Exhibition - Down By The Old Mill Stream
Imagine a time when there were no grocery stores. A time when people lived in the hills and hollows of the Ozark Mountains, growing crops and raising livestock in order to survive. Corn was important because it fed people and animals. It could be traded for other goods or turned into alcohol. Millers were important, too. In 1846 the State of Arkansas passed an act exempting millers from “serving on juries, working on roads, and in the performance of [normal] military duty.”
Today we think of gristmills as romantic old places, but once they were a major part of many rural communities. They provided families with an easy way to grind their grain (grist), brought folks together to trade news and gossip, and often functioned as a post office and mercantile store. According to Ozark folklorist Otto Ernest Rayburn, a trip to the mill was often a family occasion. Some folks traveled miles, hunting for meat and camping at the mill while waiting to have their grain milled. Dances might be held, marriages performed, doctors consulted. On Saturday afternoons at one mill in Madison County, fish trapped in the millrace after the gates were closed for the Sabbath were auctioned.
Folks could grind their grain at home, but it was a difficult, time-consuming process. One type of homemade mill involved tying a heavy maul to one end of a pole which was balanced on a forked limb pushed into the ground. When the free end of the pole was moved up and down, the maul fell into a hollowed-out tree stump full of dried corn. Having a community mill made a lot of sense.
Early gristmills were simple affairs-a building, a source of water such as a stream or spring, and a water wheel to channel the energy of the flowing water and use it to turn one millstone upon the other. A few mills, like Engel’s Mill near Farmington, were powered by mules or oxen on a treadmill. Local hardwood was used for the building and the water wheel. The belts that ran on the pulleys were made of home-tanned leather. Many millstones were quarried locally, but the stone wasn’t as good as that imported from France.
The miller’s job wasn’t easy. He hauled heavy sacks of grain, worked round-the-clock during harvest time, and worried about fire and flood. Dams, millponds, and milling equipment needed constant maintenance and repair. In payment for his work, the miller took a portion of grain (the “toll”) from each milling job. We don’t know why, but area mills seemed to change hands often. Some families, such as the Basores of Carroll County, specialized in gristmills, building new mills and improving old ones before moving on to the next challenge.
The Civil War was hard on mills. Unlike other area commanding officers on both sides of the conflict, Confederate General Ben McCulloch believed that mills should be destroyed. He wrote, “Every man who is a patriot and sound southern man will be the first to put the torch to his own grain or mill rather than have them left to aid the enemy.” In 1862 McCulloch ordered the burning of Fayetteville’s steam mill which produced 10,000 pounds of flour daily. The owners pleaded for the removal of their equipment but were denied. Mills which escaped destruction were often captured, the grain bought or seized to feed the troops. During the occupation of the Rhea Community, miller William Rhea showed on which side his sympathies lay. He charged the Confederates 2½¢ a pound for flour while the Federals were charged double.
After the war old mills were rebuilt and new ones begun. Many were powered with steam engines which didn’t require the flowing water of a water mill. But they did need lots of wood to fire the boiler. At Rhea’s Mill, the men supplying the wood to fire the boilers were paid 25¢ a day and received free flour and meal and wholesale prices at the owner’s mercantile store. The mill workers had a similar deal, but received $2 a day.
Milling began to change in the 1880s with the invention of the roller mill. Corrugated metal rollers and other advanced processing equipment ground flour finer and faster than the old millstones. With the coming of the railroads new markets opened up. Area farmers looking to make a profit used agricultural innovations to plant more acreage in soft winter wheat and corn. Some mills went into the flour business in a big way. In the early 1900s the Berryville Milling Company imported wheat from the North to mill and market.
Gristmills had their own brands of flour, often poetically named. At Johnson they offered “Cream of the Harvest” and “White Dove.” Over in West Fork “Jersey Lily” was a favorite while Kingston had “Pride of Arkansas.” At Osage Mills Dr. Philo Alden wrote of his “Gold Dust” brand flour, “A bride’s best dower, and when she’s through the making, her bread is light and sweet and white, and shows a perfect baking.” Some mills used their water and steam power to saw timber, card wool, and gin (process) cotton. A few mills even operated a government distillery. Having different business ventures made running a mill more profitable and kept customers coming back as the needs of the community changed.
The early 20th century saw a decline in gristmills. Railroads and the automobile made it easier to get ready-made flour to the stores, diets were more varied, and fewer folks were growing grain for home use or sale. New food-safety laws forced some mills to change to milling animal feed only. A few millers held on into the 1960s and 1970s, but one by one the mills went away—burned down, washed away, tumbled down, and forgotten. Today only the War Eagle Mill keeps on grinding.