Heading to mill to make cornmeal

Published 9:38 am Wednesday, September 21, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

The truck is ready. There are several bags of shelled corn in the back. My father is ready; I am ready. I’m always ready.

The road beckons; we leave our house behind. Four miles to Franklin, past Mr. Council’s house and Mrs. Wade’s path, past the crossroads, past the path to Dr. Rawls’ farm, past Mrs. Ballad’s house, past the Westview Tea Room, past the Sedley Road turnoff, into the mix of houses and memories that is Franklin to a child.

Downtown is passed up via back streets; we’re bound for Lee’s Mill across the Blackwater River Bridge at Camp’s Mill. It’s a slight right turn at S.W. Rawls’ place beyond the railroad tracks. We pass the big old storage barn and the power plant and turn left at the corner and cross railroad tracks close by the blacksmith shop. The shop is a large open shelter with a lot of interesting stuff.

But our mission is the mill. Over the Blackwater Bridge, past the Hygeia Ice Co. on the left and between lumber operations at Camp’s, under the railroad bridge and a right turn onto Lee’s Mill Road. The mill is about a mile down on the left. It’s powered by water impounded from the wash whole area. It’s milling day; several trucks are parked outside already.

My father parks also, and we go inside to make arrangements for milling. The miller will take a portion of your corn as payment for milling or you can pay for the milling of your corn or you can take your meal (estimated value for value) from whatever cornmeal is presently in the hopper. I don’t know what my father chooses, but we’re going to be there for awhile.

Wonderful. I get to look around.

There’s the waterwheel, sloshing around slowly, and a long shaft that reaches from the wheel up through the mill floor into mechanisms inside. I check out everything from the sluice and sluice gate to the final splash at the bottom of the great wheel. Time is suspended.

When the suspension ends, I return to the mill floor, and marvel at all the belts and wheels, and the clanking hopper thumper. Corn is fed from a hopper into a hole in the top millstone.

There are two millstones. The top one rotates against the bottom, stationary stone. Grooves are cut into the facing surfaces of both stones, so that corn poured into the center is forced to an outer trough, being ground to meal in the process. That’s the finished meal.

It is bagged for the customer, whether for immediate trade, use, or storage for sale later. The mill floor and virtually everything else is covered with the dust of milling. The floor boards have a slick feel from the dust.

The miller can tell the texture by the feel of the finished meal between his thumb and fingers. His nose tells him if the stones are turning too fast and the meal is heating up. Cornmeal has to finish cool. That’s important.

We place our bag of cornmeal into the truck bed and depart. It’s a good day.

There are three working gristmills in our area. On several occasions, I accompany my father to two: Darden’s Mill and Lee’s Mill. Both are basic grist mills, overshot waterwheels, and sluice boxes with gates. Darden’s Mill is more open, with the larger millpond, and an excellent view outward from the mill. Lee’s Mill is hidden in the woods, with a smaller pond, not open to distant views. Both have their fascinations.

The smell of stone ground cornmeal is special. When I cook with it, I’m standing at the waterwheel, staring down at the mill run, feeling the power of water, hearing the grinding of gears and distant voices. I am tied to the earth; I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High school. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.