OUTDOORS: The lost landmarks

Lime kiln finder Ken Miller beside a kiln in Caernarvon Township. (Ad Crable / Staff)

It didn't start out this way.

Kenneth G. Miller, a retired biology professor from Millersville University, needed a hobby and had this nice new digital camera.

So he set out to locate and photograph every butterfly native to Lancaster County. He tracked down about 95 percent of them, too.

But now what?

Miller, 79, always had admired stonework and stone-arch bridges. I know, he said to himself, I'll shoot some of the stone lime kilns I've seen driving around the county.

That was about three years ago, and by Miller's own admission, "Things have almost gotten out of hand."

Since then, the Millersville resident has been on a mission to try to find, photograph and document every one of the historic and handsome -- but vanishing -- lime kilns remaining here.

It's a difficult search operation and often ends in dead ends and disappointment.

The kilns used to be almost as much a fixture on farms in these parts as silos. Burning limestone produced mortar for buildings, a soil fertilizer to counteract the slight acidification of manure, and also provided whitewash protection for barns, homes, even the base of trees.

Any decent-size farm in the limestone belt would have a lime kiln. The lime deposits here extend generally southwest to northeast through the county's middle.

Farmers used hand-cut stone to build the kilns, often into a bank so they could feed the quarried limestone chunks into a bowl chamber on top and retrieve the lime at the bottom.

Various layers of wood or coal were used for the process, which had to be a particular temperature to be effective. It was a dangerous, hot job.

Miller's bible is an 1875 atlas of the county in which some 442 lime kilns are shown with small circles or the letter "LK" on farms.

He has doggedly driven hundreds of miles through the county trying to locate these kilns, one by one, as well as kilns built after 1875 that he hears about.

By now, he knows the kind of places to look for: hillsides or banks of streams.

Often, islands of trees and thick tangles of brush in the middle of an otherwise cleared field might be an abandoned kiln site. He'll stop by the side of the road and scan with binoculars.

Many times, he drives down farm lanes to talk to current landowners to see if they know of kilns on their properties. He's amazed at how many farmers aren't aware of what's on their land or what kilns are. Others ask him if he knows about "the old one up the road."

He even looks over old deeds and studies aerial photos for telltale round circles of stone.

Sadly, most of these landmarks are gone.

So far, Miller has found about 60 kilns in good condition. He's located another 30 or so in various stages of ruin.

He figures he still has about 100 kilns from the atlas to check out. Not all of the ones he's found came from that map, however. He's tracked down some by word of mouth, and a special few he's found just by driving around and looking for likely spots.

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"I call it the thrill of discovery," says Miller of the eureka moments when he finds a kiln.

Unfortunately, some of the ones left are used as dumps. Some have been torn down and the stones used for foundations of buildings.

Sometimes, all Miller finds is a pile of rocks, some of which are blackened from the burning long ago.

The kilns were mostly abandoned after 1910. Portland cement was invented as an easier source of mortar. Machines could pulverize limestone easier than burning it. Paints replaced whitewash.

But there was still enough demand from some Plain Sect farmers who insisted that burned lime was best that one kiln located between Churchtown and Goodville in Caernarvon Township operated until 1971.

Chris Stoltzfus, who burned lime in that kiln, and took an interest in local kilns, has been one of Miller's best sources. Other local historians include Amos Hoover, Harold Ziemer and the late Ivan Glick.

A couple weeks ago, Miller and I set out in a car to investigate three spots from the old atlas and one he'd gotten a tip about.

On our first stop, south of Terre Hill, the road on the old atlas is different from what it is now. We finally get our bearings but there is no sign of any kiln on the landscape.

"See, this is what my life is like," Miller laughs.

Driving along, Miller sees a patch of trees on a hillside in a field. "That would look like a good spot for a kiln," he says. Since he is about to have hip replacement surgery, he turns to me and asks if I'd like to be his bird dog.

Would I?

I scramble over the guard rail and through the fields, mindful of the single-strand electric fence and careful not to trample the soybeans. I feel the same excitement I've had when looking for arrowheads near Washington Boro or Anasazi petroglyphs in Utah.

But the spot turns out to be only a depository of stones cleared from the fields.

As if trying to ferret out the old kilns wasn't arresting enough, Miller couldn't help wondering about the history of lime kilns.

That's taken him many more hours of reading and research.

He learned that burning lime is as old as civilization itself. The oldest lime kiln found to date is one in Jordan that dates to approximately 10,000 B.C.

The Mayans and Aztecs constructed their great temples with lime. The Romans fashioned a new form of concrete by taking lime, volcanic dust and sand to make a mortar that hardens underwater.

The many uses of lime were cemented in this area by German immigrants, who used lime to "sweeten" the soil.

In addition to photographs and plots on a map, Miller takes an oral history from those who have stories to tell involving lime kilns.

One of his favorites is of a Mennonite deacon who lived along the Conestoga River in the eastern end of the county. The deacon prided himself on always being the first to church on Sunday mornings.

One Saturday night around Halloween, a group of boys went to the deacon's farm and quietly removed the wheels from the deacon's buggy, placing them in an old lime kiln.

But they didn't know that each morning, the deacon checked a water wheel on a low-head dam by the kiln. The deacon happened to glance at the kiln on his way, saw the wheels and was still the first to church, much to the chagrin of some of his young parishioners.

What next? Miller still has much more sleuthing to do. But he also realizes if he's ever going to write a book on the kilns of Lancaster County, he's got to get going.

"I have the drafts of a few chapters done," he says. "But just about the time I get into that I find out about a new lead and I'm off on a new bunny trail."

There has been plenty of documentation on mills, covered bridges and barns in Lancaster County, but precious little has been written down about kilns.

He'd also like to see some kind of a nonprofit foundation formed dedicated to the history and preservation -- perhaps restoration -- of lime kilns.

In the meantime, he'll keep on being a history detective.

"It's been a wonderful trip," he says. "It's literally carried me around the world and back in time."


Do you know of a hidden-away lime kiln that Miller might not know about? Or have any old photographs of kilns? Miller would like to hear from you. Call him at 872-8317 or by e-mail at lepman@verizon.net.

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