Milling Out West

Learn how milling evolved on the western frontier to use different parts of the grains, creating fine flour for baking and bran for spirits.

| January 2019

Foos Grain Mill. Photo courtesy of R. Scheuerman Collection.

Regional Milling

While grinder and quern grain crushings were acceptable for gruels, flummeries, and biscuits, pioneers craved milled flour for good bread. High protein hard red wheats, prized for their “rising” qualities, were difficult to mill with stone burrs. Steel rollers introduced after mid-century more effectively separated the middling germ, endosperm, and bran, and greatly speeded up the tedious milling process, which in turn increased production. Tumwater pioneers George and Isabella Bush obtained one of the first hand-crank steel models.

In 1852 American entrepreneur E. D. Warbass built a gristmill and sawmill at the thriving settlement of Warbassport (Cowlitz Landing), and in the spring of 1856 Oregon Territorial Militia Volunteer Francis Goff oversaw construction of a blockhouse granary on the Chehalis River at present Chehalis. One of the builders, area pioneer Joseph Borst, acquired the structure the following year and continued using it to store sacked grain. In 1859 gristmills had been established in the Walla Walla Valley, at the Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille missions, and at Frenchtown and Ft. Owen in the Bitterroot Valley. A. H. Reynolds, John Sims, and Captain Frederick T. Dent – brother-in-law of Ulysses S. Grant – established the Walla Walla operation along Yellowhawk Creek south of the army post. Their enterprise expanded within two years to include a distillery using bran and shorts from the mill, and a brisk business in both flour and spirits followed to mining towns and farming communities from Lewiston to Boise. The Northwest’s first commercial breweries also appeared in the 1850s. Henry Saxer founded Portland’s Liberty Brewery in 1852, followed by others in Steilacoom (1854), Walla Walla (1855), and Ft. Vancouver (1856). Immigrant entrepreneurs Henry Weinhard and George Bottler established Portland’s second brewery in 1856, and in the following decade Weinhard acquired Saxer’s and Bottler’s interests to launch one of the region’s most successful and enduring businesses.

Gristmill Interior Workings. photo courtesy of Commonwealth of Virginia Parks Division.

By 1860, about a dozen other grist mills were operating along water sources in present Clark, Lewis, and Pierce counties. The first Okanagan Valley gristmill in British Columbia was built at Lillooet near Kamloops in 1864. Increased demand for milled grain products and a burgeoning population west of the Cascades developed markets that encouraged eastside farmers and stimulated settlement. In 1865 the first flour mill in eastern Oregon was established by Martin Hazeltine and Alec McCallum in John Day City. Two years later a Walla Walla miller ventured to ship fifteen barrels of flour to Portland and received orders for five thousand more within two weeks.

Commercial millers installed corrugated steel rollers and bolting equipment by the 1870s to better separate bran from germ. Rollers were designed with canted steep grooves to peel away the outer layer of kernels that passed through several grindings. The crushings then went through a series of siftings with fabric sieves (usually cotton, linen, or silk) and screens. This process yielded several grades of flour from white, or light “superfine” flour, to brown. Mark Carleton, a late-nineteenth century USDA cerealist, recommended a ratio of 80 percent hard red wheat flour and 20 percent durum. Nineteenth-century “patent flours” were distinct company blends of various varieties and grades.


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