The Old Mill: El Molino Viejo

I know Pasadena isn’t the sort of place you usually associate with the desert or with the Old West, but in fact the area played a major role in California’s Spanish period.


Spain’s interest in California began early – In 1542 Iberian navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was sailing north along the coast of Mexico. He was seeking the mythical Strait of Anián (the Northwest Passage) for Spain.


Manila galleons sailed up and down the coast, but settlement didn’t really get underway until the Russians started colonizing the west coast from Alaska down to San Francisco. Then the race was on. Part of the issue was that the people living there didn’t want to be settled and put up a lot of violent resistance. The other problem was that the Spanish couldn’t see what was worth having in the least hospitable part of their empire.


But 200+ years later, they made their move. Mission San Diego de Alcalá was founded in San Diego Bay on July 1, 1769. The Spanish knew all about missions (and their disastrous effects) from years of experiments in New Mexico and Arizona, as well as what is now Mexico. So on September 8, 1771, under Fr. Serra's direction, Fathers Pedro Cambón and Joseph de la Somera founded the San Gabriel Arcángel, the fourth California Mission.


Folks, I got a little obsession with the missions that I trace back to fourth grade and making sugar cube ruins in California History class, and that got me over to the Old Mill.


Here’s what they say about themselves:


Completed about 1816 as a grist mill for Mission San Gabriel, the original two-story structure measured 53 by 26 feet. It is the oldest commercial building in Southern California. The lower walls are five feet thick and are composed of oven-baked brick and volcanic tuff, while the walls of the upper level are built of layers of sun-dried adobe slabs. Rafters, ceiling, and beams are made of local pine and sycamore; the roof is tiled. The whole surface of the building is covered with mortar made from lime derived from burnt sea shells, and additional strength is supplied by buttresses supporting three corners. These were needed not

only as reinforcement against earthquakes, but also to counteract the vibration of the machinery.


The present entrance room (with its collection of antique paintings and furnishings) served as the Grinding Room of the mill. Here the heavy millstones ground the grain harvested on the mission lands. A set of millstones, discovered by General George Patton during his childhood in this area, has been preserved on the patio.(those millstones might not have been that hard to find – Mrs. Jeanne Carr was using one as her front step in 1917) 

The upper room on the top level originally was used as the Granary, where the milled grain was stored. The California Art Club maintains a gallery where outstanding paintings are displayed for sale. The

exhibitions change every three months.


On the western side of the building can still be seen the structural outlines of a water tank. This provided the energy to operate the machinery. The water flowed through the mill eastward through a ditch to Mission Lake, dammed by the padres. The lake area is now known as San Marino’s Lacy Park.


The small room on the west side of the building next to the cisterns was formed from part of the old cistern and serves as the Foundation’s office.


Downstairs there is a small historical display featuring an operating model of the mill as it was in the early days. This pictorial display chronicles the life of the Mill since 1816 and the families who have called it home.

Outside of the Mill is an attractive, well maintained garden highlighting native California trees and plants. The centerpiece of the garden is the Pomegranate Patio where many civic, educational, and organizational events are held during the spring and summer months."


The mill itself was only in operation for about 7 years. One of the remarkable things about the design is that the water wheel was mounted horizontally, not vertically.


This story appeared in Pasadena, California, Historical and Personal by John Windell Wood, 1917:  


“Here is a story of the Old Mill which is believed by many persons An old German miller and his son who once devoted themselves to grinding out grain from its rumbling stones kept their gold and other valuables hidden in the mill During an Indian raid a long long time ago these millers fearing the Indians might loot the premises took their valuables out to an oak tree at Oak Knoll and secretly buried them under it marking the tree carefully Both of the men were killed by the Indians it is said in a skirmish that followed As no one knew just where the gold was buried it has never been found but many have hunted and dug under numerous oak trees since hoping to uncover it."


Careful, Desert Rats… Why on earth would a couple of German fellas be working the mill? And how much gold could they possibly have? This story is fishy, but every couple of decades it crops up again… (Apparently, when reconstruction started in 1927, there were pick marks in all the floors and walls from would-be treasure hunters) Course, maybe once upon a time, some San Marino homeowner was puttin' in a swimming pool, found the gold and no one ever heard the tale… But buried treasure or not, el Molino Viejo is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. 



1120 Old Mill Rd,

San Marino, CA 91108


~ by ravenjake on July 5, 2009.

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