The Miller's Tale

The story of the Plimoth Grist Mill and our quest to mill great history and delicious organic cornmeal!

Snow Day? No Way!

February 17th, 2014 by kim
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See our open flag? Despite a foot of snow last night, we are open. Come visit us!

Snow has not been in short supply here in beautiful, blustery Plymouth. Saturday night we got almost a foot more–apparently we were in the “sweet spot” and got way more than everywhere else. Thanks Mother Nature!

That hasn’t stopped us from opening our doors, however. We’ll be open all this week for February Vacation (wasn’t Christmas break, like, yesterday?) If you want to come to a beautiful place with lots of fun stuff for kids to do, pay us a visit. We’ll be here all week (February 15 – February 22), from 9am – 5pm. Kids can with take a mill tour and do fun stuff like making a model millstone, playing with a mini waterwheel, sifting cornmeal, making corn prints, and making a mini windmill. Don’t tell the little ones, but we bet they’ll even learn a little something too.

At Plimoth Plantation’s main site there are all kinds of kids’ workshops and behind the scenes tours too. For more info, visit our February Vacation page.


Snow and ice may make it hard to run the mill, but they sure do make for some pretty pictures. We’ve taken some time out from milling, tracking down heirloom corn varieties, and winter maintenance to grab some pictures here and there. Have a look…

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Front of the mill looking all quaint and New Englandy


Here are  some pictures of the mill pond. In the picture above, the mill pond is just to the left out of the frame. Water from the pond runs through a culvert, under the road, to the mill.

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Upper mill pond. The cement embankment to the right is the dam. The mill pond stores energy for us.


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Looking down the mill pond
(more properly known as an impoundment because it artificially impounds the water).


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Ducks who, I would like to think, are the ones that we call John and Sarah (after John and Sarah Jenney who built the mill in 1636).

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Swans-in-residence taking a snooze.

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So, come on down this week for a visit. And bring your camera. It really is this pretty.

Oh, and about that little gap since the last blog post…. Sorry about that. I could say that we were too busy actually doing things at the Mill to write about them, but that’s only partly true. Let’s just say that we’re back with all kinds of things, molinological and otherwise, to share.

So let’s keep in touch. There’s a lot of good stuff coming up at the Mill.

Herring Love, Part II

May 29th, 2013 by kim

When last we left our intrepid alewife friends they were boldly making their way to Billington Sea to spawn, swimming over 1 1/2 miles, up 81 feet, and past various predators (including a portly raccoon). Now, by late May, they’ve finished spawning and we’ve had the pleasure of watching them return to the sea.

alewife fish

Before we let them go to eagerly await the next step in the process–the migration of the new generation, also known as young of the year, to the ocean in late summer–we at the Miller’s Tale want to share a little about how humans have been helping alewives navigate man-made obstructions.

Years ago, alewives had only the usual impediments of predators and exhaustion to stand in the way of a successful spawn. Once people began to build water works, like dams, to harness the power of moving water, it became more difficult or even impossible for alewives and other migrating species to reach their spawning ponds.

As we mentioned in Herring Love, Part I, at some point Plymouth’s colonists realized that they needed to make “suitable provision” for the herring to get to the spawning grounds. Only one court record, however, mentioned why this was necessary. In 1702, Nathaniel Thomas was given permission to build a trough for the herring to go over his mill dam,

“…that soe the fish mite be preserved if it mite be that they mite not be beaten out of the brook.”

(That “mite” be the most confusing sentence ever written!)

The earliest ways to address the problem didn’t involve construction of fishways. In the 1660′s regulations were passed to establish times when herring could not be taken, to require that the mill “stopp water when the tide is out of the pond during the time of the herrings,” and to set men to watch the brook  to keep boys, pigs and dogs from “annoying them.” 

In the late 1660′s the town began to require that structures be built to provide a “convenient passage” for the herring. Flood gates, waste water courses, troughs, and “throwfares” were all mentioned as possible solutions. Unfortunately, we don’t know what any of these looked like.

Here at the Plimoth Mill today, a dam of about 10 feet provides water for our wheel. The photo below shows the fishway that we use to help the alewives get to the top of the dam.


Fishway along the back of the Plimoth Grist MIll

Here’s a view from the upper level, looking down. There are actually two fishways connected by a level resting area.


Alaskan Steeppass Fishway at The Plimoth Grist Mill

All sorts of devices have been built to help fish surmount dams today, the most famous of which is probably the fish ladder, where fish leap or wriggle up shallow steps. At the mill we have a baffle fishway. This kind provides a channel for the fish to swim up. Baffles in the channel break up the flow of water and provide a range of currents so that a variety of fish can successfully use the fishway. A strong current at the mouth of the channel attracts the fish. Our fishway is a type of baffle fishway known as an Alaskan Steeppass. Its modular design and light weight made it perfect to use in remote areas of Alaska.

fish ladder collage

Interior of Alaskan Steeppass and steeppass being installed

Once the herring have ascended to the top of the dam, they swim through a culvert under the road and emerge in the Jenney Mill Pond. There they go through a fish counting device which electronically counts each fish (though some timid fish dart in and out and get counted multiple times). The picture below shows David Gould, Plymouth’s Environmental Manager, working at the fish counter. In addition to the electronic data, volunteers take turns manually counting the number of fish that pass by in 10 minute increments and recording air and water temperature and weather conditions. The white platform at the end of the tube provides a contrast which makes it easy to count the fish, although it’s hard to keep track when, at the height of the run, there may be 200 or 300 in ten minutes!


Environmental Manager David Gould checking the fish counting station


Alewives emerging from the electronic fish counter

What’s the Sound of 100,000 Alewives Migrating?

That’s what Glorianna Davenport of Tidmarsh Farms wants to find out! Tidmarsh Farms in Plymouth is a wetlands restoration and conservation project which is restoring 250 acres of former cranberry bog into a more natural wetland system. As part of the stewardship program, they are using technology to create an online Living Observatory to help people connect with the natural world in a variety of ways, including by experiencing micro-sounds–sounds so small (like the sounds of dragonfly wings or alewives slipping through the water) that we usually don’t hear them.

“As part of the Living Observatory initiative, we are developing sensor networks that document ecological processes and allow people to experience the data at different spatial and temporal scales. Small, distributed sensor devices capture climate and other environmental data, while others stream audio from high in the trees and underwater.”

Click here to hear streaming audio from Tidmarsh Farms.

Gloria came to Town Brook this spring, before the start of the herring run, to meet David Gould and to talk about placing an audio recording device in Town Brook. An hour later the device was in the water and recording data.

Here are Glorianna and David checking out the equipment before it was placed.


Checking out the sophisticated audio recorder

David placing the microphone in the water.


Selecting a location

So what is the sound of alewives migrating? And how many alewives participated in the migration this year? We promise we’ll let you know as soon as the data is in.

Hooray for Herring!

Happy Mother’s Day

May 12th, 2013 by kim

A happy day of pampering and appreciation to moms everywhere!


Mama swan keeps a watchful eye on her cygnets at the Jenney Mill Pond




Herring Love, Part I

May 7th, 2013 by kim

Spring Has Sprung and a Young Herring’s Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Love

Or, at least, propagation of the species.

Spring has finally arrived in New England and as surely as the forsythias bloom and the peepers peep, the alewives–a kind of river herring called Alosa pseudoharengus–are returning to their parent streams to spawn. Luckily for us, part of the Plimoth Mill is built right over the top of Town Brook, so we bear daily witness to the migration of these plucky fish.

alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus

In Plymouth, they start their voyage at the mouth of Town Brook (just a stone’s throw from Plymouth Rock) and end up in Billington Sea. Over the course of their journey they will swap their normal saltwater habitat for freshwater (they are anadromous), swim about 1.5 miles against the current of the Brook, and gain 81 feet in elevation.

1.5 miles
Against the current
Uphill, 81 feet
From saltwater to fresh water



Herring schooled up and on their way up Town Brook

Having arrived at Billington Sea, the girl fish lay their eggs and the boy fish release milt over them. They then make the less strenuous but equally perilous return trip to the ocean. Each year the alewives return to the same parent stream to spawn. They can live as long as nine years. The babies, fry or “young of the year” hatch after three to five days. After growing for a few months in Billington Sea, in late summer they swim downstream to the ocean. After several years of maturing, they will return to the same brook in which they were hatched, their parent stream, to spawn.

The seasonal spectacle of alewives on parade makes a tempting and easy feast for seagull, osprey, cormorant, heron, striped bass, trout, otter, mink, and raccoon. At The Plymouth Mill we have a group of regulars who hang out waiting for dinner to present itself. There’s the cormorant in our lower tail race,  Miko  the raccoon who sleeps off alewife binges on our roof (and who isn’t at all good about cleaning up after himself), and two seagull regulars at their post–they remind me of the two grumpy hecklers on the Muppet Show.

predator collage

Like our resident chow hounds, humans have come to rely on the seasonal bounty of alewives. Herring were, and still are, an important part of life for the Wampanoag. They’ve been using alewives as food and as a source of fertilizer for corn for thousands of years. Wampanoag man Tisquantum (shortened to Squanto by the English) famously and generously shared the practice with the Pilgrims.

Wamp Squanto planting

A re-enactment of Squanto teaching a colonists how to grow corn and fertilize it with herring

Colonists quickly began to rely on alewives, but as decades passed they noticed a decline in the alewife population. They made the connection that waterworks and dams, like the one used to supply power to John Jenney’s grist mill, were blocking the herring from returning to their spawning grounds. Over fishing was also seen as a culprit. In 1662 legislation was passed which regulated the times in which herring could be taken (like the colonists, they got to take the Sabbath off!), limited use of the mill during the herring run, and stressed the importance of keeping animals and “Boyes” from bothering them during their migration. I guess boys will be boys, no matter the century.

…and that they are to lett them goe up on Fryday nights, on Saterday nights and on the Lord’s daies; and the town doth proibite all those that have enterest or shalbee Imployed in the Mill to stopp water when the tide is out of the pond during the time of the herrings; and that they the said parties are hereby authorized to take course for the preventing of Boyes, swine and dogs from annoying of them in theire coming up.”
1662, Records of the Town of Plymouth

In 1667 the town required that the mill make provisions, such as a flood gate, so that the alewives could have “…free libertie to goe up to spawn att the season therof…”

350 years later, the alewife population is still being monitored with an eye toward conservation. More on those efforts in the next post, Herring Love, Part II.

Below is an image of the herring way that runs behind our mill today, and which helps the fish get up and over our ten foot high dam. It’s made of two Alaskan Steep Pass fishways connected by a level with a resting spot in the middle. More on the fishway in the next post too.

Plimoth Grist Mill herring way

And here are a few of the over 100,000 alewives that will pass through it this year. Queued up and waiting their turn!


Waiting for their turn on the Plimoth Grist Mill herring way

So, if you live near a place where the herring run, get out there and appreciate them! Cheer them on like the marathon runners (or swimmers) that they are.



Milling Solo

April 9th, 2013 by kim

Here at The Plimoth Mill at Jenney Pond, we’ve been lucky to have talented millers and millwrights train us in the art of milling. We knew, however, the day would come when we’d have to grind solo. So we donned our miller’s aprons, plucked up our courage, and set the wheel in motion. We made it through unscathed, and with about 75 pounds of beautiful, fluffy, sweet smelling cornmeal to show for it!

Getting Ready

Here’s Michael, our supervisor and miller-in-training, checking things out before we get started.

Here’s our set-up. Most of the parts that you see were salvaged from a mill in Philadelphia, PA and were installed when our reproduction mill was built in 1970. These parts likely date from the early to mid 1800s.

Parts of mill furniture


Once we opened the sluice gate and let water onto the wheel, our runner stone began turning and we started juggling the amount of water going onto the wheel, the distance between the stones (called tentering), and the rate of flow of the corn. After about ten or fifteen minutes of fine tuning, Michael and I had all three adjustments working smoothly together and we began to get beautiful cornmeal.

Below is a close up of the shoe and the damsel. The shoe is the part, running from front to back, into which the corn has fallen. The angle of the shoe is adjusted to make the corn flow faster or slower. The damsel is the part in the middle that looks kind of like a top. It helps the shoe feed the corn into the eye of the stone by bumping up against the shoe and jiggling it. See how the damsel has those little metal bars? As the damsel rotates, the bars bump the shoe and shake out the corn. Clever, eh?  According to milling lore it’s called a damsel because it makes an incessant chattering sound….


And here’s what we were getting! Thanks to recent renovations on our spindle tip (more about that here), we were able to get the stones closer together. Closer stones mean finer cornmeal. We sifted the whole meal that was coming out of the stones and found we were getting about 90% cornmeal and about 10% grits. Grits, or samp as it was historically called in Plymouth, are just coarser bits of corn that are often prepared by boiling.

corn and grits

Cleaning Up

After grinding for about 3 hours, readjusting here and there as necessary, we stopped finished up for the day. You might say that we let things grind to a halt… We removed the hopper and chair, then the tun. Once the tun is taken off, you can see what happens inside. See how the corn is expelled from between the bed and runner stones? It collects within the tun and the motion of the runner stone pushes it around until it falls into the chute to the flour bin below.

tun removed, showing how corn is fed out of stones

Here we’re using the stone crane to remove the runner stone for cleaning. Thanks to simple machines, specifically the inclined plane of the iron screw, it takes only two of us to move a 2500 pound stone!

removing the runner stone

Here you can start to see the bed stone with the corn still on it.

lifting off runner stone

Here’s the bed stone revealed. This picture really shows what happens between the stones. See those wide lines that are filled with meal? They’re called furrows. The flat areas in between the furrows are called lands, and the lines on the lands are stitching. The pattern of furrows on the bed stone and on the runner stone run in opposite directions from each other. Once the corn is fed into the eye of the stone, it is drawn in between the stones by the furrows. The runner stone pushes the corn  around the stone, spiraling it to the outside edge. Because the furrows are opposite from each other, as the furrows interact, they scissor the corn into smaller and smaller pieces. See how the corn in the middle is whole, then it gets finer and finer closer to the edge? Also check out the lines in the meal that show you how the corn travels through the stones.

corn on the bed stone

So thus ended our first day of milling–we were tired, dusty, and just a little proud.

We’ll be milling on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 11am to 3pm, so come visit, and see how it’s done in person. Nothing beats seeing and hearing the waterwheel, gears and stones working together.


If you decide to visit over the next three or four weeks, you’re in for a treat! It’s just about time for the herring run, when the alewives (a kind of herring) trade their normal saltwater for freshwater and swim up town brook to spawn in Billington Sea (really just a big lake). On their way they’ll be ascending a herring ladder, or herring way, right next to the mill. The herring way provides a ramp so the herring can ascend the 10 foot rise in water level from the brook to the top of the of the mill dam. During the busiest part of the run you can see thousands of them waiting for their turn to use the run. It’s really an amazing sight!

Check back in the Miller’s Tale for more about the herring. We’re pretty excited about them, so I’m sure we’ll be posting frequently!

alewife fish

Peeps at the Mill

March 31st, 2013 by kim

A great day at the Plimoth Mill! Lots of sun, lots of cornmeal (we made about 150 pounds) and lots of very nice guests. And, some of our favorite peeps dropped by–three different kinds of peeps, in fact.

#1. Peeps That are Friends

A couple of nice young men and some friends dropped by. Thanks for visiting!

boys and friends visit

#2. Peeps that are Ducks

This nice couple has visited our lower mill race almost every day. I call them John and Sarah, for John and Sarah Jenney who started the the mill. Sarah likes to peck at things and fuss about. John likes to sleep.



#3. Peeps that are Marshmallows
Mini marshmallow millers. Adorable and delicious. They took over milling so I could have a break.
(Did you know that marshmallow peeps are made with corn? Corn syrup is one of their ingredients.)

peep triptych


Thanks to all our peeps for dropping by.  Come back soon!

Happy Spring from the Miller’s Tale!


A Spindle for the Plimoth Mill: a Milling Fairy Tale

March 28th, 2013 by kim

Hey friends of the Plimoth Mill.

Our spindle is back!

Thanks to the talented and hardworking Benjamin Hassett, of B.E. Hassett Millworks, our refurbished spindle is back and the millstone is once again turning. We ground some gorgeous cornmeal on Saturday, and we’re taking her for a spin again today. (More on our inaugural grind in the next post).

So what’s a spindle and why’s it important?

Mills and spindles are all over the place in fairy tales. Remember Rumplestiltskin? He used a spindle to spin straw into gold for the impoverished miller’s daughter. And of course there’s Sleeping Beauty who pricked her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle. A spindle, in the fairy tale and textile sense, is a “rod or pin, tapered at one end and usually weighted at the other, on which fibers are spun by hand into thread and then wound, or a rod or pin used for spinning on a spinning wheel.”

In the mill, a spindle is similar, but much, much larger. It is “any of various parts in the form of a rod, especially a rotating rod that acts as an axle, mandrel, or arbor.” That’s just what our spindle is. It’s the metal shaft upon which the runner stone (the upper millstone weighing a ton or more) balances and rotates.

The Problem

Over the years our spindle had gotten banged up and misshapen. As a result, the runner stone’s rotations were bumpy rather than smooth, and we had to grind with the stones relatively far apart to keep the bed stone and the runner stone from touching. 

Here’s the damaged spindle tip. Yikes!

Spindle tip showing damage


The Solution

About a month ago, Ben came up to pick up the spindle to take it to his shop in Lynchburg, VA where he had the tip and bottom re-machined, and had about an inch added to its length to make up length that had worn off.

Here’s Dave Tanner, Plimoth Plantation’s Associate Director of Buildings and Grounds and All Around Good Guy (not his real title, but it could be!), helping get the spindle and lantern gear ready to travel.

Mill spindle removed for repair


After about a month in Virginia, Ben and spindle were ready for the trek back to Plymouth. Unfortunately, only 25 miles from Plymouth, Ben was waylaid with a terrible flu. Plucky millwright this he is, after a few days rest he and spindle arrived at the mill.

Here’s the spindle with its shiny new tip.

Refurbished spindle ready for installation


Ben (conscientiously masked to contain contagion) and Dave’s son Andrew work on the re-installation.

Spindle re-installation


The beautiful new bronze bottom bearing. The little channel on the picture on the left is for oil to flow beneath and lubricate the bearing.



Here’s Ben boring out the rhynd so that it’s profile matches that of the spindle tip.

Matching rhynd profile to spindle tip


Checking the runner stone for balance. It should balance perfectly on the spindle.

Balancing runner stone


It didn’t…. So Ben went into the plaster dome to take out some weights that were previously added. See the metal plate and nuts? He also took out a couple of weight plates from a weight lifting set! You can see how another layer had been added over the original plaster.

Weights in runner stone


Repairing the plaster. First coat.

Repairing runner stone plaster


The spindle tip, before and after.



And we all milled happily ever after….

Trying out the new spindle. After milling for about 4 hours, we removed the tun (the wooden hoop that contains and corrals the cornmeal). Check out the beautiful meal!

Cornmeal and stones


So, if you haven’t been out for a visit yet, stop on by! If you can’t make it, here’s a video about the corn milling process that was generously produced by Frank Mand of Wicked Local Plymouth. Thanks Frank!




The Plimoth Grist Mill at Jenney Pond

March 15th, 2013 by kim

Meet our Mill!

The Plimoth Grist Mill at Jenney Pond

Isn’t she beautiful? This is The Plimoth Grist Mill and she’s our newest Plimoth Plantation exhibit. Through the mill and the story of its owners, John and Sarah Jenney, we’ll be exploring the role of mills in early colonial communities, the science and technology of milling, the importance and use of corn in the 17th century, and the ecology of beautiful Town Brook which runs alongside (and underneath) us.

The mill is a reproduction of the grist mill that was built in 1636 and run by Plymouth Colonist John Jenney.

“That Mr. John Jenny shall have liberty to erect a Milne for grinding and beating of corne upon the brooke of Plymouth to be to him and heirs forever. And shall have a pottle of corne toule upon every bushel for grinding the same…”
Plymouth Colony Court Records, 1636

Today’s mill was built in 1969 and opened in 1970. The mill is made from mill parts that were recycled from an early 19th century mill near Philadelphia, as well as newly constructed components and several timbers from a mill that was demolished on the same site in the 1960s.

Here’s our runner stone, bed stone and stone crane. All are from the Philadelphia mill.

Runner stone raised off of the bed stone

Runner stone raised off of the bed stone

A Little Help From Our Friends

Up until now, corn grinding at the Musuem was limited to the decidedly low-tech (even by 17-century standards) mortar and pestle method. If you’ve every visited our 17th-Century English Village or the Wampanoag Homesite, chances are you’ve been pressed into service pounding corn. Since we were newbies to the milling word and didn’t know our tuns from our gudgeons, we turned to some very talented, knowledgeable and generous folks for help.

Millwright Benjamin Hassett of B.E. Hassett Millwrights was here earlier this winter to dress our stones. We called him back a few weeks ago to refurbish our spindle–the metal shaft that links the gears to the runner stone, and upon which the runner stone sits– that was showing a couple of hundred years of wear. Ben and spindle are en route to Plymouth at this very moment, and the spindle will be re-installed over the next few days!  Check back in a few days for a post about the spindle installation.

Here’s Ben laying out the pattern on the runner stone.

Laying out the furrows on the runner stone

Laying out the furrows on the runner stone

Taking out the spindle and wallower so Ben can take them to his shop in Virginia.

Spindle and wallower removed for repair

Spindle and wallower removed for repair


With our machinery tune-up underway, we turned our attention to that small matter of learning how to mill. Mason Maddox Jr. to the rescue! Mason is a wonderful miller and trainer of millers who operates Colvin Run Mill in Virginia. He’s also very active in SPOOM, The Society for Preservation of Old Mills. Over the course of four days, Mason put us through our paces, training us in the history of mills, food safety and sanitation, and the safe operation of the mill. 600 pounds of corn later, we were starting to get the hang of it and were thoroughly smitten with milling!

Here’s our new pal Mason teaching us how to lower the runner stone back into place on the spindle.

Mason giving me a hard time!

Mason giving me a hard time!


Putting it All Together

A small team of us has also been working on the Plimoth Grist Mill exhibit. (Thanks Karin, Marie, Rita, Richard, Aaron and Bridget for your great work.). The panels went up today. I may be biased, but I think it looks great!

Here are some of us, hard at work on exhibit text.

Exhibit prep powered by Dunkies

Exhibit prep powered by Dunkies


So… it’s been a jam packed, fun-filled, fast-paced winter. All to get ready for our museum opening on March 16.

Which is tomorrow!

We’re ready. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop on by. The wheel will be turning, and we’d love to show you ’round.


Where there’s a mill, there’s a way.





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