As the Virgilio brothers embark upon the next chapter of the mill, its storied history of over 230 years should be remembered. What we affectionately know as the Gamble Mill is derived from George M. Gamble who owned and operated the mill between 1901 and 1923. His name still can be seen in bluish lead-paint on the west side of the brick mill today, even after successors like F. M. Mayer painted over it. Gamble was just one influential chapter in the history of the Bellefonte Flouring Mills. While it manufactured grain for the community and abroad from 1786 to 1947, its past, present, and future is as rich as the celebrated “Snow Flake” flour it once produced.
It all started when William Lamb built the water-powered mill in 1786. Lamb’s home, which predates 1785, was also just a stone’s throw away from the mill and is the oldest standing structure in Bellefonte. Before Bellefonte even existed as a town, the village of Lamb’s Crossing was here and the Lamb Street Bridge pays homage to such today. The founders of Bellefonte purchased much of Lamb’s holdings to establish the Borough in 1795. Then, James Smith, the son-in-law of founder Colonel James Dunlop, tried his hand at renovating and running the mill between 1800 and 1809. This is why the area west of Spring Creek was known as Smithfield until it was incorporated into Bellefonte in 1814. The Gamble Mill is at the center of Bellefonte’s earliest west side story.
Another notable chapter in the lineage of the Gamble Mill is when William Ashbridge Thomas purchased it in 1834 and it became known as the Thomas Mill. Like Lamb, Thomas lived in the old “Wren’s Nest” home nearby. Driving to the mill by way of N. Thomas Street today, one can also consider how the ironmaster and Quaker, William A. Thomas, played such a significant role in Bellefonte’s history by aiding the Underground Railroad and donating the land for Bellefonte’s historic African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.
The story of the Gamble Mill cannot be told without the impact of the fire on May 25, 1892. Starting in a large grain warehouse adjacent to the old mill, the blaze awoke the town around 1:30 a.m. and spread to engulf two acres of the waterfront area including the warehouse, a lumberyard, and tragically, Lamb’s Mill. While the footprint and south end of the mill remain from the 1786 gristmill, the building you see today is essentially an 1893 Victorian structure. It’s a testament to the importance of this historic mill that just nine months after the fire, it was producing flour, feed, and grain again.
Even with all of this history in mind, the Gamble Mill would surely not be standing today were it not for the specific efforts of Ted H. Conklin. Like the Lamb and Thomas families, Conklin lives at the same historic “Wren’s Nest/Thomas House.” By 1975, Conklin purchased the site from a beer distributor in the midst of a crisis for the survival of the structure. That same year, Conklin’s efforts not only saved the Gamble Mill from being demolished but succeeded in placing it on the National Register of Historic Places for us to enjoy today. The Gamble Mill lives on!