A modern tale of an Appalachian gristmill
The farm to table movement has its heart in the right place. It aims to bring fresh, local food directly from the producer to the consumer, with no factory in between to add preservatives or extract nutrition. No one can argue with that. But not all food can be delivered from the field to your table. It does require some processing first — not to change its nutritional value, but to turn it into usable food.
Long before giant food processing plants and conglomerates took over the job of turning fresh-cut food into palatable products, Appalachian farmers relied on the local gristmill to transform their grains into foodstuff. Everything from cornmeal and grits to bread and biscuits began at the gristmill following the harvest.
Grist refers to a grain that’s ground up to make flour, and the mill is the building in which it’s ground. Working gristmills in the Appalachians are local treasures — living, operable reminders of how our forefathers and mothers fed their families. The gristmill is the forerunner of the modern food factory, which usually was too far from the farm for any true mountain farmer’s tastes.
North Carolina Roots
Just outside Waynesville, North Carolina, sits the 19th-century Francis Grist Mill. Built to grind wheat and corn, the Francis Mill remained operational until 1976, when it fell into disrepair. The Francis Mill Preservation Society, formed by Tanna Timbes, led to its restoration. Timbes’ great-great-grandfather built the mill, and she saw the restoration as a way to pay tribute to her roots. Today, the mill holds a place of honor on the National Register of Historic Places.
In early September every year after the corn harvest, water from a nearby pond turns the mill’s giant wheel, which in turn moves the stones that grind the grain. The mill runs now thanks to the efforts of countless volunteers and millwright John Lovett, who fabricated many of the moving parts inside the mill to replicate the original pieces.
Food, Fun, and a Little History
The Preservation Society continues to actively raise funds for the mill’s upkeep and operations. Music festivals and vintage car shows, for example, take place on the one-acre Francis Grist Mill grounds. Area schools book educational tours, and the mill is an integral part of the annual Cold Mountain history tour.
And don’t forget about the food. The grits and cornbread are must-haves when you visit. Check the Preservation Society’s website to find directions and a list of upcoming events. You can even get recipes for the Francis Mill Corn Meal or stone-ground grits you take home.
How a Gristmill Works
1. A sack hoist lifts a bag of corn or wheat to the top story of the mill.
2. The grain gets dumped into the dirty grain bin.
3. The grain passes through a circular screen that whirls the clinging dust and mold from the grain. The heavier useable grain falls through a screen mesh called the smutter.
4. All the dirt (smut) is cleaned off, and the grain drops to the wheat garner or storage bin.
5. From the garner, the wheat is fed into a hopper.
6. A runner stone, turned by a gear train transmitting power from the water wheel, grinds the grain.
7. The ground flour falls through a chute below a stationary bed stone into a bin.
8. An elevator carries the ground flour back up to the top floor, where the hopper boy, a rake-like machine with splayed wooden teeth, sweeps the freshly ground grain toward the center, cooling it down.
9. The hopper boy feeds the cooled flour down a central chute to the slanted bolter.
10. From the bolter, the flour passes through different layers of meshed silk — moving from the finest flour to middlings, shorts, and bran. Each size drops into respective bags.
11. From there, the flour goes straight to the kitchen.