Balls Mills was once a hub of production
COGAN STATION — In the modern Lycoming County/Williamsport area, it’s easy to get to the town of Balls Mills. Take Market Street away from the Susquehanna River, and eventually the road ends in Balls Mills, according to Greg Thomas, the archivist for the Blooming Grove Historical Society.
The town was named for an English settler named John Ball.
“(He) came to this country from England in 1793 and settled near Hillsgrove. There he built a saw mill,” John Meginness recounted in the “History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.”
Sadly, John Ball, “accidentally drowned the same year while bathing. He left four children.”
The children’s names were Anne, John, William and “Mary, the fourth, died young.”
It was William Ball who built several mills in the area and, according to Meginness, William Ball was born, Sept. 21, 1788, married Catherine Weisel in 1811.
“William settled at Balls Mills some years after he was married. In 1818, he commenced to build on what is known as the ‘Home Site,’ at Ball’s Factory, and the next year he settled there. (That) same fall he started a fulling mill. Some years afterwards he built a clover mill and ran it four or five years. In 1838 the woolen factory was erected, and in 1840 he built a saw mill for his oldest son Isaac at Ball’s Mills, two miles and a half above the ‘Home Site’,” Megginess said. He added that, “Before this, in 1831 or 1832, he built the saw mill at the old home. He said that the clover mill paid the best of any of his investments.” It allowed him to own almost 900 acres of Balls Mills.
In the 1901 book “Blooming Grove”, author Joseph McMinn details how the locals “would wash and shear sheep, work the wool, spin it, carry the cloth to Ball’s Mills to be fulled, and make it up into garments.” Thomas explained that Balls Mills would be known for manufacturaing the Ball Grain Cradle that was used for collecting grain.
Meginness explained that John Ball’s grandson, Samuel, “commenced the manufacture of grain cradles in 1847, and in 1866 he made his first shipment to St. Louis. In 1867 he built a cradle factory, and in 1868 he shipped thirty dozen. After this he always made his largest sales in the West, but he also sold cradles in smaller numbers all over the country.”
McMinn explained that Samuel Ball “first hunted in the woods for the naturally crooked sticks for the snaths and fingers, but when the demand for his contrivance became so great he bent them by a steam box and form. These grain cradles are yet manufactured by the Balls and shipped to various parts of our land.”
According to information from the Blooming Grove Historical Society, at the turn of the 20th century, “a Ball Cradle could be found in every barn in the area. They were used to cut grain around stumps, fence rows and apple trees long after the horse drawn reaper and binder were used on larger fields.”
Meginness would live to be 70 years old and die in December of 1890.
“He passed away within sight of the house where he was born,” Meginness said. The author went on to say that the cradle shop became a “large and well equipped factory (and) many of the best and most useful devices in the establishment were of his own invention.”
Meginness praised Samuel Ball for not being focused “alone (on) his own interests during his lifetime.”
“(He) faithfully served the community as well. He was a member of the school board for eighteen years, most of this time acting as secretary, and contributed much to build up the excellent public schools in the township,” Meginness said.
Thomas said this was typical of the type of people that lived in Balls Mills.
“The people of Balls Mills are real good people. They’re the kind of who help each other and assist whenever they’re a tragedy,” Thomas said. “Whatever needs to be done, they assist each other.”
However, Thomas mentioned the members of the Balls Mills community knew when to have fun.
“Of course there’s the Balls Mills Naval Academy,” Thomas said with a laugh. He guessed around World War I a resident of Balls Mills attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
“(His friends from Balls Mills) wanted to make sure he wasn’t too big for his britches, as they say, so they ceated a sign that said ‘The Balls Mills Naval Academy,” Thomas said with a laugh. He pointed out the absurdity that anything having to do with the United States Navy would be in the landlocked Central Pennsylvania.
He said that the local Methodist Church in Balls Mills will still sells shirts and hats with “Balls Mills Naval Academy” on it.
“It just goes to show the sense of humor they had,” he said.