Old-fashioned mills grind grain and preserve history
The splash of water pushing the paddles on the wooden water wheel at War Eagle Mill, near Rogers, Ark. (pop. 38,829), has been a welcome sound for more than 175 years, bringing with it the promise of buttered biscuits and fresh-from-the-oven cornbread.
“People have a connection to the mill,” says Doug Walsh, 34, manager of the water-powered gristmill, which has ground wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal along War Eagle Creek since 1832. “People love the experience of coming here—the wood floors and the mill with the creek in the background really creates a homey feeling.”
Homesteader Sylvanus Blackburn put down roots in the fertile War Eagle Valley in 1832 and built War Eagle Mill to serve neighboring farmers. Floods washed away his first mill in 1838, then Confederate soldiers torched his second mill during the Civil War so Union soldiers couldn’t use it. The family’s third mill accidentally burned in 1924, but 50 years later, the Jewel Medlin family rebuilt the mill on its original foundation.
As it has since pioneer days, water from the creek strikes the bottom of an 18-foot undershot water wheel that powers pulleys, belts and gears to turn the massive 30-inch-diameter French buhrstones, which grind the grain.
“The stones wear very little because they only touch the grain,” says miller Stephen Burgess, 52, while feeding yellow corn kernels into the hopper above the rumbling millstones.
“The oil is still in the corn, and the germ is still in the wheat,” Burgess says about the slow, stone-grinding process that preserves the grains’ nutrients and flavors.
Paula Henry, 44, of Bella Vista, Ark. (pop. 16,582), loves the taste and texture of the mill’s buckwheat flour, which she uses in a dozen varieties of crepes served from her traveling gourmet food trailer, Crepes Paulette. “It makes an amazing batter that has elasticity to it,” she says.
Several hundred people wind their way each week on country roads to load up on the freshly ground organic cornmeal and whole wheat, buckwheat and rye flours packed in colorful cotton bags—and to feast on biscuits, cobblers, cornbread and pancakes served at the mill’s Bean Palace Restaurant.
More than 100,000 gristmills such as War Eagle Mill dotted America’s countryside during the 1850s, when farmers needed access to a mill within a day’s travel by horse-drawn wagon.
“Every few miles, if there was water, you’d find a mill,” says Harold Rapp, 75, president of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills. “The mill became a social center, and many of the millers became wealthy people and bankers.” Farmers paid a “toll” in grain for grinding, and the miller, in turn, sold the grain.
“The mill was the gathering place because people came often on a weekly basis to grind their flour,” says Rapp, of Colts Neck, N.J. (pop. 12,331). “They’d wait in line and talk to their neighbors and farmer friends. Children accompanied parents and might have a swim or fish in the millpond.” Printers posted their newspapers on the side of the mill.
At Clifton Mill, perched on a cliff above the Little Miami River in Clifton, Ohio (pop. 179), owner Anthony Satariano displays more than 300 colorful cotton flour sacks printed with names and logos of bygone gristmills.
“We tell the schoolkids, ‘These bags represent places just like this that used to exist,’” says Satariano, 48, who considers himself a care-taker of Ohio history as he keeps the millstones grinding in the 1802 mill.
By the early 1900s, small stone-grinding mills couldn’t compete with larger, more efficient steel roller mills, and most ground to a halt.
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