What is grist and why would you want to mill it?
I traveled to Woodland, Washington recently to seek answers to these and other vexing questions. The Cedar Creek Grist Mill, originally built in 1876, stands on log pilings above a vigorous creek that divides a moist, green glen, forty minutes north of Portland, Oregon. Upstream from a covered bridge, the weathered mill is a relic from the past. It is the oldest building in Washington that is still performing the same function that it was originally constructed for. It is a water-powered mill in a petro-chemical present, a holdover from a time before the Industrial Revolution.
Water-powered mills date back to the centuries before Christ. The ancients discovered that flowing water could be made to strike paddles mounted on an axle, rotating both a central shaft and a grindstone. Spinning against a stone bed, the grindstone quickly reduces wheat to flour. Harnessing the energy of water relieved humans (or contentious animals) of the burden of providing biological energy to perform this task.
The Cedar Creek Grist Mill was built to supply the flour needs of the pioneers who were moving into the area in the late-nineteenth century. George Woodham, a miller, built the original mill on this site. He hoped to grind the grain that was produced north of Portland. Farmers transported their grain to the mill in wagons, waited to have their crops reduced to flour and animal feed, and then transported the result back to their homesteads. Woodham, and the millers who ran the mill after him, would support themselves by taking a percentage — the miller's share — of the product, and reselling it.
A prerequisite for a water-powered mill is a rapidly flowing stream like Cedar Creek. The water is diverted from the creek, 650 feet upstream from the mill. It flows through a wooden flume that drops three inches for every one hundred feet the water travels. At the end of the course, the water strikes the paddles of the turbine. The resulting force is then transmitted through a system of shafts, drive belts, and pulleys, ultimately turning the mill's grindstone at a speed of 300 revolutions per minute.
Standing in the dark interior of the mill, I can feel the force of the water shaking the wooden flanks of the flume. When the grindstone isn't spinning, the unneeded water is discharged from a side panel in the flume, creating a small waterfall upstream from the mill. In fact, the mill is rarely in operation. After years of neglect, a lengthy restoration project (1980-1989) restored it to working condition, and today, a small group of volunteers grind grain on the weekends for visitors.
The time has come. "Let's make some flour," announces one of the volunteers. His assistant scoops a bucketful of red winter wheat from a garbage pail and pours it into the hopper on top of the mill. This is the grist, grain from which the husk has been removed.
Levers are pulled. The discharge vent in the flume is closed, concentrating the force of the flowing water onto the paddles of the Leffel turbine beneath the wood plank floor. The drive shaft begins to turn, pulleys lurch into motion, and the long drive belt turns the grindstone concealed inside the mill.
I expected a noisier, dustier process; in fact, the mill is reasonably quiet, certainly no louder than the creek smashing on the rocks below the building. Dust is vented outside. No one is coughing up flour.
Flour, produced by natural forces alone, begins to trickle out into a catch pan at the base of the mill. As it accumulates, the volunteers fill small paper bags with newly-ground flour. The bags are donated by local businesses: today's flour is being packaged in paper sacks that bear a logo for Krispy Krunchy Chicken. Each visitor receives a bag to take home.
All too soon the mill works its way through the bucket of wheat. The diversion port on the flume is reopened and the driveshaft slows to a stop. There is something fundamentally amazing in this process, a machine that creates a product employing only the forces of nature. There are no petroleum-belching engines or electric motors driving the process. The wheat, a product of its cultured environment, is ground by a non-polluting natural force. While some companies claim to offer "all-natural" products, there is no doubt that the Cedar Creek Grist Mill delivers. It is hard to envision any flour more environmentally sound than the bag that rides in the backseat of my car.