on the business? Do you have enough?”

“Listen to the orphan ask if we have enough,” said Jennie. “Yes, we are keeping up with the business. I do not think so many people bring us business as used to bring Papa. But Uncle Sam has continued his carriage sewing with us.”

James smiled and shook his head. He had sparkling blue eyes like Jennie and dusty blond hair similar to hers. “Uncle Sam. Mr. Foulk, you mean.”

“He said you could call him ‘Uncle Sam.’ Any of us could,” said Jennie.

“I don’t work for Uncle Sam,” said James.

“Not yet at least,” said a voice behind them. They whirled and saw Wes Culp and Jack Skelly coming up behind them.

“Well, look what rolled in,” said James. “What are you all up to?”

“Hunting,” said Wes.

“In the middle of the summer?” said James. “And with what? Your bare hands?”

“Come on,” said Jack. “We’ll show you.”

Jennie and James hopped up. Wes and Jack stood in the middle of the group with James flanking on the left and Jennie on the right.

“And what do you mean about Uncle Sam?” said Jennie as they started to walk.

“There’s gonna be a war some time,” said Wes.

“You really think so?” said Jennie.

“Robert talks about it all the time at the shop. He says the South will only bear their degradations for so long.”

They passed under large shade trees and moved generally southeast along the banks of the creek.

James scoffed. “What degradations?”

“South says the North is always stealing its property,” said Wes.

“You mean, the people known as slaves,” said James.

“The slaves, yes,” said Wes.

Jennie glanced at Jack whose face betrayed no emotion. “How is the North stealing them?” Jennie said.

“They run away,” said Jack. “And people in the North hide them.”

“It’s happening right here in this town,” said Wes.

“What?” said Jennie. “Really?”

“That’s where we’re going right now,” said Jack. “We’re gonna see if we can spot any negroes at their favorite hiding place.”

“McAllister’s Mill,” said James.

“See?” Wes said. “James knows. Worst kept secret in town.”

“He’s run the Anti-Slavery Society in town since before we were born,” said James. “It’s not really a secret.”

“But he’s helping to steal the property of people down South,” said Wes.

“By hiding them?” said Jennie.

“Yes,” said Wes.

“That’s not really stealing,” said Jennie.

“Now look here,” said Wes. “Cattle rustlers will go out and take a man’s steers. Then, they will go to a friendly rancher nearby and rebrand the cattle. That rancher is as much stealing as the rustlers are.”

Jennie looked again at Jack who stared quietly at his feet as they walked.

“Good lord,” said James. “A man’s not a cow. And we’re talking about people who run away. Not people who were ‘stolen.’”

Up ahead, they could see the tops of some of the buildings on the McAllister property. It was familiar to all of them. James McAllister often opened the property to the town for Fourth of July celebrations and other town events. As they got closer, James said, “What are we hoping to see?”

Wes lowered his voice. “The word is that they hide the runaways. Some of them stay in the mill. Some people say there are caves. They stay there during the day, and at night, they sneak them up north to Harrisburg or some other place like that.”

“Harrisburg?” said Jennie.

“Yeah, ain’t you heard of the slave riots a couple years ago and all the problems they have with negroes and the slave catchers in the city? Where do you think the runaways stop first?”

“You’re saying right here at McAllister’s Mill,” said James.

Wes nodded. “Yeah. We’re aiming to prove it.”

They came to a small, leaf-matted embankment, and Wes motioned them to get down. Jennie lowered herself to her belly and whispered, “Mama will tan my hide if I come home with dirt stains.”

“Shhh,” Wes said.

They all crept forward slowly on their bellies until they could see the McAllister house and mill. A couple of workers moved in and out of the mill while two McAllister boys and a daughter played in a patch of grass next to the house.

“I don’t see no darkies” said James.

“They won’t just be out strolling around,” Wes said. “Let’s check through our glasses to see if we can see the caves.”

Jennie watched Jack fish awkwardly in his pants pocket until he came up with a small metallic circle. Jack tapped it, and it expanded to a spyglass. He held it to his right eye and squinted. Wes pressed his against his left eye.

“See anything?” Jennie whispered.

“Just leaves and trees and the workers and stuff,” said Jack.

Jennie looked at the mill pond next to the mill, watched summer leaves drift down from the trees and land on the surface.

“See any caves?” Jack said.

“No,” said Wes. “But I’ll bet if we stay here for a while, we will see some stuff. How can people be still all day? They gotta eat and pee and stuff.”

They were all quiet again for several minutes. Jennie watched the kids play. She knew a couple of them from school and wouldn’t have minded joining their game.

“How long you think we gotta wait?” James said.

“Who knows?” said Wes. “I’m sure they’re very careful.”

“Would you like a tour of the mill?” a voice from behind them said suddenly.

They all jumped and turned around. James McAllister was an older man with gray hair, but he was young enough still to be stout and strong. He wore overalls and stood with a long walking stick that he had carved himself.

“Hi, uh, Mr. McAllister,” Wes stammered. “We were, uh, playing in the woods and pretending and … see, uh, this was our base, and …”

“We’re looking for runaways!” Jennie suddenly exclaimed.

Wes groaned.

“Oh?” Mr. McAllister said. “Pigs, cows, sheep? They don’t usually go to the woods.”

“Negroes,” Jennie said.

“Ah,” Mr. McAllister said. “Even the town youth have heard the rumors.”

“It was just a game,” Jack said. “We didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Come along,” said Mr. McAllister. “I’ll show you the mill. You can inspect for yourselves and finish your game.”

Mr. McAllister stepped around them and led the way, and the group fell in behind him.

“Great job, Jennie,” Wes hissed. “We could get arrested.”

“It was your dumb idea,” she whispered back. “Besides, if we lied about it, it’d be worse for us.”

“Well, a Wade oughtta know about that,” Wes grumbled.

James shoved Wes from behind, sending him tumbling to his knees. “Shut your mouth, Wes. I can lick you good. That’s my sister you’re talking to.”

“Half sister,” Wes said.

James cracked Wes in the nose with his fist, and Jack jumped between them. Mr. McAllister turned from twenty feet ahead. “Everyone ok?”

Jack glared at Wes, Jennie stood frozen, Wes dabbed blood away from his nose with his fist, and James nodded at Mr. McAllister. “We’re good. Thanks for showing us the mill. It will be fun to see it.”

When they stepped inside, Jennie coughed from the ground wheat dust in the air. Bags of flour sat in a corner, and a young man about their age loaded them into wheelbarrows. At one end of the room was the grain receiver.

James pointed at him. “See him? He’s pouring the grain from townspeople into the receiver. See the elevator that goes from the receiver?”

The kids nodded and watched the grain being grabbed and elevated in small batches up through a whole to the next floor. “The grain goes up to the next floor and through a giant funnel to come down to the millstones.” He pointed at the massive machine housing the stones. A man stood next to it, his hands on a metal wheel. “That’s the miller,” he said. “He’s got two wheels to turn. One wheel causes water to flow into the basement below us and the water turns the turbines, which turn the grinding stone. And with the other wheel, he lowers the grinding stone against the other to grind the wheat.”

Mr. McAllister looked at the group. “You can walk up and down to the upper floors and the basement to see the machines if you want. I don’t know where runaways would hide to stay away from my workers.” Now he looked straight at Wes. “You apprentice with Mr. Hoffman in his carriage business, correct?” Wes nodded. “Well, if you think of becoming a miller, you’re about old enough to apprentice here and find all my hiding places.”

“Ok, Mr. McAllister.”

“Wes says there are caves too,” said Jennie.

Mr. McAllister laughed. “Well, the only cave I know of is off the side of the trail back to the Baltimore Pike. You can inspect it if you want, but it’s a fox den and the mama fox might not take kindly to you all bothering her den.”

“I see,” said Jennie.

Soon, they were all on that trail together, James in the lead, Jennie behind him, and Jack and Wes behind her. “Well, we didn’t get arrested,” James said.

“Arrested?” Jack laughed. “Wes got an offer to learn a new trade. Maybe we should sneak around more often.”

They all laughed, and back at the Pike, they separated to head home.


After reading Chapter 4, teachers, parents, or learners may want to dive into more historical sources by visiting Chapter 4 resource page. Resources for all chapters can be found at the book’s resources page.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: