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