Milling Through Generations

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on May 7, 2000

At Sciples Water Mill in Kemper County, Miss., the price of grinding corn and wheat has not changed since 1790. Edward Sciple, fourth-generation owner, still charges a one-eighth toll, or a gallon of product for every bushel milled. “Why not?” quips Sciple, with a wink and a grin. “The price of fuel hasnt gone up.”

That fuelwater powerlinks seven generations of Sciples like a thread of liquid yarn, and its kept the chatty 72-year-old at the grinding wheel for 55 years. Edwards sons, grandsons, and 10-year-old great-granddaughter all help bag and weigh the mills products whenever they can.

“When youre raised up in something like this, you just dont think about it,” he says, when visitors ask why hes still grinding. “Its all youve ever known. Its a part of you, thats all I can say. Besides, I have to eat.”

Many water mills operated in the hills and hollows of Kemper County during the 19th century, but only Sciples Mill remains. It may be the oldest in the U.S. still grinding for profit. Water from a spring-fed pond in a hollow at the end of Sciple Mill Road turns a large water wheel which in turn powers a massive, 1,600-pound grinding stone. This stone turns atop an even heavier stationary stone beneath it, and the corn or wheat are ground between them. A tornado destroyed the original mill in 1973, but friends and neighbors helped rebuild on the original floor and foundation.

“Grandpa bought the water wheel in 1880,” Sciple recounts. “Itll grind 32 bushels per hour and develops 250 to 300 horsepower. The only maintenance weve done on it was in 1946 when we put a homemade bushing in a wallered-out hole.”

People from miles around bring their corn and wheat to Sciples for grinding. Bob Koehn from nearby Macon traded with Sciple for years, and while he no longer grows corn he still stops in to buy Sciples products. “I just enjoy talking with him.”

Sciple uses the toll he collects to produce meal, grits, whole-wheat flour, and fish-fry mix. He supplies walk-in customers, five grocery stores in nearby Philadelphia, and ships to individuals across the country. “A woman in Maryland wrote wanting prices,” Sciple says. “I shipped her 10 pounds and told her Id send her the bill when I figured out the postage.”

Sciples mill is open weekdays and Saturday mornings. He has a stand outside where off-hour customers can pick up a bag of grits or flour and leave their money in a box. Sciple doesnt know if the box ever comes up short. “I dont keep up with it.”

Inside, rushing water trickles audibly as Sciple pulls a lever that opens the turbine gates. Nineteenth-century tools and farm implements dangle from the rafters, a hand-cranked telephone hangs by the door, and an ancestral portrait peers from the walls. Barrels, bins, and baskets of corn occupy one corner, stacked grain sacks another. Wheat and corn dust covers it all.

Countless hours in the mill have led Sciple to find inventive ways of keeping up his sense of humorand keeping customers on their toes.

“Watch for snakes,” the droll Sciple cautions unsuspecting visitors. He chuckles when they jump at the sight of a rubber snake in their path, and loves reactions to his cages of “bats” and “spotted baby rattlers” (miniature baseball bats and infant rattle toys).

A scale that has been in the mill as long as Sciple can remember was tested recently by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “Its still 100 percent accurate,” Sciple boasts. “I always go two or three ounces over, though, to be sure people get their moneys worth.”

Call Sciples Mill at (601) 743-2295, or send orders to Sciples Mill, Route 4, Box 119, DeKalb, MS 39328.