I know! You were all excited to see our gingerbread gristmill, weren’t you? Well, you’ll have to hold out for one more day. Today, I wanted to take a quick moment to tell you about the real 1800s gristmill our gingerbread one is modeled after. (Told you I’d throw in a history lesson on Monday, now didn’t I?)
Grist is grain, or the starchy seed of certain grasses, that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for being ground for use as food. Wheat, oats, rye, corn, Indian corn, and provender were all grains the 1800’s farmer harvested for use, either to feed his family or his animals. By the 1840s, the United States had over 23,000 gristmills. Some were commercial flour mills, but most were neighborhood gristmills that sold their service to nearby farmers. Law in the 1800s stated that a miller could charge a “toll” (or a fee) of 1/16th of the grain brought to him as payment for milling the rest of the grain. However, by the 1830s this practice of charging a toll was changing with the rest of the economy, and millers were starting to charge cash fees in replacement of the traditional tolls.
The gristmill used water power to grind grain into meal. The process was fairly simple and straightforward. When a sluice gate was opened, water would be filtered from a lake (or other water source) to a waterwheel. There were different types of waterwheels, but the one in this example was a “low breast” wheel because water filled the troughs on the wheel’s rim just below the midpoint. The 16 foot high waterwheel’s troughs would fill with water and the weight would cause the wheel to turn, which in turn turned the gears and shafts in the mill’s basement, transmitting power to the millstones.
While the gears and shafts turned in the basement, the millstones were at work on the first floor area of the mill. The gears rotated two 54 inch diameter 3,000 pound millstones. A “runner” stone rotated a slight distance above a stationary “bed” stone in the floor. Both stones had a pattern of grooves cut into their faces. As the runner stone turned above the bed stone, their grooves acted much like scissor blades. Grain was poured into a funnel-like wooden hopper above the millstones. It would filter down through a hole in the spinning runner stone, into the space between the two stones where it would be sheared into meal. The meal then fell into a meal chest in the floor. From there, the miller would scoop the fresh grist into his customer’s bag or barrel.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is a video worth? Enjoy the following videos of a gristmill in action.
Part 1: Inside
Part 2: Continuation of Inside
Part 3: Outside/Waterwheel