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Remembering Gristmills

Country MoonIsn’t it strange how sometimes just one little act can lead to an almost forgotten memory? That very thing happened this past week when our grandson Wyatt asked me about helping him with chores. He has two steers and two dairy starter calves that he will take to fair in August.

He asked me to get some grain from the bin while he started the water running. One whiff of that ground feed is all it took for me to visit a sweet memory from my past. When I was growing up, our family raised hogs for market, which meant we had to go to the mill once a week to get feed ground. I usually got to go and that was one “chore” I never minded. I fell in love with feed mills.

Gristmills have been a prominent and colorful part of our past, but they are dwindling in number in recent years. The term "gristmill" can refer to any mill whether it grinds flour, corn or livestock feed. In the 1790s, there were roughly 7,500 mills in the country, but by the 1850s more than 100,000 mills dotted the American countryside.

Water power was the main source of energy for the early mills, which is why most mills are located on the banks of streams or rivers. It was a win-win situation because, as water turned the wheel, oxygen was mixed with the water, which improved the water quality in the streams and rivers for fish and other aquatic life. Eventually electric motors and generators replaced water power.

The early mills had to be plentiful so farmers could haul their grain there by horse and buggy. When motorized vehicles came along, the need for so many mills diminished because folks could drive farther. Something I didn’t realize as a kid is that a gristmill has two separate foundations to prevent the vibrations of the mill machinery from shaking the foundation apart.

Feed mills used to be quite the hub of small towns. People would buy bulk garden seeds, buy and sell their grains, and have custom animal feeds mixed there. Since they went weekly, it was the gathering spot to catch up on gossip and chat with friends and neighbors.

I liked every part of the experience. It never ceased to amaze me that we would haul a load of corn and drive it on the scales to be weighed, then that same scales would raise the truck up and dump the corn in a pit, and later sacks of feed would replace the load of corn on our truck. In the process of grinding the corn, other nutrients and flavorings would be added. Molasses was always mixed into ours, which made it smell heavenly.

The grain would come down a chute and fill bags that were hooked on underneath. When they got full, they were tied with binder twine and loaded on the truck. When we had extra corn or grain that we did not need, we sold it to the mill to pay the miller’s fee for grinding.

This was especially true in midsummer, usually July, when wheat and oats were harvested. Farmers, including us, would harvest the grain all day and fill hopper boxes. Then in the evening we would haul the wagons to the elevator to be dumped and sold. Many a night we would have to wait our turn in line until way past dark. It took quite a while because samples from each load had to be tested for moisture content, weight and any foreign material. It would always be the farmer's worst nightmare that they would find the weevil (a bug that works in grain) and the load would be rejected. As the farmers waited and compared notes on how their harvest was going, all of us kids would drink soda pop and eat ice cream. Some of my most treasured memories are the smell of the newly harvested wheat, catching fireflies and listening to all the farmers talk and joke. It just doesn’t get much better than that!

Sadly, only the shell of one of the mills I went to as a kid remains. The others have all gone by the wayside, as have many. Some of the lucky ones have been restored and converted into unique gift shops and museums. A few have become restaurants.

Leonidas is a small town not far from my home that boasts two mills. The old flour mill, Rawson’s King Mill, sits on the bank of Nottawa Creek and has been restored. Various families have actually lived in it and called it home over the past several years. On the other side of town is the old gristmill. So far, it is in a state of disrepair but I still have hopes that one day someone will see its potential and preserve it.

Many of the mills that are left, whether functional or not, provide serene and scenic subjects for photos and are often painted. Mabry Mill, situated along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Meadows of Dan in Virginia, is the most photographed mill in the United States. Images of the mill have shown up on prints, mugs and many other items.

Gristmills remind us of a quieter, slower pace of life that was somehow richer because people had more time for their friends and neighbors. Maybe it’s time to visit one soon.