Abel Stearns, Joseph Chapman and the Origins of Capitol Milling Company

(Companion to Blog Post on the Capitol Milling Company)

Abel Stearns

Born to a Massachusetts farming family, Abel Stearns first saw the light of day in 1798. Orphaned in 1810, he made hs way to Boston and became a merchant sailor, and over the next sixteen years traveled extensively around the ports of the Far East, the West Indies, and naturally Spanish America.  He came to Mexico in 1826 and at some point during the next three years, took on Mexican citizenship.  In 1831 he moved to Los Angeles where he opened a store; in this enterprise his years of sailing aboard trading ships served him well enough that by 1834 he was able to build a fine house at Main and Arcadia "El Palacio", as he named it, became famous as the finest residence in the Pueblo.   It's here that we must question whether he was truly the initial builder of a grist mill at the Capitol site; most of the available biographies say nothing about the millRather, it's in sources focusing on the mill that we find Stearns named as its originator.    Moreover, Stearns seems to have been entirely occupied with other business matters during the early 1830s.  In later years he became one of the richest and most prominent men not just in Los Angeles but in all of California.  We can't help but wonder if his exemplary life story and business success made him a more appealing originator of the mill, even if a spurious one.   

Abel Stearns

Both before and after the American conquest, Stearns served in a variety of government posts, and made a fortune which he mostly lost in the dourght of 1863-1864.   He recouped much of it before his death in 1871, and when his widow died forty years later, her estate was estimated to be worth fifteen million dollars.

 Joseph John Chapman

 Born about fifteen years earlier, Joseph John Chapman hailed from Massachusetts and likewise went to sea in his youth.  He  died in 1848 and so never really had a chance to make a name for himself in the American era.  Moreover, although he had long since proved himself a useful and worthy citizen, he carried with him the baggage of a murky past. In the late 1810s he had fallen into bad company and was impressed into the crew of the French pirate Hipolite Bouchard.  In December of 1818 Bouchard attacked San Juan Capistrano and in the aftermath was captured along with several of his crew, including Chapman.  Supremely gifted at anything mechanical or construction-related, Chapman was released  so he could take charge of the building of  a fulling mill at Santa Inez.  He is said to have also built San Gabriel's El Molino Viejo, still in existence today as a museum, but if this is true it was likely the second mill at that site, in 1823.   Among other projects, he is also credited with the Old Plaza Church, where the priests--aghast at his adherence to Baptism though they were-- declared him the most useful man in the entire town. (LAT 2000-02-13)

Joseph John Chapman and his wife, Guadalupe Ortega y Sanchez, about 1847

In those days long before state licensing boards existed, Chapman's services as an un-credentialed dentist and physician were in great demand.

So Who Did Build The Original Mill?   A Brief Excursus on the 19th Century Mill

The word mill is used to denote a variety of industrial workplaces where things are manufactured or materials processed and refined.   This includes mills in the narrower sense of, for example, sawmills and gristmills, as well as any kind of large factory or processing facility.   In factory towns of the American northeast, "the mill" is a common term for the factory, regardless of its product.   By contrast, when asked to picture a 19th century flour mill, most people will likely imagine a quaint and small building of field stones, an overshot waterwheel on one side, and the miller himself, a beefy fellow from carrying heavy sacks of grain upstairs to the hopper.  Aside from the grinding wheels themselves, the common image is one of a process carried out by hand, much as a cobbler or metalsmith might have done in the same period.  Undoubtedly, there were some mills for which such bucolic imagery would be accurate.  In fact, however, flour milling was one of the first industrial processes to be automated, and an automated commercial flour mill was an impressively mechanical affair, rather more like a factory than the typical storybook picture of a rural mill.   Thanks largely to the work of Oliver Evans, who developed automated flour milling machinery in the late 18th century, in the decades  to come the rest of the world looked to America as the experts on automation, as the Russan  Peter Kozmin wrote a century ago. (Kozmin, p23 et seq.).  

We offer here an illustration Evans' design from  Kozmin's book, that being the best available online example of how the system worked.  We cannot be sure if the same-site predecessor to Capitol Milling used this process, but considering what was then the milling state-of-the-art, it is likely that it was, or something very similar to it.  A step-by-step description of the process is excerpted from Kozmin's book and reproduced here, where a link to the entire book is also available.

Typical design of an American commercial mill, early to mid 1800s.  (Kozmin, after Evans)
Oliver Evans' design provided for most of the milling process, from reception of the grain to fine-flour production to be automated.  In many instances the old grinding wheels were replaced by more advanced mechanical grinders, but until the widespread use of electricity and stationary engines all this equipment continued to be driven by water power.   One of Evans' most notable innovations was using the principle of the Archimedes screw to transport grain and product from one step of the process to the next, or to and from ships and wagons.

The mill-wright was the person who built the milling machinery, or in the case of a running mill was responsible for its maintenance and modification.  Obviously this was not a trivial job, and required mechanical ability of a high order, approaching that of a mechanical engineer.  Given a choice between Abel Stearns and Joseph Chapman, it's difficult to conclude that it was Stearns who put together the milling equipment when Chapman was the town's mechanical expert.   In his memoir, Sixty Years In Southern California, covering the years 1853 through 1913, Harris Newmark believed that Chapman had built the mill, although he also correctly recalled that Stearns had owned the mill some years later. (Newmark p87).   On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times has been declaring Abel Stearns to have been the original builder for more than 125 years; see for example several articles cited and annotated in the Acknowledgments page.

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