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.
Finding new ways to enjoy a Saturday afternoon.
As spring crawls out from its winter hibernation, bringing the first color of the season and taking the edge off of the chill, we opted for a road trip along a stretch of New England’s coastal wine trail. This “trail” is made up of over a dozen wineries along the edge of southern New England.
Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard is one such winery, located in Little Compton, Rhode Island. It absolutely did not disappoint, featuring great wine in an almost other-worldly environment.
Little Compton is on the eastern side of Rhode Island, surrounded by the Sakonnet River, the Watson Reservoir, and the mouth of Buzzards Bay, with the open Atlantic Ocean beyond. Unlike so many coastal towns, it’s not heavily developed; there are farms and open land that stretch down to the shoreline. It’s also very flat. This quiet combination creates a significant open expanse of land unlike most places someone could visit.
The vineyard was founded in 1975, making it one of the older ones in the area. Its location creates a microclimate and soil condition allowing for slower-developing grapes that have low sugar levels and high acidity. You’ll mostly find white wines, with a rose, blush, couple of reds, and couple of dessert wines to round out the offerings.
Sakonnet Vineyard is designed to encourage you to linger; there are more tables and chairs outside than I could count, mostly filling up a rock wall-lined field. The far side of the field creates plenty of privacy from the scrub trees so commonly found by the coast. On warm summer days, it would be hard to not spend a couple of hours sitting around and enjoying good wine and conversation, and taking in the ambiance. With a gift shop and café, there’s even more incentive to stick around for a while. On the day we visited, there was a chill in the air so we stayed in the tasting room.
That tasting room created a different but complementary feel to the outside fields. It featured a lot of stonework, large pieces of artwork, music in the background, and a large bar with several staff tending to the tastings. It creates a feel of an upscale wine bar that you might find in a city, but it maintains an intimate feel.
Sakonnet’s tastings run $13 for seven samples. With more than seven wines, you can choose the ones closest to your preferred wines, but still with some room to experiment. We found the overall lineup to be solid from start to finish. The whites were a mix, with both a lighter and heavier chardonnay for whichever season you’re in; and the vidal blanc seemed perfect for an upcoming a summer’s afternoon after the beach, or with a seafood dinner on the back patio.
Sakonnet’s rose was particularly strong, with a deeper pink hue than many, and flavorful for a rose, with notes of strawberry and cranberry, which would allow it to be perfect not just in summer but also for Thanksgiving.
Our favorite turned out to be the “blessed blend red”, a mix of cabernet franc, lemberger, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. This wine has been winning medals for several years running and it’s easy to see why. It evidenced tastes of dark chocolate and cherry. It was flavorful but not heavy, as some blends can be. This was bold enough to be a good wine in winter, but still light enough to work well in warmer seasons and to accompany barbecued meats on the back grill.
We finished with a dessert wine, their Winterwine. It’s an ice wine that was unusual and great, served very cold. It’s thicker, with honey and apricot flavors and a very long finish, and is a perfect after-dinner wine during these colder months. While the warm weather is now approaching, it’s still worth buying and setting back for when the cold months return.
We purchased the blessed blend red, for $30, which was on the high end, as Sakonnet’s wines run $19-$30, not counting the Winterwine at $40. On this day, the store and café were closed, and the café is in the process of getting a facelift for the upcoming summer. With a couple of bachelorette parties making appearances, and with the weddings and events that Sakonnet can host, it’s clear that it will be a busy season for them. But, again, the amount of seating and open space are conducive to still feeling as if you’ve got your own space to enjoy an afternoon of peaceful and enjoyable conversation and wine.
The tasting room itself is in a renovated barn from the late 1800’s. It’s kept a lot of the old wood and so much character, making it a uniquely interesting building. However, you can sit outside or stroll the grounds if you choose but don’t go too far. Down the hill sits one of the older homes in the area, which is still a private residence to this day. They also host live jazz every Saturday afternoon from May to November.
Greenvale Vineyards itself was founded in 1982, so the oldest vines have matured over the course of 36 years. They produce about 3,500 cases (all estate grown) per year from 27 acres of grapes. While they lost a lot of grape leaves in a storm a few years ago, which hurt the yield that year, the vines all bounced back with even better production since then. The tastings covered seven wines and a vermouth, with an eighth wine being sold out. What was great about the tastings was that they covered the entirety of the wines produced. Sampling the full range offered a broader understanding of the winery and left no opportunity for buyer’s remorse.
Like other vineyards in the area, there were more whites than reds due to the climate and soil. However, over five whites and two reds, we found a nice variety, and wines that would combine to cover any occasion and pair with any food. The chardonnay was particularly interesting, with two versions. One paired newer vines with reused oak barrels; the other combined the oldest chardonnay vines with new barrels. Vermouth was their bigger experiment, which was unexpected but fun to try. The cabernet franc topped our list, with a classic taste – flavorful but light, good for any season. With springtime beginning and barbecue season not far away, this wine will pair very well with grilled meats.
Greenvale Vineyards is quiet and off the beaten path. But with the live jazz and historic feel, it’s a great location for functions, or bachelorette parties, a couple of which we saw during our stay. However, it likely wouldn’t ever feel crowded and cramped. The staff also were excellent: knowledgeable of the product, friendly and attentive, and they truly hustled hard and went out of their way to make sure our experience was as great as possible.
Given our overall experience, Greenvale Vineyards is absolutely worth your time and money, and deserving of the successes they’re accumulating.
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.