In-Depth

Wye Grist Mill still keeping its nose to the grindstone

 

When the water wheel moves at the Wye Grist Mill, the entire building feels the rhythm. The millstones whirl and rumble. The floorboards hum underfoot.

"It's noisy, it's cranky, it works a little bit differently every day," said volunteer guide and miller Jim Casey.

While the millstones grind the grain, Casey extracts a sample of fresh flour from a small chute. He presses the flour between his fingers — the original "rule of thumb," he explains — to check for quality and see if the mechanical system needs adjusting. It often does.

Mill volunteer Andy House pours a bag of grain down a chute, which starts it on it way to the grindstones. (Dave Harp)

Mill volunteer Andy House pours a bag of grain down a chute, which starts it on it way to the grindstones. (Image courtesy: Dave Harp / Bay Journal)

Temperature and humidity change the wood, the canvas belts and even the heavy millstones. "You have to keep talking to it," he said.

The Wye Grist Mill and Museum, located about 15 miles east of Maryland’s Bay Bridge, is more than three centuries old, producing flour and cornmeal on Maryland's Eastern Shore almost continuously since 1682.

The building has acquired some personality along the way, and Casey clearly loves it.

The current grist mill is a plain but sturdy wooden building with a crisp red waterwheel that was installed in the early 1900s. It hugs the edge of a road in the rural village of Wye Mills, named for the cluster of mills that once existed there. Today, only the grist mill survives.

Its presence bears witness not only to the long reign of rural life on the Shore, but to a time when the Bay's waters meant power, commerce and life-saving shipments of grain to George Washington's revolutionary army.

"It's a working piece of history," Casey said.

The mill is driven by a surprisingly small creek that seems to appear from nowhere. In reality, it flows from a 50-acre pond, blocked from view by a high grass embankment.

The water flows under the road through a tunnel and emerges suddenly at the side of the mill. It meets the water wheel and crashes to life, triggering a series of belts and wheels inside the mill. The creek makes an 11-foot drop before resuming its sleepy course to the Wye River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Inside the mill, there's a refreshing low-tech clarity to the mechanical system. Nothing is nano-size, let alone electronic or hidden from view. The network of wheels, belts, chutes and bins takes up three levels in the building, but water and gravity do the work.

On the main level, the miller empties his grain through a hatch on the floor and the grain drops to the cellar.

From the cellar, the grain moves through various chutes and sifters that lift it to the upper floor and then drop it to millstones on the main level.

In the late 1700s, this design was cutting-edge technology. It spared millers the backbreaking work of lifting sacks, and cleaning and sifting grain by hand. The Wye Grist Mill was among the first to install the automation process in 1791.

Millstones still required careful attention. Millstones are large stones, hand-tooled into circles like dense, oversize wheels. One stone hovers above the other, hundredths of an inch apart. The grain is trapped and ground between them.

A millstone surface is flat, but incised with geometric patterns throughout to improve grinding and air flow. Without good air flow, heat between the stones can cause a spark and, in a mill, that's dangerous. A spark in flour dust can cause an explosion.

The bottom stone is locked in place, but the top stone must constantly be adjusted.

"It's like a tire," Casey said. "It has to be balanced.”

According to Casey, Maryland had 800-900 mills operating during the 1890s. "They each served about a 10-mile area, which was pretty much all you could go by wagon in one day," Casey said.

On the flat terrain of the Eastern Shore, mills with wind turbines were common, too. According to Casey, one miller at the Wye Grist Mill actually installed wind turbines but the next miller reverted to the water wheel.

Farmers brought grain to the Wye Grist Mill and spent the day at the local tavern while waiting for the miller to process it. Some flour and cornmeal fed their families, but portions stayed with the miller to pay for his services.

The miller exported the grain he collected by moving it downstream to Wye Landing on a wide, flat-bottomed boat called a bateau. From there it was shipped down the Bay to the Atlantic Ocean and markets abroad.

For years, exporting grain was good business. Although tobacco is the Bay region's most famous crop, the market for grains was more stable and better suited to farmers with limited acreage.

"Tobacco was hard on the soil," Casey said. "Once the soil was depleted, it could take 20-some years to replenish it. If you were rich, you could just drop one plot and move on to the next one. But only if you had a lot of land.”

Tobacco profits also depended on the European market. But Europe was often at war, and that disrupted sales. "War there meant recession here," Casey said.

But even during war, Europe was hungry for grain.

The situation changed with the American Revolution, when Britain became the enemy instead of the customer and set up blockades in the Chesapeake Bay. The Americans needed flour, bread and cornmeal to feed their own army.

"Virginia had been mostly raising tobacco, and you can't eat tobacco," Casey said. "Pennsylvania had lost a lot of farms to Indian raids, and they needed more grain to feed all of the people moving into Philadelphia.”

Fortunately, Maryland's fields were still well-positioned to produce grain. A cluster of its Eastern Shore counties answered the need so vigorously that they were dubbed the "breadbasket of the Revolution." By 1790, Casey said, they had largely discarded tobacco production in favor of corn and wheat.

Mills cranked out flour and the Maryland Council stressed the Army's "great dependence on Maryland for supplies.”

The Wye Grist Mill played an important role because its manager, William Hemsley, was a colonel in the local militia charged with procuring grain, flour and corn for the Continental Army. He also provided supplies that were shipped to army warehouses on the Elk River and to Washington's soldiers at Yorktown.

The Wye mill had a more modest mission in the long years that followed, scaling down to serve local farms and consumers. The mill's longevity is due in part to geography.

"The Eastern Shore was really isolated, so the miller still had markets," Casey said.

In 1953, one year after the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the mill's last private owner sold the building and grounds to the state of Maryland. The new bridge carried an influx of delivery trucks that supported grocery stores and farm services, depleting the mill's profits. Winthrop Blakeslee, who purchased the mill in 1918, was ready to retire.

After restoration work by Preservation Maryland, the Friends of Wye Mill assumed ownership. The nonprofit group continues to grind grain and sell their products, including wheat flour, buckwheat flour, barley flour and cornmeal, but their real aim is to welcome guests and share the story of Maryland mills.

In the future, Casey would like the water to tell more of that story. He has traveled the creek by kayak to reach Wye Landing, where generations of millers shipped their products from the mill to market. Erosion has left the route shallow, with about six portages, but none of them long.

With a little work, the creek would be in good shape for paddling. "It would be a great historic trail," Casey said.

Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors of the Chesapeake region.

March 6, 2017

Main image: Fully ground meal is sold at the mill. (Dave Harp)
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