In the “old days” they had to resort to various means to prepare food for the table, and perhaps no stage is more interesting than the story of how corn and wheat were ground.
In many families they had a grater. They might have called it a “stuffing machine”. It was made from a piece of tin, of whatever size it was possible to get. They punched it full of holes, bent it with the convex rough side, and then nailed it to a piece of board, forming a kind of semi-cylinder. Corn was rubbed on a cob, like clothes are rubbed on a washboard, and ground into a meal that fell on the board and ran into a wooden trough made for the purpose. This was a tedious process, but it was the best for many of them.
The next step was what some have called a “hominy block” which is arranged on top of a stump or block cut from a tree and placed at the end and chiseled or fired to make something like a large mortar. For the pestle they sometimes used a large smooth stone weighing about fifteen or twenty pounds. This was much like the Aboriginal plan to put corn in a hole in a rock and rub it against another. A sort of whack, perhaps three feet long, and weighing ten or fifteen pounds. They even improved it and bent a sapling, and tied a piece of wood, six inches or more in diameter and six or eight feet long, in such a way as to let the logs be lowered by drawing them, and by this process labor was reduced.
The inventive mind, driven by necessity, devised another plan. If a sapling is not at hand, they sometimes put a pole twenty-five or thirty feet long across a thorn with the heavy end under the corner of the house in such a way as to allow the spring of the pole to lift the weight.
Next comes the hand mill, like the one used in the Holy Land today, and to which Jesus refers when he says, “Two women will grind in a mill, one will be taken and the other left.” It was made of two stones, one of which was fixed and called the bedrock. The one moving above it was called the runner. A post was placed through the runner, one end ending in the stone bed and the other in a hole in the piece of wood above. By this shaft a pole of perhaps ten feet in length was placed in such a manner as to have the two handles against which two persons could push. Corn was fed through a hole in the runner and meal dripped out from under it at the edges. This was free to the neighborhood and each family did their own milling.
The next step was probably the horse mill, made in the same way only larger, allowing a horse or oxen to go in a circle twenty feet or more in diameter. This was improved by placing the horse, or a team of horses, or yoke of oxen, in a separate “sweep” mounted on an upright beam which was the axle of a wheel fifteen or twenty feet in diameter. This large wheel carried a suede or cowhide belt running on a much smaller wheel on the runner’s axle. About that time they started charging victims and the law said it should be a tenth. They had not yet established a system of weighing the grain and giving it a grind, but each had to wait for it to be ground. People traveled long distances and often had to wait a long time. This gave rise to the phrase “like going to the treadmill” when you are expected to wait your turn. It is said that when General Logan was a boy, he walked thirty miles to the mill. He, of course, had to stay for the night, but that night it rained. The belt got wet and stretched until it fell off. Some hungry dog chewed part of it so hard that it had to kill an ox, nail its skin and make part of a new girdle. In this way he was held for several days. My father, when he was just a lad, drove an entire yoke of oxen that far with a load of corn and wheat. He sold part of the wheat at fifty cents a bushel.
The next step in this evolution was the water mill, which was much the same, but was powered by water power. If for no other reason, we’ll remember the kind Miller has pulled out for ages at the expense of the popular poem, “Little Jerry, Miller.”
Near the end of the pioneering days, the steam mill came into being. There was not yet a definite system according to which corn or wheat could be substituted for meal or flour and carried away without waiting for it to be milled. Mills became more plentiful and people took smaller quantities to mill, often no more than three bushels of corn and three of wheat, sometimes less. They spoke of this as a “turn in the grind”. Very little wheat was used because it was very difficult to harvest and thresh. Fifty bushels was considered a large crop of wheat. If it was installed at all, it was through suede full of tiny holes, pierced with a red hot wire. In few things have people changed more than the preparation of “bread”.
Watch George Washington’s windmill in action!