The Gristmill: Creating Meal, Flour & Roads

The Gristmill: Producing Meal, Flour & Roads

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An old gristmill sitting beside a placid millpond, its water wheel rotating at a stately pace. It’s an iconic image of simplicity and serenity. (Pictured above is Yates Mill in Wake County, built 1756.) But in their day, mills were complex, high-tech machines. When in operation, a gristmill broadcast across the bucolic countryside a clanking, groaning, grinding din that could be heard for miles. And although the mill itself was stationary, gristmills were responsible not only for traffic, but for the very roads down which that traffic traveled – then and now. Colonial mills created many of the roads we still drive on today.

For want of a gristmill...

The first gristmill in North America may have been built in 1621 in the Jamestown colony of Virginia. And when, in the latter part of the 1600s, colonists began to migrate south into the Albemarle region of present-day North Carolina, they brought with them the desire to establish gristmills where they settled. But the skills needed to construct a gristmill – those of a millwright – were scarce. By the eighteenth century, gristmills would be a common site in North Carolina, but in early colonial times, there were few millwrights and few mills.

When Baron Christolph Von Graffenreid arrived from Switzerland in 1710 to establish the town of New Bern, he remarked on the lack of gristmills in the colony:

…there was, in the whole province, only one wretched mill; the wealthiest people used handmills, and the poorer class are obliged to pound their grain in mortars made of oak, rather tree-stocks which are dug out, and instead of sifting it in a regular sieve, they shake it barely in a kind of basket, which operation, of course, occasions much loss of time…

Wheat and corn of home production were indeed in the greatest profusion, but meal and flour of home production for want of mills were both scarce in quantity and poor in quality.

…with all their abundance of Indian corn and English wheat, the people of Albemarle depended upon the New England skippers for flour and meal, even though, as was complained, some of the flour was no better than ballast…

The simple gristmill was high technology.

The gristmill is, to the modern eye, an exquisitely simple piece of machinery. Water from a stream or millpond is directed either over or under a wheel, causing the wheel to turn. Through a set of gears and/or pulleys, that rotation is transferred to a pair of heavy stone disks with a pattern of grooves etched into the facing surfaces. When grain or corn is introduced between these two millstones, the grinding action of one stone against the other crushes the raw materials into finer an finer particles, eventually resulting in either meal or flour.

Simple it might seem to us, but in colonial times, a gristmill was one of the most complex technological systems around. And a millwright – the man who could build it – was one of the most  skilled craftsmen in the colonies. He brought to the task the skills of a carpenter, joiner, mason, stone cutter, blacksmith, wheelwright, hydraulic engineer, and surveyor. There were no kits or parts available, so early on, almost every part of the mill was made by the millwright – often self-educated – from raw materials at the site. (Once the mill was built, its day-to-day operation was handled by a miller, who brought to his work a valuable, but more specialized, set of skills.)

An 1804 set of plans for a gristmill
An 1804 set of plans for a gristmill

Sir William Fairbairn, a millwright of the late 19th century, described earlier millrights in his “Treatise on Mills and Millwork”:

…the millwright of the late centuries was an itinerant engineer and mechanic of high reputation. He could handle the axe, the hammer, and the plane with equal skill and precision…he could set out and cut in the furrows of a millstone with an accuracy equal or superior to that of the miller himself.

Theodore R. Hazen, modern Master Millwright and mill historian, captured the essence of the profession:

The millwright found a good site. Foundation walls were erected. Logs were cut and fashioned into beams, boards, and shingles. Pillars were constructed to support the water wheel shaft. The millwright located a white oak tree for the water wheel shaft. Only the millwright had the knowledge of what woods were best used for various mill parts. The water wheel, gears, and bearings made. Some times stone or wood was used for bearings. Stones bearings were lubricated with either water or tallow. Wooden bearings were lubricated with tallow. A dam, mill race and or a sluice box was constructed. Finally the mill was ready to be set into operation. The first grain was ground and the mill was tested. No one dared ask the millwright about his work, he went about it in silence, few people were lucky to watch him work, he safe guarded his knowledge and the secrets of his craft. No one dared ask him questions, what he was doing or why, because it is a well know fact that a millwrights spit could kill a toad.

Harris Mill, Vance County, North Carolina
Harris Mill, Vance County

Gristmills as a protective shield

The colonial authorities realized that the establishment of gristmills throughout the colony would stimulate the spread of settlement. And they fully understood that the benefits of pushing English settlement westward were not just economic and political. The colony had been traumatized in 1711 by an uprising of the Tuscarora tribe that left 130 settlers dead. New Bern, the colony’s second largest town, had barely escaped destruction. Having more  settlers farther west in the backcountry would be a show of strength and a protective shield for the coastal populations in case of future hostilities. So if gristmills would entice colonists to that region, then the government would encourage the construction of gristmills. (More, smaller mills scattered throughout the land were preferable to fewer, larger mills because if a mill was more than 10 or 12 miles from a farmer, the trip would require him to be away from his farm overnight.)

Pages Mill (aka Company Mill), Wake County, North Carolina
Pages Mill (aka Company Mill), Wake County

Legislation encouraged the construction of mills.

In 1715, the colony of North Carolina passed “An Act Concerning Roads and Ferries” granting 50 acres of land to anyone who would establish and operate a gristmill. The act also exempted the operators of gristmills and sawmills from paying taxes and from service in the militia. If you wanted to get into the milling business, you didn’t even need to own the land. The 1715 act authorized the Surveyor General to take up to two acres of a property owner’s land and deed it to another man for the purpose of building a mill. The original landowner would be paid a value determined by “four honest men of the neighborhood.” There was a stipulation that land could be taken only if “…no person’s garden or orchard be injured thereby.” The original landowner had the right to resist the taking of his land by declaring that he himself would build a mill and operate it as a public business.

But despite a growing population and a rising demand for flour and meal, the number of gristmills in the colony remained small.

In 1758, the colony enacted legislation with even stronger incentives for colonists to build and operate mills. This act clarified some of the process of taking land in order to build a mill, including that the act could not harm a house or other “immediate convenience.” A petition process was introduced whereby citizens could ask that a mill be built in their area. An in order to protect the business of milling, a two mile buffer was mandated between gristmills. And a miller – but not a mill owner – could be excused from jury duty if he declared under oath that he was too busy.

Wariness of "evil-minded, covetous, and exacting Millers..."

It should come as no surprise that with legislated incentives to build and operate gristmills came oversight. In recognition of their value to society – their “public” character – gristmills were to be regulated by the government. You might say they were among the “essential businesses” of their day.

Statutory rates charged for milling were set at 1/8th part of milled wheat, and at 1/6th part of Indian corn. And with a wary eye on millers who might play favorites or who might be tempted to cut corners, the law admonished:

“And to prevent abuses by evil-minded, covetous, and exacting Millers, or owners of mills; beit enacted…millers shall grind according to turn; and shall well and sufficiently grind the grain to their mill.”

Falling Creek Mill, Catawba County, North Carolina
Falling Creek Mill, Catawba County

Gristmillsills were about more than flour and meal.

Early gristmills provided a valuable service in the grinding of wheat into flour, and corn into meal. But their importance to the community went far beyond milling. A farmer who carried his crop to the mill for grinding would typically have hours to wait, first for his turn in line, and then for the laborious milling process. That turned a mill into a community center where farmers gathered to share information and opinions. Not infrequently, a tavern – also known as an “ordinary” – sprang up near the mill to provide a dram to lubricate the social interaction.

Many gristmills could harness their water power to drive a saw blade for cutting logs into planks. It was only natural for a lumber yard to appear at the scene. And a blacksmith. As more people had business at the mill and ancillary businesses, a community store might be next. Followed by the classic pairing of a jail and a church.

Francis Grist Mill, Haywood County, North Carolina
Francis Mill, Haywood County

Mills and Movement: The transportaion connection

Fascinating as old mills are, you might well be wondering about their place in a blog about transportation and mobility. I’m glad you asked, because gristmills and roads were inextricably linked. It is no fluke that 1715 mill regulations were part of “An Act Concerning Roads and Ferries.”

The process in colonial North Carolina for adding a road to the landscape was through citizen petition. Any citizen (or group of citizens) who saw the need for a road from one point to another could petition the local courts to cause such a road to be created. And one of the most common reasons for colonial road petitions was to create a connection to a gristmill. Sometime the petition came from a mill owner seeking customers, and sometimes it came from citizens needing access to the miller’s services.

So closely linked were gristmills and roads that when the colony granted to a mill the right to build a dam in order to create a millpond, that dam was considered to be a bridge across the stream. A mill owner was required by law to maintain the dam a minimum of 12 feet wide at the top so that it could serve as a roadway.  (According to one historian, this law is still on the books in North Carolina.)

And one final connection: The earliest use of eminent domain in North Carolina to seize private land for public use was very likely carried out under the 1715 “An Act Concerning Roads and Ferries,” whereby property could be taken to create a road or to build a gristmill.

Photos of Falling Creek Mill, Harris Mill, & Pages Mill courtesy The Library of Congress.

Photo of Francis Mill courtesy The Francis Mill Preservation Society.

An invaluable resource for information on early mills is Stewart E. Dunaway’s book Historical Overview of Road, Bridge, Ferry and Mills in North Carolina, published by Lulu Press.

For a fascinating glimpse at the trade of millwright in colonial times, see Master Millwright Theodore R. Hazen’s page: A Mill-Wright Miscellany or Mills and the Trades Necessary for their Construction, Repair and Operation 200 years ago

If you are looking for information on the mills pictured on this page, here are some options:

Yates Mill Associates

The Francis Mill Preservation Society

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