Milling Thesis Introduction

Introduction: Historiography of Gristmilling by Leslie Hawkins Meadows

At one time, gristmills could be found everywhere around the United States. As industrial, commercial, and social centers, mills touched the lives of people, becoming interwoven in not only the economic fabric of American society, but in the nation’s psyche as well. Mills ground wheat into flour and corn into meal for millions of customers, enabling them to have staple grains available for consumption and trade. But mills were much more than a food source to the people and the community they served. The local gristmill, in addition to providing the service of grinding grains, often had other services, such as cotton ginning machinery on site, or a blacksmith shop, community store, or distillery available nearby so farmers could most effectively use and enjoy their time spent away from working the land.

Mill yards became popular meeting places for farmers to catch up on local news. Before the days of radio and television, politicians often used mill sites while stumping through the countryside to host speeches and parties. In addition, millponds became popular fishing and swimming holes, and local churches could use the millponds for baptisms. Visiting at the mill even became a popular way for young people to meet and court. Millponds are scenic, beautiful places that many young people considered romantic spots to date away from the watchful eyes of adults, even if the mill operators did not appreciate that use of their site. Mary Lea Simpkins, one of the children of the last miller at Yates Mill remembered, “They’d date. They go around the pond and park and date, that’s all they do – date! … They park right there in the mill yard, yes sir. They didn’t care. The moon would be shining; they’d park there in the mill yard, park around, anywhere they wanted to park….Daddy didn’t particularly like it. I’m telling you, you liable to find whisky bottles down there.”[1] Having the gristmill as a food source was important, but it was often the time spent at the mill not grinding grain that was the most fun, and the most memorable, for generations of Americans.

Two types of gristmills could often be found throughout the United States’ countryside. Local, custom mills produced meal and flour to order for individual customers and the local market. Custom mills could be found along any creek with enough water to power a mill on even a limited, seasonal basis. Generally, the miller at the custom mill collected a “miller’s toll,” or a portion of what the customer brought to the mill to be ground, as payment for his services. In contrast, merchant mills purchased grain from farmers on a large scale, then ground and sold the product for themselves. Merchant mills were more commonly located along larger waterways, ensuring there was enough water for the millers to run the mills on a regular basis. Being located along the larger rivers also eased the transportation of the flour to large marketplaces with ports providing access to national and international trade. Both types of mills played an important role in the agricultural economy of America: custom mills focused on the local, personalized markets and economy, while the merchant mills focused more on larger markets and turning a profit for the mill owners.

Because of the valuable services custom mills provided county residents, and the large number of natural mill sites available, at one time, Wake County, North Carolina had more than 70 mills. In 1891, the Southern Interstates Exposition Committee acknowledged “Wake County is traversed by many bold streams that flow in a south-eastern direction. The largest of these are Neuse and Little rivers, Walnut, Marsh, Boston’s, Big Lick, Crabtree, Swift, Middle, White Oak, Buckhorn, Buffalo, Moccasin, Mark’s and Richland creeks. These streams flow rapidly, and furnish many excellent mill-sites…. Many corn and flour-mills are found on the creeks and rivers. There are fully seventy-five mills of this kind in the county.”[2] The large numbers of mills in Wake County around the turn of the 20th century is a testament of their importance to the county’s residents as a food source and as a source of community interaction. This work will focus on the custom gristmill and how the community used the resource, especially three mills from Wake County, North Carolina: Yates Mill, Lassiter’s Mill, and the mill at Lake Myra.

Much of what has been written on gristmills are local histories, tracing the life of a single mill or a series of mills in one area or along one creek. These histories often do not discuss much of the role the mill played in its community, outside of its role as a food source. Instead, these histories on custom gristmills concentrate on the mill owners, the structural changes to the mill, modern restoration efforts, and the grinding systems utilized by the mill.[3] For example, the history written on Dellinger’s Gristmill in Mitchell County, North Carolina, begins by introducing the family who owned the mill and the buildings present at the site. The work tells the basic history of the Dellinger family, and the restoration process the family undertook in recent years. As the author states, “I want to share with you the story of how the restoration of my great grandfather’s enterprise came about, some of the obstacles that were overcome, some of the triumphs that occurred, and perhaps provide some pointers to other grist mill enthusiasts who may be interested in restoring a water powered grist mill.”[4] Dellinger, like many authors writing on their families’ histories, has no other purpose for his publication other than to tell the history of the one mill.

Not all works on custom mills focus solely on one mill or community. A few explain how custom mills helped in the development of a larger region or an entire state. Others focus on the controversies some communities faced when deciding whether or not to build a mill; concerns ranged from competition from other mills to the right to build a dam and what that dam meant for people who used the stream for travel or fishing. Additional works compare subsistence and market agriculture, and how gristmills served both groups of agriculturalists.[5]

One article that effectively discusses the custom gristmill and its larger community is “Watermills in the South: Rural Institutions Working against Modernization,” by Larry Hasse. In it, Hasse points out the differences between custom and merchant milling. He argues, “Historians have not clearly noted this dichotomy and therefore have not adequately distinguished between merchant and custom milling. Consequently, they often assume that watermills of all types necessarily promoted industrialism and the market economy. They did not have this effect, and the rural custom watermill cannot be understood through modern economic indicators such as capital invested, manufacturing output, and profit margins.”[6] Hasse later states that mills contributed greatly to the development of frontier communities, and that historians often assume their presence helped lead communities to enter the market economy. However, as Hasse explains, “Rural mills in fact were essential machines in maintaining rural communities as working, subsistency-dependent units. Moreover, in much of the South and many parts of the North, rural mills continued to act in this same capacity well into the twentieth century.”[7] Hasse’s central argument asserts that local watermills in the South, specifically the custom gristmills, actually helped slow the industrialization and modernization of rural communities in the South.

Like the work done on custom mills, studies of merchant mills also discuss the mill owners and the grinding process; but because merchant mills were a part of a larger system of mills found throughout the region and country, these histories generally also place these mills within a larger discussion of national and international trade. These works address a range of issues in milling, including water rights, laws regulating production, the international economy, and long distance and overseas shipping of the products. Studies of merchant mills generally focus on the central areas for the production and marketing of large amounts of flour for overseas trade, such as Baltimore, New York, or Pennsylvania; or on the large milling complexes that produced the flour, such as the mills along the Brandywine River in Delaware. For example, in “The Merchant-Millers: Baltimore’s Flour Milling Industry, 1783-1860,” G. Terry Sharrer discusses the growth and development of the flour trade in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. When explaining the growth of the enterprise and the development of new technologies, he points out that “Automated machinery and steam power were the most important technological advances in flour milling, preceding the steel roller and gradual reduction system of the late nineteenth century. The merchant-millers of Baltimore, who had so quickly adopted the automated mill design, however, saw little benefit in turning to steam power. They found steam engines, large enough to operate automated mills of six or more pairs of stones, simply prohibitively expensive.”[8] This argument combines both milling history and the history of technology, giving the technology a practical application and linking merchant milling in Baltimore to larger developments in trade and economics throughout the country. However, even though merchant millers were interested in producing large amounts of flour as easily as possible in the 18th century, they were still limited by their ability to utilize new inventions, such as steam power, capable of improving production rates. Gradually during the 19th century, merchant mills, and even some custom mills, made the transition to using turbines and steam power.

Some works on the merchant mills also explained the challenges the local community could face if all of the gristmills changed solely to merchant milling. This is one of the points of John Hart’s article, “Property Rights, Costs, and Welfare: Delaware Water Mill Legislation, 1719-1859.” In 1785, the Delaware Legislature required merchant mills to devote certain days of the week to grinding wheat and other grains for local, family consumption because of the lack of mills serving the needs of the local population. As Hart points out, “Thus the assembly tenaciously held to its image of mills as public providers of a service for rural households, at a time when this image had become substantially anachronistic. Rather than encouraging or even tolerating the large merchant mills as a leading source of economic growth, the assembly substantially raised their costs of doing business by forcing merchant mills to provide the milling services characteristic of the rural gristmill.”[9] The popular image of the custom gristmill had, in fact, become largely outdated for mill owners in the Mid-Atlantic states where merchant milling became a big business by 1785; but, custom mills remained essential for rural communities throughout the country for at least another hundred years.

Priscilla Evans notes that economic historians often “pay tribute to the gristmill for its role as an outlet for the local product in the community’s transition from a subsistent to a market economy. Generally, they summarize the relationship of the mill to its community in one to three pages and then dismiss the topic.”[10] Custom gristmills and the millers that operated them deserve more attention from historians because of their prominent role in growth of a community. Community histories describing the rural life of early America generally portray small subsistence farmers as individuals who lived and worked according to the cycle of the seasons, relying on the help of friends and neighbors for planting and harvesting. This life depended on the services provided by the local gristmill, and on the social contacts individuals made with their neighbors while visiting the mill. The role the mills played in this lifestyle, however, is rarely effectively addressed in these works either.

One historian who closely looks at agricultural economics and community, John Schlotterbeck, describes the rural economy focusing on subsistence agriculture as a “‘social economy,’ a dense network of trade and exchange of farm products, labor, services, and manufactured goods within the local community.”[11] According to Schlotterbeck, gristmilling was the largest industry in the local service economy tied to farming that included other businesses such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, boot and shoemakers, cabinetmakers, milliners, and gunsmiths. What Schlotterbeck says about gristmills and the growth of the service economy is true. The focus of his work, however, is the growth of the social economy as a whole, not the role mills played in that development. Clearly, gristmills were tied to the local community and the local agricultural economy. Works that address the development of the local market economy and agricultural decisions made by the farmers, however, could do more to emphasize and explain that connection by elaborating on the types of trade and work being done in the gristmill’s community by the millers, blacksmiths, and wheelwrights, how all of their work was interconnected, and how everyone relied on each other for these services.[12]

Custom mills reduced the amount of labor associated with earning one’s daily bread, enabling farmers to concentrate their time and energy on producing other goods for the family, or raising a cash crop for sale. Mills and their millers provided an opportunity for farmers to trade surplus crops for services at the mill, or with neighbors for supplies the family could not produce on its own. As a result, farmers had to be sure to produce extra grain to give the miller in exchange for services. The miller could then either use the grain himself or sell it into the larger market to obtain goods he needed. Finally, the mill was often a gathering site, not only to have food produced, but as a source for social contact as well, fulfilling another need in the growth and development of the community. Scholars should recognize all of the roles custom mills filled in Americans’ lives from the time of settlement until the 20th century. This work will place the local gristmill into some of the above contexts, filling a void in the literature on gristmills, as well as in the history of community in the rural South.


[1] Oral History Interview of Mary Lea Simpkins, conducted by Rebeccah Cope and David Cecelski, March 28, 2001. A transcript of the interview is available at Historic Yates Mill County Park, in Raleigh, NC.

[2] Southern Interstates Exposition Committee, Wake County, North Carolina, its Resources! Its Products! And its People! (Raleigh, NC: Edwards and Broughton, 1891) 8.

[3] Examples of such works relevant to North Carolina include: Grimsley T. Hobbes, Exploring the Old Mills of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: Provincial Press, 1985); Bruce S. Cheeseman, Kerr Mill and the Mill Bridge Community (Raleigh, NC: Rowan County Historical Properties Commission, 1980); Jack  David Dellinger, Dellinger Grist Mill on Cane Creek, Mitchell County, North Carolina: A Personal         History (Folk Heritage Books, 2004); Julie Alison Shepherd, The Seven Mills of Naked Creek: Gristmilling in Ashe County, North Carolina (Boone, NC: Center for Appalachian Studies, 2005).

[4] Jack David Dellinger, Dellinger Grist Mill on Cane Creek, Mitchell County, North Carolina: A Personal History (Folk Heritage Books, 2004) 8.

[5] Examples of the types of work mentioned above include: William Wyckoff, “Frontier Milling in Western New York” Geographical Review 1 (1986) 72-93; Harry L. Watson, “‘The Common Rights of Mankind’: Subsistence, Shad, and Commerce in the Early Republican South,” The Journal of American History 1 (1996) 13-43; Richard Lyman Bushman, “Markets and Composite Farms in Early America,” The William and Mary Quarterly 3 (1998) 351-374; Gavin Wright and Howard Kunreuther, “Cotton, Corn and Risk in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Economic History 3 (1975) 526-551; Darrett B. Rutman, “Assessing the Little Communities of Early America,” The William and Mary Quarterly 2 (1986) 163-178; Orville Vernon Burton, “Reaping What We Sow: Community and Rural History,” Agricultural History 4 (2002) 631-658; Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993); Stephen Aron, How the West was Lost: The Transformation of  Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996);   Ellen Eslinger, Citizens of Zion The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999); Craig Thompson Friend, Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005); Nicholas P. Hardeman, Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks: Corn as a Way of Life in   Pioneer America (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1981).

[6] Larry Hasse, “Watermills in the South: Rural Institutions Working against Modernization,” Agricultural History 3 (1984) 280.

[7] Hasse 287.

[8] G. Terry Sharrer, “The Merchant-Millers: Baltimore’s Flour Milling Industry, 1783-1860,” Agricultural History 1 (1982) 146.

[9] John F. Hart, “Property Rights, Costs, and Welfare: Delaware Water Mill Legislation, 1719-1859,” The Journal of Legal Studies 2 (1998) 469.

[10] Priscilla Ann Evans, “Merchant Gristmills and Communities, 1820-1880: An Economic Relationship,” Missouri Historical Review 3 (1974) 318.

[11] John T. Schlotterbeck, “The ‘Social Economy’ of an Upper South Community: Orange and Greene Counties, Virginia, 1815-1860,” in Class, Conflict, and Consensus: Antebellum Southern Community Studies, ed. Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982) 5.

[12] For more discussion of white yeoman farmers in the South, see Steven Hahn, “The Yeomanry of the Nonplantation South: Upper Piedmont Georgia, 1850-1860” in Class, Conflict, and Consensus: Antebellum Southern Community Studies, ed. Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982) 29-56.