Interested in the origins of phrases I use today, and prepared to bore my kids as I teach them that history.
Every now and again, we might drive by an historic grist mill. Maybe we think it’s scenic, but we don’t often give it much thought. However, grist mills were critical aspects of colonial communities, as these converted grains into flour for use by the local citizens. Entire towns were often based around some key businesses, including these. Today, we pop down to the grocery store or bakery, grab some fresh bread, and we’re off and running. If we want to be fancy, we do that whole routine with the yeast and the dough rising, we cook it, and everyone ooh’s and aah’s as we react nonchalantly. But in early America, this was a tedious routine.
These grist mills were barn-like structures alongside a waterway. Less than twenty in New England have survived, with about a third in Massachusetts. Prior to the industrial revolution, New England didn’t have ready access to wheat, and corn was the easy grain people could get their hands on.
The grist mill would have created a waterway with the ability to either dam and release the water, or at least to steer it, so that when they were ready to grind, the water would flow over a paddle wheel. This then turned into a huge physics experiment that modern kids would find interesting to see in action, even if they’ll go on to get a C in physics in a few years: the water turns the wheel. That wheel then turns a ginormous mechanical wheel with a bunch of spokes coming off of it. This then turns another wheel. There were two two-thousand pound, circular grinding stones that were horizontal. The bottom one would stay put. The gears ultimately made the top one spin quickly enough. Meanwhile, the hopper was filled with the initial grains that slowly dropped into this contraption.
Ultimately, all of the rudimentary mechanics and a lot of wooden mechanical parts were still refined enough to control how precisely the top one-ton stone was suspended above the bottom one. With grooves in the stones, they could then create more or less powdery flour. This business provided mutual benefits, as the miller would provide the refined flour back to the farmer, minus a ”miller’s toll”.
Aside of the ingenuity, the grist mill was also a social hub, of such importance that it turns out our language still reflects its impact. For example, if a number of people were looking to have their grains milled, a line would form. Unlike today’s supermarkets, where you just quietly stand in line and perhaps spy on the shopping cart of the stranger in front of you, this would have been a situation in which people knew each other. Those lines would result in people “milling about” while they gossiped, which is still referred to as a “rumor mill”.
Meanwhile, inside the grist mill, the floor would have been covered with a hay like material, referred to as thresh. A piece of wood at the doorway would help keep the thresh in place, which you’d stand on when you crossed the “threshold”. You would have then seen the miller hard at work. The finer dust that can be produced from corn is vastly more flammable than coal dust, so a spark could be deadly. Since the giant stones don’t actually touch but are positioned ever so slightly apart, to grind the grains, the miller would routinely verify very carefully that everything was safe. In other words, he would have his “nose to the grindstone”. We use the phrase regarding a hard work week. For them, it was working hard to not blow up... makes me feel like I’ve got it a little easier! His milling produced varying grades of flour, obviously with varying costs to the farmer. For the more routine grade that worked adequately in everyday cooking, he would produce a “fair to middling” grade.
All of these phrases are in use today in the American lexicon; many by me, as my daughters look at me as if I’m making stuff up or talking in ye olde English. But these words and phrases started off not as expressions, but as meaningful terms. Knowing the origins can be interesting, and create connections to our nation’s past.
For the grist mills themselves, the beating they took from the rigors of the machinery and the effects of the water made it hard for them to survive. The industrial revolution and the railroad began to negate the need for these in so many villages. The ones that have survived until today are a combination of ones that were saved, restored, reproduced, or moved.
We’ve visited several. Such visits have more often involved admiring these buildings from the outside. But sometimes there are tours and demonstrations, and sometimes you can buy the processed corn flour for your own use. The tours we’ve taken have been educational, but also interesting. Seeing these mills in action can also generate interesting conversation with kids. Sure, you run the risk of boring them and having them treat you as if you’re as old as the mills themselves. However, the combination of the views, the history, the machinery, and the tour will give you decent odds of finding some aspect that resonates with them. However, since these are smaller structures and tours, it’s often best to combine them with some other activities as part of a broader itinerary for the afternoon or the day.
A quick search with the google machine will give you the options to choose from. Given the effort to preserve the few grist mills still dotting the New England landscape, and the impact these had on the growth of our country, it’s a fun activity. While it’s a little off the beaten path, it’s one definitely worth an hour of your time.
Appreciating the vision, passion, and perseverance fueling a small business success.
In these times with the world moving so fast, often leaving us over-programmed, burned out, or disconnected, meaningful moments become increasingly important to seek out; moments to laugh or learn; chances to let life’s challenges melt away and lose yourself in an event; opportunities to bond with friends or loved ones; and memories to fuel you until the next break from the daily grind.
One such moment for us began with a revealing statement from winemaker and owner Mark LaClair: “I feel like what I’m doing matters. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things,” Mark said self-deprecatingly, before adding earnestly, “But it matters to me.”
No, Mark, it matters to us as well. Like us, you’re likely to find an experience that will also matter to you at Seven Birches Winery in Lincoln, New Hampshire’s RiverWalk Resort.
Mark would proudly say he’s a winemaker. Although he spent years refining his craft and taking risks to evolve it from a hobby shared with friends and family into a growing business, it can be argued that he’s doing much more than that: he’s setting up a chance for people to have the meaningful experience that they want.
Over time, Mark refined his craft and found an opportunity to produce his wines commercially, for the Windy Ridge Orchard, west of Lincoln on the Vermont border of New Hampshire. While he continues producing wine for them, in 2016 he had the opportunity to scale up production at the new RiverWalk Resort that sits in the shadow of Loon Mountain.
When you visit Seven Birches, Mark’s goal of pairing great wine with a great experience may be subtle, but it’s pervasive.
You have several ways to sample the wine, from the more common: tasting of five samples to enjoying an entire glass; to the less common: a tour and education hosted by the winemaker; or joining the “Barrel Club”, which is an opportunity to create custom wine with input on the harvesting and bottling.
Obviously, wine is subjective. So, the better feedback we’d offer is that Seven Birches’ overall wines are as good top-to-bottom as any we’ve found from New England wineries we’ve visited to date, which means everyone should be able to find something to suit their preference.
The wine, however, is only the foundation of your visit. It’s enhanced by the locally made snacks, accessories, and crafts that create a very New Hampshire feel and provide fodder for conversation.
The tasting room has a feel combining the ruggedness of the White Mountains with the elegance of a vineyard; a large window directly across the hallway allows you to observe their production facilities. Adjacent to the tasting room is a covered veranda overlooking RiverWalk’s large, outdoor pool, with the Pemigewasset River and woods beyond it – perfect in the warmer months. These all provide options for how you want your afternoon to unfold.
The last obvious aspect of Mark’s focus is how he and his team interact with you. They are extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly. With our two lengthy visits, we had the time to study them. They all seemed to intuitively understand the unique experience that groups sought. In some cases, they filled glasses and allowed people to be immersed in their own conversations. In other cases, they expertly explained details of that wine, and lingered when sensing people might have questions or thoughts they wished to share. Staff sometimes wound up in conversation with multiple groups, who then chatted with each other.
In our case, Mark tended to us. We were interested in learning more about the wines themselves, and their production. He proudly shared his knowledge, and made us feel as if we were chatting with a friend, despite routinely (and understandably) slipping away to tend to other customers. He also remembered us upon our return visit and we all seemed to pick up where we’d left off. Such personal and genuine interactions were meaningful to us, and provided us one of the highlights of our trip. That personal touch reflects his attention to so many details.
Mark is not interested in getting Seven Birches into retail stores. This stays true to his desire to remain a winemaker who runs a business, rather than evolving into a businessman who runs a winery. It’s also consistent with his broader goal: if the easiest way to buy a bottle of Seven Birches wine is by visiting the winery, it allows him to promote quality wines and experiences. He’ll soon be scaling up from his current 3,000 cases per year to over 10,000 and moving into a new tasting room and production facility, as part of RiverWalk’s planned expansion. But Seven Birches will remain on-site, and Mark will carry his experience and lessons learned with him that will preserve Seven Birches’ unique touch.
We bought several bottles before we left, and came back a second time to buy a few more. When the time comes to drink them, we’ll enjoy some great bottles. We’ll also relish reliving our time at Seven Birches Winery, and we’ll undoubtedly talk about the opportunity for a return visit and another moment where we can forget our cares and enjoy a most pleasant wine tasting experience.
Enjoying my reward for venturing off the beaten path!
With the explosion of craft breweries in recent years across the country and certainly in New England, it becomes a little more challenging for a place to distinguish itself. The recent opening of Rek-Lis Brewing’s tasting room is one example of a new business clearly getting it right, which is quickly creating its own challenge of maintaining what makes it special.
Rek-Lis moved a few months ago from a shed to a wonderfully renovated site on Main Street in the small and picturesque town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. It feels spacious, offering different zones, from a bar to some tables, and an upstairs as well as the covered porch. In fact, it’s actually a small building, and we lucked out with one of the last tables when we checked it out recently.
Rek-lis is so named for the way of life the owners, Ian and Marlaina, embody on a daily basis. The general goal is to take a chance on a labor of love, and to brew beers as over-the-top great as the adventures they or others might have enjoyed before sitting down for a cold one.
Speaking of their beers, there’s a constantly evolving list. In part, it’s based on the mad scientist attempt to pursue perfection. And, in part, it’s because Rek-Lis quickly became enough of a hit to now need to hustle to keep up with demand. Our visit was an example, with six of the eight samples in our flight being Rek-Lis brews, with two guest taps rounding out our flight. There was a clear tilt towards IPAs, which provided a chance to compare styles, but limited our ability to go in other directions, such as porters and stouts.
As their website illustrates, they’re zealous in their pursuit of craft brewing. But they do have a small yet solid menu and now also offer wine, creating options for those in a group who might not be beer connoisseurs. This also allows people to linger longer, which is important because it ties to what distinguishes them from many others.
The upscale farmhouse ambiance was instantly inviting, with interesting lighting and flights served in reclaimed wood. The beers were tasty and well crafted. But what really jumped out at us was the cheery vibe and immediate sense of community. The table we snagged was next to one end of the bar. As we looked around, we observed people happily engaged in conversations: locals critiqued their beers alongside tourists; millennials fell into discussions with retirees; and the friendliness of staff and owners inevitably pulled us further into the scene. We wound up chatting happily with transplants from Massachusetts, laughing with several waitresses, and were introduced to the owners as well as members of a barbershop quartet serenading the crowd (one of whom was the father of an owner).
That, to us, ultimately represented the true test that Rek-Lis will face. Their beers were legit. But the immediate sense of belonging, of being sincerely welcomed in like long-lost friends is what made our visit truly fun and worth driving out of our way. We felt as if we temporarily but clearly belonged there, and if we returned with any sort of regularity that we’d be remembered and appreciated. It’s not easy to start up a business or to create a series of solid beers, and it’s extremely hard to so quickly create such a genuinely inviting community.
Rek-Lis is already outgrowing its footprint, and is now looking at an addition to the building. The challenge isn’t just scaling up beer production. It’s on being able to grow while maintaining what makes it special and unique. For now, at least, the best advice to anyone journeying anywhere near the Franconia Notch region would be to set aside a couple of hours to enjoy the beers, food, setting, and especially the friendly enthusiasm that Rek-Lis joyfully serves up.
Wishing I could note my occupation as "cowboy" in the next census
Franconia Notch is a beautiful, rugged part of New Hampshire. The notch itself is lined with views and natural attractions, and Cannon Mountain and its ski trails loom large on the north end of it. But if visitors are willing to venture down some back roads, there’s more to be found. Franconia Notch Stables is one such place that, while off the beaten path, offers a chance to explore the area and enjoy the scenery in a different way.
Franconia Notch Stables, part of the Franconia Inn, is behind Cannon Mountain. It’s only a few minutes’ drive off of the highway. But it becomes quickly apparent that you’re in a more remote area. The Franconia Inn and adjacent stables are nestled in a little valley, surrounded by woods, mountains, and adjacent to a grass airfield. Everything has a more casual feel than the pleasant but more business-like places we sometimes run across in more hectic locales. This set things off on the right foot, as we prepared for our ride.
We’d lined up an hour-long trail ride at Franconia Notch Stables and were joining four other people. While we observed all of the horses to be well trained, each is still unique with its own personality. Accordingly, horses were matched with riders based on personalities, skills, and experience. However, prior riding experience isn’t necessary, and some riders had never been in the saddle. Also, these rides only proceed at a walking pace; no galloping to worry about for the newbie!
Setting out from the barn, the trails traversed fields, rivers, and woods. At times we were nestled in amongst the pines, and other points afforded us views of the surrounding mountains. The trails often include switchbacks, allowing the guide to easily observe the group and to offer helpful pointers.
Our guide, Abbott, was perfect for the ride. He was conversational and casual, but always observant and clearly experienced. His demeanor, obvious enjoyment of his work, and his watchful eye put some nervous riders at ease, while his conversation engaged the group.
The ride was also a great chance to allow all of us to fully engage with nature. Traveling at a slow pace, being in the woods on narrow trails, and seeing the world from atop a horse instead of in a car allowed people to see things differently. After settling into the ride, some began asking questions while others conversed with strangers, bonding over the ride. Sometimes people seemed alone with their thoughts while other times we were locked in on the task at hand, such as a river crossing. It seemed as if people’s work stress or any broader themes in their lives melted away and they could lose themselves in the trail ride, atop these beautiful animals, either proud in overcoming their nerves or happy in the purity of that moment.
We were sorry to see the ride end. But after taking a little extra time to walk through the Franconia Inn, we realized there’s plenty to enjoy with this property without having to leave: in addition to the horseback riding, there are tennis courts, a pool, Jacuzzi, restaurant, airplane rides, inviting chairs on the front porch, and in the winter the trails can be used for cross-country skiing. We resolved to come back and turn it into a weekend getaway, and are excited to have discovered a new place to explore further.
The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.