The run of the mill

2009-11-25 00:00

THE mill at Reichenau Mission between Bulwer and Underberg is up and running once again, producing stone-ground wheat, rye and maize flours just as it did when first built in the late 19th century.

The mill stands on a cliff above the Polela river, the waters of which power the turbine running the belt system that works the milling machinery. First commissioned in 1896, the impressive stone-constructed mill looked set to run as long as the river flowed but the advent of the hammer mill combined with a public favouring refined flours made the stone-grinding process redundant and the mill fell into disuse.

In 1986, a group of architectural students, under the leadership of heritage architect Robert Brusse, did restoration work on the mill building in preparation for the centenary of the mission’s founding. Only a year later, exceptional flood levels on the Polela swept away the turbine house at the water’s edge, scattering its stone blocks down the river.

Occasional initiatives over the years to restore the mill came to naught, but then, in 2006, Durban-based engineer Peter Frow happened to visit the mission station. “The mill was derelict,” he recalls. “There was junk lying all around.” But the ingenious design was enough to gain any engineer’s admiration. “It was purely mechanically driven, there was no electricity at all. A water turbine at the bottom of the gorge provided power to run the mill via an endless cable to the mill house at the top of the gorge.”

Frow then assembled a group of fellow engineers to do an assessment. “We found that all the working parts were here.” At the beginning of 2007, a group of volunteers began the work of restoring. This was done by means of work parties which took place about once a month. “Over three years, the mill has gradually been restored.” Subsequently, a trust has been set up to oversee all restoration work at the mission.

The first commercial milling was done last weekend using the two sets of grindstones — one set for wheat and rye, the other for maize.

Grant Hazell, the marketing man on the restoration project, believes the mill can run profitably producing stone-ground flour. “We plan to sell to artisan bakers and commercial bakers, as well as health shops and other specialist food outlets,” he says.

Fritz Kellerman, who has been appointed full-time mill manager, is equally keen: “The big thing with stone- ground flour is that all the nutrients are left in the flour.”

According to Frow, running the mill commercially will also help fund further restoration. The project has already attracted attention, winning two awards — the Hot Dip Galvanizers Association of Southern Africa award in the Community Development Category and another from the provincial heritage body Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali.

The volunteers for the restoration project come mainly from Durban, Howick and Underberg. While they have donated time and their skills, others have donated materially. “Thanks to the co-operation and generosity of many suppliers, missing or unserviceable parts ranging from electric cables to drive belts, electric motors, butterfly valves, bearings and many other items were donated to the project,” says Frow.

“We haven’t modified anything, apart from bronze bearings being replaced with modern equivalents that are maintenance free. Also, the old leather belts have been replaced with modern belts having a high-strength core sandwiched between leather facings. The leather surfaces have been stained brown to look like the original belts.

“There wasn’t a monumental amount of work to do on the mill itself,” says Frow, “but the turbine took a huge amount of work.”

Weighing some two tons, and accessible only by a steep flight of rough stone stairs to the bottom of the gorge, it was impossible to do the necessary repair work on site or to remove it manually. Enter the South African Air Force which sent a helicopter to lift the damaged machinery to a place where it could be loaded onto a lorry for transport to an engineering works in Pinetown. Here, the precision work of replacing the bearings and machining damaged parts could be performed much more easily and efficiently.

In the meantime, the mill was equipped with an electric motor so that it could be commissioned while the turbine was being repaired and the original stone turbine tower was replaced with an open metal-frame structure. “This is more likely to resist flooding,” says Frow. “The previous tower relied on the weight of the stone to keep it in place. When the foundations were washed away it just collapsed like the Twin Towers in Manhattan.”

The new structure has also been designed to house a generator which will produce electricity from water power for the mission station. “It will be driven by the same turbine that drives the mill,” says Frow. “ Eskom bills are high — around R3 000 a month. We aim to halve that.” A 30-kilowatt generator would really help.

• If you would like to assist the Reichenau Mill Restoration project in any way, contact Peter Frow at 084 401 2674, e-mail

Reichenau mission and its mill

REICHENAU was the first daughter station of the Trappist monastery of Mariannhill near Durban, and the site was selected by Abbot Francis Pfanner both for its practicality and for the “bewitching and highly romantic waterfall by which we have built our dwelling”. Built in 1887, Pfanner named the new foundation Reichenau after the oldest monastery north of the Alps.

Having had little success with their missionary endeavours north of the Thukela, the Trappists were keen to try their luck elsewhere so they reacted positively to an appeal from Chief Sakayedwa to start a school in his lands along the Polela. A thousand acres was duly bought from the chief.

A decision was made to build a substantial water mill to be sited on the cliff above the river and for a double-storey structure at the river’s edge to house the turbine that would drive the grindstones. Brother Nivard Streicher did the necessary survey work and relayed this data to the firm of Ferdinand Krause at Neuss am Rhein in Germany. By 1894, they had prepared detailed drawings of the mill and had manufactured the necessary machinery which was then shipped out to Durban and then on to Reichenau by ox wagon. The mill was then constructed under the able supervision of Strei­cher.

Although Streicher was trained as a carpenter before becoming a monk, it is not thought he had any training in architectural design. Despite this he was the driving force in the architectural studio at Mariannhill for 40 years, designing buildings for various mission stations around the province, including the impressive neo-Gothic church at Reichenau. He also had an innate talent for engineering. “He could design anything from a cathedral to a sewerage plant, with a mill in between.

“The mill was part of the Trappist missionary strategy to establish self-sufficient communities with a bakery, a blacksmith and so on,” says Peter Frow of the Reichenau Mill Restoration Project. “The original site was selected by Pfanner so they could build a mill here.”

The water mill has three floors. On the top floor, large timber hoppers store the produce brought there via an ingenious lift system worked by a combination of water power and gravity.

From this floor, the maize or other grain products descend to the two pairs of mill stones and thereafter pass through a series of sieves to the bagging station.

The lowest floor houses the belt system that works the millstones, the sieves and the lift. The system is run by the power generated by the turbine at the river’s edge.

A canal carries water from the Polela under the mill building to a mill pond at the top of the cliff. A large steel pipe takes the water down to the turbine from where it then flows back into the river.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.