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Reliving the Life and Memories of the Gristmill
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 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.
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.
© 2017 Kenneth Avery