Believe it or not, I haven’t always sat in the editor’s desk, pen in hand, frantically scribbling stories about vintage farm equipment. In fact, Keith Kinney’s tale on page 46 about restoring a Meadows Mill Co. gristmill brought back sweet memories of my days grinding grain at the old mill.
It’s not work that many folks in 21st-century America experience, especially those too young to recall the important role the local gristmill once played in a community.
Yet, I wouldn’t trade my days spent at War Eagle Mill in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas for anything.
Working beside my uncle Joe, I learned some of the miller’s arcane arts.
For example, I learned how to set the grinding stones to the perfect width so the delicate cornmeal wouldn’t burn, nor would it be too coarse for baking good cornbread.
I learned that French-granite grindstones imported in the early 1800s must be ‘dressed’ (akin to sharpened) so the grain is properly ground as it passes between the stones.
I learned that 50-pound sacks of grain get much heavier as the hours pass, and that sleep comes easily when one hefts dozens of those big sacks in a work day.
I learned the meaning of the word ‘groats,’ and how to determine a grain’s freshness by eating a raw handful (another trick I learned by watching my astute uncle in action).
I learned the vast difference between wheat and buckwheat, and that each plant looks quite different in the field. More importantly, I learned to love the rich flavor of buckwheat waffles with real maple syrup -truly one of the best fruits of my seemingly endless labor.
Yet, not all lessons were welcome, even if they are memorable. For instance, I also learned that millpond dams are deadly at flood stage. I’ll never forget the anxious crowd gathered by the river’s shore, hoping that the unlucky fellow who’d dared to float the raging river would survive after his boat capsized at the dam. Sadly, his father found the body many miles downstream nearly a week later.
Eventually, I left mill work behind and finished college. Like many old gristmills across America, memories are all that remain of my days spent grinding grains on the banks of the clear-flowing War Eagle River. Still, even though the work was difficult, I wouldn’t trade those hard-earned lessons for anything.