Once in a while old-iron collectors happen to be in the right place at the right time.
This happened to me about five years ago at our local farm show, the Southern Indiana Antique and Machinery Club Classic Iron Show in Evansville, Ind. A man approached our exhibit with some photos in hand, asked if I recognized the device pictured and if I’d be interested in it.
One look at the photos and I immediately recognized a Meadows Mill Co. or Williams Mill Co. grist mill. I couldn’t tell from the pictures how large the mill was, but the mill’s owner said the stones were about the size of a large dinner plate.
Naturally, I was interested. I’ve missed enough good deals through the years to know not to hesitate when an unbelievable offer comes along. We jumped in the truck, and off we went to take a look.
Treasure hunt for a 12-inch gristmill
The mill’s owner lived about a mile from the show grounds, and was preparing to move and wanted to get the mill out of his shed, where the property’s previous owner left it some 20 years before. The previous owner had started restoring the mill, but abandoned the project part way through when he decided to sell everything, buy a boat and sail the world. The mill had sat in the shed ever since.
When we arrived, the shed was almost empty except for the mill, which was still in pieces from the previous owner’s aborted restoration. I measured the stones and determined it was a 12-inch mill - the most desirable and elusive of the stone mills. According to Meadows, which remains in business, only 300 or so 12-inch grist mills were built.
The grist mill looked fairly complete, and most of the wood had obviously been replaced. Its sheet metal hopper was conspicuously absent. As luck would have it, I’d noticed a funnel-shaped sheet metal hopper on a trash pile next to the owner’s garage. After I realized the mill had no grain hopper, I retrieved the one from the trash pile. Not only did it go with the grist mill, but the hopper also provided the missing clue to unravel the mill’s mystery maker – it was clearly a Meadows-made mill because Meadows used round, metal hoppers, while Williams mills came with square, wooden hoppers.
Next, I asked the owner what he wanted for the old grain grinder, and he countered with the classic, “Well, what would you give?” I explained that I never liked pricing another man’s collectibles. He nodded and asked, “Would $50 be OK?” That price sounded good to me, so I paid him and we loaded the mill in my truck. I looked the place over really well to ensure we’d found all the parts, then headed back to the show with my treasure in tow and a big smile on my face.
Evaluating the Meadows Mill Co. 12-inch gristmill
I took the mill home and stored it in the barn where we dry-assembled the parts several times during the next year, learning more about the mill with each effort. I also thoroughly researched Meadows grist mills, and found the Meadows employees very helpful.
In the process, I determined the sifter was missing, but they’re missing on most vintage grist mills and can be easily reproduced. One of the four legs that hold the feed hopper was missing, and a couple wooden pieces needed replacement, but otherwise the mill’s components were intact. Those discoveries were lucky ones, because the mill could’ve been in worse shape after being dismantled for so many years and abandoned.
4-H Americana project: Restoring the Meadows gristmill
About that time, my 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was looking for a restoration project for the 4-H Americana program. The 4-H Americana program allows students to exhibit an antique item, either in its original state or restored. The participant must research the item’s history and explain how it was used. If the item is restored, students document and describe the restoration process.
When I suggested that she could restore the Meadows grist mill, Elizabeth eagerly agreed.
Addressing the metal parts
We looked the grist mill over again so Elizabeth could familiarize herself with the dismantled device, and then tackled restoring the metal parts. The previous owner painted the metal pieces, but they’d rusted some through the years. Elizabeth used a wire bush on an angle grinder to remove the rust, then primed and painted all the metal.
The grist mill’s previous owner replaced most of its wooden parts, too, but insects had ruined some components. Yet, we only remade the mill’s 4- by 6-inch skids and one piece of the wood that encases the grindstones.
Next, we contacted Meadows again and obtained paint codes for the proper shade of red, and had our local Sherwin Williams paint dealer mix it. Meadows also offers decals for mill restoration, which we ordered. The firm published a nice company history book in 2002 to celebrate its 100th anniversary, and the many pictures inside were a huge help to correctly restore the mill, especially paint schemes.
Reaffixing the stationary stone
Meadows-made mills have one stationary grindstone and another affixed to a shaft that turns. The stationary stone is held in place by a concrete mixture, and we had to chip all the old concrete off the stone and affix the stone within the new wooden case with new concrete.
That step was done with extra care because it won’t grind the grain properly if the stationary stone isn’t exactly parallel to the moving stone. To make sure we got it right, Elizabeth and I contacted Meadows and anyone else we thought might know something about this process. John Bailey, an Internet buddy and fellow grist mill enthusiast from Louisiana, was a big help because he’d restored several similar mills, so we followed his advice the most. Placing the stone was much less of a problem than we’d feared, and the stone was re-cemented without trouble.
Making a new support leg
The missing hopper support leg was another problem. Meadows sells replacement legs, but they were an inch or two longer than the three legs we had. A company salesman said the longer legs would work, but we’d have to replace all four for $75 each – not something we wanted to do, especially when I’d only paid $50 for the entire mill!
Then the solution dawned on us: cast a new hopper leg. I’d collected bits and pieces of foundry equipment for the past 15 years with plans to try metal casting someday, and replacing the hopper leg seemed like the perfect time to give it a shot.
First, we read all the books and web pages we could find about home metal casting. Then we molded one of the existing legs in foundry sand that we purchased at a foundry supply house. Next, we melted some scrap aluminum in a gas-fired crucible furnace that I’d bought from a high school surplus sale, poured the aluminum into the mold and – lo and behold – it worked on the first try! The newly cast hopper leg wasn’t perfect, but after some grinding and a little black paint, I challenge anyone to tell the new leg from the original three.
The finished Meadows grist mill
After final painting and reassembly, it was time to take the Meadows grist mill to the fair. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth received a grand champion ribbon for her restoration efforts. Best of all, it was a great project that involved the whole family, and now we have a nice mill to take to farm shows – and we can even grind a little corn, now and then.
For more information on Keith and Elizabeth Kinney’s Meadows Mill Co. grist mill restoration and other projects, visit: www.herculesengines.com/mills.
Further gristmill research:
– Meadows Mills Inc., company website with restoration information and replacement parts.
– The Gristmill Exchange, an online forum for vintage grist mill enthusiasts.
– Websites dedicated to grist mill restoration: www.oldiron-nut.com/gristmills and www.oldiron-nut.com/williams.