Friday, November 16, 2018

A Visit to the Gristmill: The Loranger and The Atlas - Two Historic Mills

Oftentimes during these autumn months of October and November, I write about the fall harvest, and each time I mention the task of taking the grain to the gristmill.
However, I recently realized there are those who may not know much about this process nor of its importance. What was once a common occurrence is now rare. Maybe it's because I intently study the everyday lives of those who lived in the past that I think of gristmills much in the same way I think of auto repair shops in our present time: a necessary part of life...even now.
So for today's posting I thought I would give my readers a bit of an insight to this milling business that every town seemed to have back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we'll do this by visiting two historic mills: The Loranger Gristmill now relocated in Greenfield Village (Dearborn, Mi), and the Atlas Mill, relocated in Crossroads Village (Flint, Mi)..
First off, just what is a gristmill?
That's the Loranger gristmill in the center.
It is a fairly large building in which grain would be ground into flour used for baking bread and cakes and the like. Now, a gristmill was a mill used exclusively for grinding grain for local consumption. A merchant mill was a mill in which flour was ground and packed for sale.
From colonial times and into the first half of the nineteenth century, gristmills flourished in America by meeting an important local need in agricultural communities: grinding the farmers' grain into flour with large, circular stones. Of course, a toll, usually in kind, would be paid for the service. There are records of gristmills dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, though not all people used them. Even with the availability of gristmills, there were many farmers who would take to the grinding of grain into flour by hand by using a hand quern, which would have been used when no other means of grinding wheat into flour was available. The quern, a tool from the iron age, was like a mini-gristmill and might be used when one moved into a rare new settlement where no gristmill had been built yet. Of course, the manner of using a quern was not only a tedious task, but it took an excessive amount of time to get enough flour worth baking.
So if one settled near a gristmill, it was a welcome sight.
As described by David Larkin in the book, Mill:
(The miller) knew the intricacies of the mill and carried repairs when needed, if necessary remaking parts himself; he was a good judge of  the density and content of the grain, which varied with a wet or dry harvest and the skill used in threshing and winnowing, and had many opportunities for sharp practice. He would run through a sample with his finger and thumb, calculate its value, and made his wealth that way.

Shortly we will get into the inner workings of the mill, but before that...without preparing the wheat, there would be no reason to even visit:
What do you see?
I see bread, cakes, pie crusts...

In the colonial times, cutting down the wheat was done by hand with a scythe:
The use of a scythe is traditionally called mowing, but now it is often called scything to distinguish it from machine mowing. 
According to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, wheat was harvested by cutting the straw near the ground with a hooked hand “sickle” or “reaphook;” or mown with a “cradle scythe.” The cut wheat was gathered in bundles and tied into “sheaves.” Sheaves were then stacked upright into small stands called “shocks.” These temporary stacks were soon transferred out of the field to larger outdoor stacks, or housed if possible, to await threshing. Threshing is the way to knock the wheat kernels off of the rest of the plant...
Threshing with a flail in colonial times.
This agricultural tool was used to thresh the wheat -
separating the grains from the husks
Threshing was conducted by beating the wheat heads, thereby separating the wheat berries from their “chaff” (or husk) and supporting straw. To flail, one stick is held and swung, causing the other to strike a pile of grain, loosening the husks. Cleaning the wheat commenced with removal of the long straw. This process could occur throughout the fall and winter months.
But the times they would soon be a-changing, for by the mid-19th century there were threshing machines.
A 'modern' late 19th-century threshing machine

~Winnowing Basket~
To catch the grain.
Once the wheat was threshed, the remaining wheat, chaff, and dust mix were put into a basket and tossed up into the air where the wind would catch the husks and blow them away, leaving cleaned grain behind to fall back into the basket. This was known as winnowing. 
The winnowing process also separated weevils or other pests stored in the grain. The cleaned wheat was stored in a granary and then taken to a local mill
Fortunately, most settlements had a gristmill not too distant away.
It was the water-powered gristmills housed in great two or three story structures situated near a stream that tended to be the most popular means of making flour from your wheat. And it's the water-wheel mill that this post concentrates on.
Folks would haul their yield miles to go to the nearest water wheel mill, sometimes taking a day or more for travel time.
My horse and cart hold the bags of grain as I move up to the 
Loranger Gristmill to work out the cost of having my wheat ground.
Henry Ford purchased the 1832 Loranger Gristmill, located on Sunny Creek near Monroe, Michigan, in January of 1928. It was one of the few structures moved to historic Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan without prior disassembly.
This particular mill was originally constructed by Edward Loranger, a brick mason from Quebec, who originally came down to help erect a church. Loranger stayed on in the new country, feeling the new settlement needed a grist and saw mill. He himself hewed oak timbers for beams, cut with a broad axe the whitewood siding of the building, and cut logs for a dam in the river to impound the water for power to turn the wheels.
The Loranger mill uses an undershot wheel, which could easily turn in shallow water. It needed the running stream to make it move. Undershot wheel mills were more common in the earlier days of mills when a dam could be built to release some much-needed power.
After Greenfield Village opened to the general public in 1933, the interest and activity around the Loranger Gristmill grew as the sights and sounds of the spinning, grinding wheels gave the public a first-hand glimpse of an earlier age. The turning wheels could grind one barrel of flour (whole wheat or buckwheat) or corn meal an hour. Some of the milled grain was used locally while the rest was packaged in three pound sacks and sold to the public.
The restored 1832 Loranger Gristmill as it sits inside Greenfield Village.
The mill sits now as a museum piece: the grinding wheels are there, but they no longer grind; the water wheel spins, but just for show; the store no longer sells flour or corn meal.
But, we can at least help the reader feel as Loranger is still a working mill through words and photographs.
Going to let the miller know I am here.

Click to enlarge the drawing,
which points out the parts of a mill.
There are no quick starts or stops in an old mill. In starting the mill, usually with a wooden lever, water would be released gradually until the wheel, which runs the entire mill, was running at the desired speed.  In doing this, the entire building would shudder for each part of the mechanism would begin to do its job, including the spiked wooden wheels inside the mill, which were made of oak mesh and the spiked teeth made of apple or hickory wood, which controlled the rest of the mechanism.
The sacks of grain to be ground had to be taken up to the third floor of the mill where it will be emptied into the grain storage bin. On the second floor is where the miller will ensure the grain is sliding down the chute to the hopper, which has a funnel-like appearance. Its flow is controlled by an angled wooden shoe and by the action of the dansil, most often called the damsel, a device attached atop the spindle that taps the shoe and will shake an even amount into the millstones at every revolution. On the first floor, the hopper disperses the grain to two large burr stones assembled from hard granite. The capstone, which is movable, revolves barely above the lower stone, which remains stationary. It is this lower stone which has furrows carefully carved into it to help guide the flour to the waiting bins ready to be sacked for the customer.
You can easily see the furrows in the Loranger grindstones.

The Loranger "hopper," from which the grain slides down into from the chute, has a funnel-like appearance. The hopper disperses the grain to the stones to be ground and emptied out into the flour bin, ready to be sacked for the customer.

Gristmills flourished in America by meeting the important local need in agricultural communities by grinding the farmer's grain into flour, and in some cases, towns were built around the gristmill.
The Atlas Gristmill, originally built in 1836, was one of the very first buildings erected in the town of Atlas, Michigan, and it remained in operation until 1943, when, due in part to WWII, replacement parts for repairs were no longer available. 
Soon, a wool carding mill was built in Atlas, followed by a blacksmith shop, a mercantile, a doctor's office and a tavern. All by 1840. And a millwright, carpenter, shoe maker, furniture maker, and other businesses and townsfolk soon followed.
A town built around a mill...

In 1976, the Atlas mill was dismantled and moved to historic Crossroads Village located in Flint, Michigan. In 1977 it was renovated and restored to its former glory, and now the sights and sounds of the spinning, grinding wheels give the public a first-hand glimpse of an earlier age...of the time of our ancestors. The turning wheels could grind one barrel of flour (whole wheat or buckwheat) or corn meal an hour.
To visit the Atlas Mill is almost like an early portrayal of living history, with the specks of ground flour whirling through the air almost as a fine dry mist, turning the brown wood white. So real does one feel while inside the mill as it is running that one can just imagine local farmers, with their pack horse, ox cart, or on foot, waiting outside after coming traveling from miles around, with their grain ready to be ground into flour.
The stone-ground flour it still produces is sold in the Crossroads Village store.

With the increase of families coming to the area, a school was started in 1837. One can just imagine this small mid-19th century town, how it looked in the early days. Probably very similar to what Crossroads Village open air museum looks like today.
The Sluice is like a trough on the side of the building, which takes its water from the mill pond and stores it until the lever to begin the milling procedure is pulled. 
The Atlas Mill is operated by water-driven turbine beneath the water surface so the mill can operate in winter if the surface of the water is frozen. 
The entire building shook as the water power from the sluice turned the large stone wheels used for grinding.
The Atlas hopper, from which the grain slides down into from the chute and then to the grindstones.
Each granite stone, which were made around 1835 in North Carolina, weighs 1800 pounds.
Now, after all of these steps, you have flour and are ready to prepare to make and bake bread.
You better eat everything on your plate!
Now you know why.
Crossroads Village sells flour made right here inside the Atlas Mill, in case you were interested. This flour makes excellent flapjacks!
Tasting history...

By the way, a friend of mine, Scott, told me he is a descendant of one who owned a gristmill in Laingsburg, Michigan, and sent me a couple photos for this post:
Here is the exterior of the "Piatt and Son" mill, once located in Laingsburg, Michigan (near Lansing).
This photo has an excellent view of horse and carts lined up with sacks of grain ready to be ground.
A true picture of the past!
Thank you, Scott, for these two pictures!
Seymour Piatt (Scott's great-grandfather), and his son (Scott's great uncle) Lloyd Piatt in the mill office. As you can see, the oh-so-important cat got into the picture as well. 
I did attempt to find more information about the men and their mill but, unfortunately, there is little out there to be found. At least, on the internet.

Before we close I would like to speak just a little on the windmill.
I want to see a raise of hands to the following question:
How many of you ever thought of windmills as being a gristmill?
Yeah...a couple of you, but not many.
I will admit, as a youngster I never gave the windmill much of a thought other than they were popular in Holland and in early America. And it never even crossed my mind that they would grind grain into flour. It wasn't until I began researching gristmills a number of years back that I fully learned of their usage.
And where did I learn this information?
Why, at Greenfield Village's Farris Windmill.
Named after the Farris family, who ran this mill
for three generations, this windmill, 
built in 1633,
is said to be the oldest of its kind in the United States,  
and stood at the road to West Yarmouth, Massachusetts.
It now stands at the southeast end of Greenfield Village,
right next to the 1750 Daggett House.
The power of the wind would turn the sails of the mill, which would turn the millstones inside, much like the water would turn the wheel in the more common mills. Young men were induced to become millers by being exempted from taxes and military duty. Winds off the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay turned the mammoth fifty four foot sails, grinding corn into meal in ten minutes or in three hours, depending on the wind force. The long lever between the roof and the ground is used to turn both the roof and the sails in the most favorable positions.
As the Daggett House and Farris Windmill are situated inside Greenfield Village, as seen in the above picture, they give a strong resemblance to the East Hampton, NY historic landmark home of John Howard Payne, composer of 'Home Sweet Home' (as seen in the photo below).
Isn't history wonderful?
The Farris mill was built like those the early pilgrim
settlers had seen during their exile in Holland. 
The Farris mill was moved several times, that being easier than finding a millwright to build a new one. The initials "T.G." and "1782" were carved in one of the beams during a move.
The interior has a winding stairway which leads upward three stories from the ground level to the revolving roof area.
A sneak peak at the stairs going up.
Unfortunately, I was not able to do anymore than look
inside when the door was opened.
I wonder if the grindstones are still there...?
Well, I hope you enjoyed our little adventure to the once very common gristmill. You see, as I walk among the very modern cities of our day and age, noticing gas stations, collisions shops, party stores, malls, restaurants, banks, cell phone stores, and numerous other shops, my mind always seems to slip back in time, for most of the buildings from a hundred years or more in my suburban metro-Detroit city have been long torn down; the once familiar sight of a livery, general store, blacksmith shop, cooper, printer, and the gristmill are now shadows of what has been.
I'm an old soul living in a new time...though I can still see the past.
Until next time, see you in time.

To learn more about other types of mills, please click HERE
To learn of harvest time, please click HERE
To learn more about life on a farm, please click HERE

Mill by David Larkin
Mill by David Macaulay
The Gristmill by Bobbie Kalman
And from Greenfield and Crossroads Historic Villages.
Also the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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