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Museum & Collections

Great Wheels—A Greene-Dreher Tradition

This walking wheel was used by women of the Stevens family in Angels. It was donated by Marion Phillips, shown above, in 2007.

The walking wheel, also known as a great wheel, was designed for spinning wool. The wheel on display at Peggy Bancroft Hall stands 60 inches high, has a large drive wheel measuring 45 inches in diameter, and a wooden spindle mounted horizontally so it can be rotated by a drive belt. The operator would stand, rather than sit, when spinning. She would load the wool fiber onto the spindle and hold the rest of the supply in her hand. She turned the wheel by hand and drew back the fiber to twist and feed onto the spindle. This method of pulling fiber out to allow it to twist is called “long draw,” and it adds air and loft, creating a warm yarn. As needed, the spinner would walk back from the wheel as the wool was pulled out, giving it the name “walking wheel.” The woolen yarn produced was used for weaving or for knitting. 

The wheel was made in the early 1800s by Moses M. Wright (1788–1849) of Salem Township, Wayne County, and his name is inscribed on the side of the bench. Moses Wright came to Salem with his parents and seven siblings when he was a young boy. The family had left Litchfield, Connecticut, at the urging of Major Theodore Woodbridge who, knowing Nathan Wright to be a master blacksmith, said “the settlers must have a blacksmith and could not do without one, as in those days the plowshares were all made of wrought iron and steel.” The Wright family settled about a mile east of Salem Corners (Hamlin), not far from the Woodbridges. At the time, the “Beechwoods,” as this area was called, was a nearly unbroken wilderness, and the first sawmills and woodturning mills were being built along the Paupack. Moses married Polly Peet and settled on land near his parent’s homestead where he made a variety of wooden products. In Mathew’s History of Wayne, Pike and Monroe Counties, Moses Wright is described as “an ingenious man who made spinning wheels and reels and various other articles needed by the early settlers.” Moses and Polly had no children.

This particular wheel belonged to Ella Mae (Lesher) Stevens (1880–1956) of Angels. Having been made prior to 1850, the wheel was carefully maintained and passed down through generations of women in the family. Ella Mae and her husband, Charles, owned an 87-acre farm on the North-South Turnpike and were, according to the 1927 Agricultural Census, one of the largest producers of dairy and agricultural products in Dreher Township. In addition to milk cows, they raised sheep, laying hens and swine. They had large apple and pear orchards and kept their own beehives. With 500 taps each spring, they made enough maple syrup to sell from their home as well as at local markets and farm stands. Their herd of 10 sheep supplied wool for Ella Mae’s use and perhaps for other local weavers, knitters and quilters as well.

Charles and Ella Mae Stevens raised four children on the homestead and were part of an extended family that had roots in Sterling Township dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Electricity came late to their farm, not until the 1930s, and one can imagine Ella Mae using the walking wheel long after it had gone out of favor with spinners. Although smaller flyer wheels that a spinner could sit at were more commonly used in the 1800s, the great wheel never died out because it was faster and more efficient at spinning woolen yarns. Ella Mae, perhaps with the help of her children, would have fit in the spinning around her many household chores. 

The Stevens wheel is one of three known to have been used in Greene-Dreher in the late 1800s. On December 3, 1863, the inventory for the Gabriel Brown estate lists “1 Spining Wheel and Reel” valued at $4.00. Many years later it was discovered in the attic of the Gabriel and Margaret Brown farmhouse in Angels. It too is inscribed with the name, M. Wright. A third great wheel, not inscribed with a maker’s mark, was owned by Mary Ann (Phillips) Bartleson (1835-1920), also of Angels, and used on the Bartleson farm into the late 1800s.