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Reliving the Life and Memories of the Gristmill

Updated on December 12, 2017
kenneth avery profile image

Kenneth is a rural citizen of Hamilton, Ala., and has begun to observe life and certain things and people helping him to write about them.

 Grist Mill Creek Reflections in Babcock State Park, West Virginia.
Grist Mill Creek Reflections in Babcock State Park, West Virginia. | Source

Forgive me. I’ve never attempted a work of this category, place, or social contribution. But you can believe me. The Gristmill was without question, the most important segment of any settlement in the Early South. Many of these sturdy images of our National History are still standing although just the shape and frame of what used to be a busy flow of customers and friends now stands for young people’s curiosity to spark questions like: What on earth is a Gristmill?

One time in my life at age seven, I too plead guilty to asking this same question by my dad on one Saturday morning, or when it was known as “Mill Day,” by the gristmill’s owner who called the shots. Now you have a complex question: which was the more important, the miller or the gristmill? Not as glamorous as the question asked in a lot of Parlors, but still, the gristmill stood for a lot more than just a sight-seeing location.

Most gristmills were built from the natural resources that were available in the settlement. With the abundance of trees, the logical choice for building materials would be trees that were available in various genres—Oak, Cherry, Hickory and even Pine. All were easily cut and trimmed into lumber to construct homes, store buildings, and gristmills.

Although the gristmill originated and grew prosperous in the Early South, historians say that the gristmill a mechanismil (also: grist mill, corn mill or flour mill) grinds grain into flour. The term can refer to both the mill and the building that holds it—ran many times continuously throughout certain harvesting times of America’s farmland that really started to boom when corn began to be ground and the meal from the corn, which came in yellow or white, was made into cornbread and biscuits—depending on how fine the corn was ground.

A series of heavy millstones were adjoined one on top of the other had sharp ridges on the inside of the wheels for the gristmill’s customers to have their corn ground into meal or flour and the choice of either could be adjusted by a series of smaller wheels that kept the wheels from being heavier or lighter to meet the customer’s needs. When gristmills became as specialized as the town’s barber or doctor, a Master Miller could stand to make a lot of money if he knew the inner-works of the millstones. Some Millers worked freelance and when the harvest was finished and the customers’ meal and flour were milled, the Miller simply moved on to another settlement where he started up another gristmill.

Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight as early as in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The first recorded North American gristmill was built in Jamestown, Va., in 1621. Most gristmills depended on the mill building being located on a pond or with a waterfall to help the huge water wheel turn causing the millstones to turn and the speed and depth of the corn or meal were adjusted by the Miller. This is why gristmills and Millers were both the “toast of the town” as well as being a man who was always in high-demand.

 Historical gristmill stone donated by Centerport-Greenlawn Historical Society.
Historical gristmill stone donated by Centerport-Greenlawn Historical Society. | Source

Historical records show that where a successful gristmill operated, the town or settlement began to grow and this begat general stores, a post office, doctor’s office, a school house and church building. So the gristmill was very deceptive as that as only being a historical relic as some have seen them in 2017. (There are two photos on this commentary that are from Hamilton, Ala.,) when Ford’s Mill began to prosper back when Hamilton was previously named as Toll-Gate, but Capt. A.J. Hamilton, donated 100 or more acres after the Civil War to make sure that Hamilton would be established then and now.

Students in a farm mechanics class at an agricultural school in Hamilton, Alabama ca. 1900 (Alabama Department of Archives and History--this was the direct result of Ford's Mill, Hamilton, the most-prosperous of the town's businesses.
Students in a farm mechanics class at an agricultural school in Hamilton, Alabama ca. 1900 (Alabama Department of Archives and History--this was the direct result of Ford's Mill, Hamilton, the most-prosperous of the town's businesses. | Source

What most people do not realize is that the town gristmill was not only considered as the town’s leading industry due to the amount of grain being milled this increase in business meant that the Miller might hire an apprentice to help with the workload. But the town’s gristmill was also the central area of town where the town’s leading citizens—town leaders, merchants, farmers, all good friends, would gather to get in line to have their grain milled and when these men’s grain was being ground, the men would always strike up a lively discussion about town business or politics and that could lead to heated arguments, but all in all, the townspeople depended on the Miller and the gristmill, not just for their livelihood, but for the livelihood of the town.

In some towns in the south and in some northern states, a few gristmills are still standing and the town or community leaders voted to make the gristmill a historical site. In many ways, the gristmill paved the way for progress and prosperity through the gristmill.

Scene at White Rock, Hamilton AL. This area is still standing and mostly-unchanged. The couples in this photo were the children of some of Hamilton, Alabama's, most-prestigious town leaders and merchants.
Scene at White Rock, Hamilton AL. This area is still standing and mostly-unchanged. The couples in this photo were the children of some of Hamilton, Alabama's, most-prestigious town leaders and merchants. | Source

© 2017 Kenneth Avery

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    • kenneth avery profile image
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      Kenneth Avery 3 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Greetings, RoadMonkey -- a mill, what's in a name? Love your comment and work. Appreciate you coming by and you can write me anytime.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 3 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, whonunuwho -- are you serious? First off, thanks for the super-nice comment. I mean it. Your mentions of Troy State reminds me of a guy who graduated there prior to 1979, Les Walters, or his full name: James Lesley Walters, "Les," as we call him.

      Would you mind terribly to email me through the Fan Mail section on my Profile page and tell me your name and I promise, this will be in complete confidence.

      Thanks.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 3 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, William -- many thanks to you for your great comment. I am going to do my best on putting more of these pieces on HP. I published three or four about plowing a mule and cutting firewood, I think, but thanks for the reminder.

      Write me soon.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 3 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Kari -- I appreciate you so much. Thank you for your lovely comment. I wish that I had been born prior to the birth of gristmills. What a wonderful invention.

      Write me soon.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 5 months ago from Ohio

      Great article on gristmills! People would come from all around to get their grain milled. No wonder towns sprang up around them.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 5 months ago from Hollister, MO

      Very well done. A neat contribution!! Thank you for sharing this. I'd like to see more of these. ;-)

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 months ago from United States

      Hey Kenneth. Great information about the importance of Grist mills. I really enjoyed this. I attended Southern Union in Wadley, Al. and Troy State University in Troy, Al. in the seventies. I got the courage to go further in my studies and received my Masters and Specialist later. I grew up in those parts and it means a lot to see this work you have shared. Blessings to all and Merry Christmas, my friend. whonu

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 5 months ago

      Enjoyed this. In the UK, I think we are more likely to call this a mill but the term gristmill can also be used. I would hear the term "grist to the mill" quite often.

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