St. Helena, California

Bale Grist Mill

All 46 Feet of waterwheel

Text from the brochure:

Dr. E.T. Bale's Grist Mill as an important part of the California scene in the mid-to-late 1800s.  This milling operation was a focal point for the settlement of the Napa Valley, whose economy during this period centered on the production of wheat and its milling into flour.  The mill's buildings served as the location for  political meetings and social activities; the individuals connected with the mill were influential and respected members of the community.  Early mills in general were mechanical marvels of the day.  Indeed, they played an essential role in the beginning of America's great industrialization.  The Bale Grist Mill was perhaps the most imposing of California's mills with its immense wooden overshot waterwheel, said to be the largest in the United States.

The Man

Dr. Edward Turner Bale, an English physician and surgeon, was one of the few survivors of the wreck of the Harriett off Monterey in 1837.  He had come to California from England to start a new life.  Having demonstrated his skill as a physician, Bale was employed by General Mariano Vallejo as Surgeon-In-Chief of the Mexican army.  As such, Bale traveled between Monterey and San Francisco building his reputation as a man of medicine.  He soon became a famous and infamous figure on the early California scene.  By several accounts, Bale's temperament was erratic, and he was often quarrelsome.

In spite of Bale's reputation, he was acceptable to the Vallejo family for, in addition to appointing Bale surgeon for the Army; General Vallejo had no objection to Bale's marriage to his niece, Maria Ignacia Soberanes.  Dr. Bale became a full citizen of Mexico in March 1841, and in June of that year, with Vallejo's assistance, he was conveyed a grant of four square leagues of land in the upper Napa Valley.  His 17,962 acre grant comprised the Napa Valley north form George Yount's Caymus grant.  Dr. Bale turned his attention to his holding s in the Napa Valley, where an adobe had already been constructed by Bale in the mid-1840s.  The adobe was located six miles south of Grist Mill near the west end of Whitehall Lane, about a mile north of Rutherford.  We have firsthand description of the Bale adobe from James Clyman, the famous mountain man who recorded his July 1845, visit to the Napa Valley in his diary.  It is quoted here with Clyman's original spellings and grammar:

Left Mr. Younts... Took a northern direction up the vally of the creek on which Mr Younts mills are situated 5 or 6 miles abouve passed the farm hous of Dr Bales this hous looked desolate Enough standing on a dry plane near a dry Black volcanic mountain allmost destitute of vegitute of vegitation no fields garden or any kind of cultivation to bee seen and about 10 to 12 Indians lying naked in the scorching sun finished the scenery of the rural doman.

The Mill

The reason for the seeming neglect of his adobe may have been the fact that the doctor was involved in the building of two mills, a sawmill and a grist mill.  Bale has erected a small grist mill on his property as early as 1840, but nothing as ambitious as the project he was about to undertake.  Bale's first grist mill used Indian labor to work a small operation consisting of rotary querns (stones).  Dr. Bale's new mill would be mechanized.  Sometime between 1843 and 1845, Bale contracted with Ralph Kilburn to construct the new grist mill.  Kilburn did not complete the project for lack of a sufficient sluice to carry water to the mill.  Thomas Kittle mans completed the remaining portion of the mill in 1846 or 1847.  Florentine Kellogg did the ironwork for the mill and was given 600 acres of land for his efforts.  Kellogg's house still stands across Mill Creek from the mill on this land.  When the mill was completed, it had a 20-foot waterwheel.  However, this wheel apparently did not provide enough power during dry summers and was replaced in the early 1850s by the larger 36-foot waterwheel, which can be seen today.  Both waterwheels were "overshot" with the water entering form the top of the wheel.  Water for the mill was diverted from Mill Creek via a ditch and wooden flume system.  Grinding stones were originally of local stone, but were later replaced by French stones of a superior quality. Originally, wooden cogs operated the mill, but they were later replaced by more durable iron gears.  According to the contemporary account of George Tucker, an early valley settler, the wooden cogs made a considerable racket, although he gives no account of a reduction of noise with the change to iron gears.

The year 1846 was to have greater significance for the valley than simply the completion of Bale's Grist Mill.  In that year, the Bear Flag Revolt took place.  While Dr. Bale's connection with the actual revolt is uncertain (he was not in the party which captured Sonoma), there is evidence that the Bear Flag Party held a meeting at the mill just before the capture of Sonoma.  It is also known that several of Bales' acquaintances were in the Bear.

Two sets of Grinding Stones
The Grinding Stones

Flag Party, including Harrison Pierce, the Bale Mill's first miller; Ralph Kilburn, who constructed a portion of the grist mill and the Bale sawmill' John Conn, who made the first millstones for Bale; and David Hudson, who worked at the Bale sawmill.

The mill must have been a center of attention in the upper Napa Valley in the mid-1800s. not only because of its spectacular size and the amount of noise it generated; but also because wheat production was on the increase, and such a facility for flour milling would have been significant.  The position of miller was well respected, and the Bale Mill's millers appear to have been individuals of stature in the community.

Mill Changes

In 1848, Dr. Bale forsook the Napa Valley's golden grain and went off to the Mother Lode to join the rust for the precious yellow metal, gold.  It is said that he contracted a fever there from which he never recovered, dying on October 9, 1849, at the age of 38.

Following Bale's death, his widow Maria Ignacia Bale was left with the track of managing the estate.  Dr. Bale had always been "land poor" and in fact, had often used land in payment for services rendered him.  His family was financially pressed after his death.  To his sons he left his cattle, since cattle at the time were of greater value, and to his daughters he left tracts of land to act as their dowries.  Upon one such tract of land, Caroline Bale and her husband Charles Krug planted grapes.  Thus viticulture began as an industry in the valley.

The family retained possession of the Grist Mill and in 1850, Mrs. Bale entered into an agreement with Leonard Lillie to convert the mill into one better adapted to custom service.  It was Lillie who installed the present 36-foot overshot wheel replacing the 20-foot wheel, and who installed a conveyor system and built a bolting and threshing machine.

In 1860, the Bale family sold the mill to Ralph Ellis and Edward Irwin.  To the misfortune of the new owners, a drought struck the valley from 1863-65, drastically curtailing not only the mil's water supply but also its grain supply. Ellis and Irwin installed a steam engine to power the grindstones and soon after, in 1868, sold the mill to William T. Sawward for $7,500.  Three years later, the mill again changed hands, having been purchased by the Reverend Theodore B. Lymand for $10,000. Lyman bought the mil land surrounding acreage as much to protect the water rights of the property ha had acquired on the other side of the creek as to own the mill.  In 1879, the great overshot wheel powered the millstones for the last time. In the 1880s the Lymans installed a water turbine, but the mill could not compete with newer, larger mills nearby.  Around 1905, the mill was used commercially for the last time.

Each cog is handmade of wood.
Each cog is handmade of wood!

Historic Landmark

In 1972, Bale's Grist Mill was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.  And in 1974 it was conveyed to the California State Park System for preservation and eventual restoration as Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park.  The California Department of Parks and Recreation summarized the wished of the people who brought about the preservation of the mill with a legal Declaration of Purpose for the park which stated: The Bale Grist Mill with associated building and grounds has been acquired to provide for the preservation of this unique structural complex which is reminiscent of the area's settlements by the interpretation of their way of life, their technical skills and their accomplishments as influential factors in the development of the agricultural, commercial and social fabric of the state.


Complex historical studies, research, drawings, archeological investigations, and engineering reports were sifted through and sorted out in an effort to come up with a plan for historical authenticity for the mill- one which would allow actual operation to occur for visitors to the site.  it was soon realized that the restoration efforts would cost several hundred thousand dollars and require years of work.  After allocating available funds for the mill, the State of California was still lacking the necessary funds for the restoration of the mill's interior.  The California State Parks Foundation, a non-profit corporation, chartered to receive gifts from donors in support of the State Park System, stepped in with the public appeal for funds to enable the long-sought dream of making the mill operation, By the fall of 1980, the goal for $100,000 to restore the interior of the Bale Grist Mill to operating condition had been achieved.

The restoration effort itself required that the mill structure come down piece by piece, with each piece being labeled and checked for damage.  Once the entire structure was dismantled, the restoration specialists began the painstaking process of reassemble, replacing any damaged timber and panels with identical copies.  Replacement timbers were hand-hewn so that they would resemble their original counterparts.  The restoration effort was not without its twist of irony.  Massive 12"x12" redwood timber were needed for the Mill foundation.  These timbers were salvaged from redwoods, which had been vandalized in State Parks along the Northern California coastal belt.  By their re-utilization, they were indeed preserved for future generation!  Gradually as months went by, the new mill took form- an accurate industrial artifact of a generation past, restored for future enlightenment of countless thousands of visitors. Schematic of the Grist Mill

Nearby Motorcycle Roads:

Moments south of here in St. Helena is Spring Mountain Road.  Combine it with Trinity Road and you'll have yourself a loop.  Due east is Howell Mountain Road up to the tiny town of Angwin.  

Eastward on Silverado Trail will connect up with Highway 128 over to Lake Berryessa.

Due west of the Bale Grist Mill is the Bohemian Highway and Fort Ross Road over to Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean.

Northwest on Highway 128 runs past Geysers Road, on up to Stewarts Point - Skaggs Spring Road - The Holy Grail of Motorcycledom.



Nearby Parks & Camping:

Bothe-Napa Valley State Park
1242 Acres with 1600 ft of elevation change
4 Miles north of St. Helena on Highway 29 /128
50 Campsites  707-942-4575