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Down by the Old Mill Stream

By Daniel Hubbard | August 16, 2015

graue mill wheel 2 scaled

Graue Mill’s water wheel

I like to explore the lives of the people I research. One well-chosen tidbit of information can be extrapolated into possibilities, probabilities and even near certainties. There are many ways to do that exploring. Reading history and historical fiction are ways. Examining documents relating to other people in similar situations is another way. One of my favorite ways is to visit the right sort of place that still exists in another time.

One branch of my family were mill owners, millers and millwrights. I have maps with their mills marked on them, and documents and histories mentioning their mills, which span more than a century. The mills themselves are long gone. I’ll never be able to visit one, but I can try. This passed week, my family and I did the next best thing and visited the Graue Mill (west of Chicago), a stand-in for those ancestral mills. Dating from the 1850s, it was built more than a century after the first of my ancestors’ mills but only twenty years more recently than the last. It stands in the flat lands of the Midwest and the first of my ancestors mills were in the highlands of New England, where water power was much easier to come by. The last of my ancestors’ mills, though, was in Wisconsin where the land was flat but the mill was certainly built of wood not of the fine brick and stone of this mill. No one place can stand in for a half dozen that no longer exist, but there is still much to learn and experience.

The gearing of mills always amazes me, even if I understand how it turns the slow but powerful rotation of the water wheel in to the rapid spinning of the millstones. The enormous wooden gears, shafts, and pinions are quite a sight. A mill isn’t so much a building with some machinery in it, as a machine that happens to have a building as part of its structure. Though the conduits for grain and the system of ropes and buckets that once moved grain and flour up and down in the mill are gone, every one of the mill’s four stories was part of that machine.

Learning from the miller

Learning from the miller

The miller explained many things for us. One was that millers preferred to turn corn into meal over turning wheat into flour. Corn meal leaves the millstones ready to bag. Flour must be sifted, both because different qualities of flour are produced at the same time and to remove the hulls. All that work had to be done on the upper floor and not a single metal tool was allowed there. He showed us a wooden shovel of the type that would be used. Flour mixed with air in the right quantity can explode from the least spark from an iron tool. If I remember right, he said that an old piece of miller’s wisdom was that if you were working with flour, the moment you could no longer see the front door, was the moment you should be running out of it. (Mr. Wizard used to do an experiment using a paint can as a substitute for a flour mill. He produced a nice explosion. If you imagine being inside a whole building that goes up like that paint can, you understand why exiting a mill full of flour-filled air would be a very, very good idea.)

The miller also explained some of the intricacies of mill stones. The mill’s stones are the originals from the 1850s, but they are no simple pieces of rock. To get just the right kind of stone, they were imported from a quarry in France. They are not single pieces of stone, but rather wedges that were cemented together and then put into a snug-fitting, hot iron hoop. When the hoop cooled, it shrank and squeezed the wedges to make them function as a single piece of stone. Then the stone of the pair that would spin was carefully balanced by adding plaster to the top. An improperly balanced stone, spinning rapidly, would shake the machinery apart and possibly break the stone itself. The worst case was probably that the stone would produce sparks and set off an explosion.

Some parts of the past we can only read about and imagine. Some parts, though, are still here in their own way. Experiencing them directly can be a wonderful way to gain those precious little insights into our ancestors’ lives.


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