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.
Hidden New England
Our region has plenty of interesting attractions off the beaten path. Some are brief visits, others longer. Either way, this is a good source of places that are overlooked but absolutely worth visiting!