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.
Killing four birds with one stone (history, exercise, food, and scenery)
The Fort Hill historic district in the Cape Cod town of Eastham is a small attraction. But it has several activities that can easily evolve into a full afternoon of enjoyment.
The area was originally settled by English colonists in 1644 amidst worries against an invasion by the Dutch. Over time, it developed an agricultural focus. Soon, the natural resources were over-consumed and scarce, leaving a largely barren landscape. Life was challenging, and drove many young men to the sea for work.
Now, the Fort Hill district offers one of its best attractions right from one of the two small parking lots. It’s perched on a rise, overlooking Nauset Marsh. The amazing, panoramic view includes inlets, marshes, the beach, and the ocean beyond, as well as fields of flowers sloping towards the water. Plenty of boats can be seen on the main waterways, with kayakers weaving through the marshes. Whether taking in the view at sunrise without even leaving your car, or picnicking with family in the small field next to the parking lot, the scenery is spectacular and easily accessible.
Fort Hill’s parking lot is also a trailhead. A sandy trail gently works its way down from the rise and weaves along the edge of the marsh. Views constantly change, giving a feeling of variety despite the easy hike. Several routes exist, allowing for shorter or longer walks. Despite choosing one of the lengthier routes, our walk was still under two miles, lasted about an hour, and was easily managed even by the younger children in our group. Markers and a brochure educated on some of the plant life and historical significance of the area. Also, the Red Maple Swamp Trail includes a long, meandering boardwalk through the swamp that created further diversity to the hike.
The district’s last attraction is the Edward Penniman House. Penniman, like many young men, was driven to the sea. He returned in 1868, a successful 35-year-old, and built an impressive house. He raised the land several feet to afford views of the ocean and bay. The house itself featured hot and cold water and an indoor bathroom – both rarities for the day, and was decadently furnished.
The house is routinely open to the public and the ranger and volunteer during our visit were very knowledgeable about the house, family, and time period during our visit. The barn behind the house is currently undergoing renovations. Once open, it will offer even more antiques and places to explore.
The combination of the views, hikes, and tour offer something for everyone: they can capture the imagination of children or the interest of a history buff or environmentalist; they can deliver a unique trail run for the athlete, a casual walk for a family, or a bench for those looking to sit and relax.
Learning New Stuff in an Old House
The Dennis Historical Society operates the Josiah Dennis Manse, named after the first minister for whom the town was named after. Open part-time during the summer, it features guides in each room who will educate you, answer questions, and are clearly well-versed in the history of the house and period.
The house also features a room about the town's nautical history, with names and facts that will tie to street signs people might not have otherwise thought about. There is also a rotating exhibit. On the day we visited, we learned about the first major resort in town, the Nobscusset Inn. The dinner menu, photos, and other items on display made for interesting conversation with my daughters.
Donations help keep this house operating, and they're now beginning work on renovating the adjacent 1745 one-room schoolhouse, and discovering the secrets it holds. On a day when you choose to skip the beach, this provides a low-cost, educational opportunity for the whole family that supports a good cause.
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!