By Curtis Anders
Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in eighteenth and nineteenth century North Carolina. The first recorded North American gristmill was built in Jamestown, Va., in 1621. As settlers moved from the Jamestown area into what is now northeastern North Carolina, they carried their milling techniques with them and began building small mills to grind grain. There were few communities without a mill and many had more than one. Early court records reveal that often-times there were several on a single stream. Most were gristmills, but others pressed apples for cider, were sawmills and performed other tasks.
Gristmills generally operated by guiding a stream of water into a waterwheel, which provided the power to rotate the series of huge millstones that crushed the grain into progressively smaller pieces. Most early North Carolina gristmills were situated along creeks for a source of water power and were usually near natural falls. Power was increased by building dams. On some mills, millraces were built to carry water to the mill, particularly those equipped with an overshot type of wheel. The demand for grinding grain for use as flour or meal grew as the population of North Carolina increased.
In 1715 the legislature passed a law in effort to encourage the settlement of the Carolina back country frontier. This law granted 50 acres of land to mill operators and gave them an exemption from taxes and service in the state militia. This act contained a provision subjecting all mills to government regulation because of their “public” character. Despite these efforts, the number of mills in the colony remained small until the mid-eighteenth century. A more extensive and detailed law was passed in 1758, giving the colonial government greater supervision over the operation of mills.
Roller mills, an 1876 invention first used in John Sellers’s mill in Philadelphia had a tremendous impact on the milling industry. The roller mill had several advantages over stone mills. Primarily among them was a product that was more uniform and had a more appealing appearance to customers. The use of rollers eliminated the need for stone “dressing,” the periodic sharpening of millstones, saving the miller money and time. The rollers also extracted more flour from the same amount of wheat as the millstones. Most North Carolina mills built after 1876 were of this variety.
Prior to 1900, there were at least two hundred water-powered mills in Sampson County. Because of the mills’ importance in creating flour for food, they became essential to the life and growth of a community. In the pre-Revolutionary era, John Sampson, Sampson County’s namesake, owned a gristmill along the Beaver Dam Branch. The mill became a focal point of the community, and a town that would become Clinton began to grow around it. The millstone represents hard work, community, cooperation, and innovation – all qualities exemplified by the people of Clinton and Sampson County.
Few of North Carolina’s older gristmills remained operational at the beginning of the twenty-first century, having become obsolete in the shadow of the larger, more efficient grain processors of the Midwest. House’s Mill located on Seven Mile Swamp, near Newton Grove in Sampson County claims to be the oldest continuously operating gristmill in the state, having ground flour and meal since 1812. It all started back in 1812 when the House family migrated from England to Newton Grove, North Carolina. The millstones for the original mill were shipped across the Atlantic from England to Wilmington, North Carolina, and then ferried up the Cape Fear River and transported by oxcart and mule team to the original mill site in Newton Grove.The House mill grew and eventually merged with the Autry Brothers Mill Company in 1967 to form what is now called House-Autry Mills.
The oldest known mill site is that of the Stacy Crumpler Mill, believed to be on the site of a mill mentioned in the 1769 will of William Butler. M. Tommy Crumpler (1872-1935) and his son, Stacy Crumpler (1908-living), rebuilt the mill house and its milling apparatus in 1924; it has not operated for a number of years. The frame structure is representative of the county’s rebuilt mills of the 1930s, with the milling apparatus contained in the gable section with a two-level floor, and the dam gates and water turbine underneath; the mill house sits in the center of the earthen dam, over the spillway.
The Crumplers were active in the rebuilding of several grist mill houses, including the Vann-Boney Mill in 1934, the Rob Crumpler Mill in 1935, and the Turlington-Riley Mill in 1965; the Turlington Riley Mill had a sawmill at the turn of the century. All three were on sites of old mills, often being rebuilt when the dam broke. Other mill houses in the county that framed and weather boarded structures similar to the Stacy Crumpler Mill, are the Sampson Warren Mill, rebuilt in the 1870s; the Preston Jernigan Mill, built about 1900 on the site of a former family cotton mill; the Tart Mill, rebuilt in the 1920s to 1930s; and the Lewis Jernigan Mill, rebuilt about 1930.
The last of these grist mills to operate was the Vann-Boney built in early 1800, located on Boney Mill road is a very good example of what a gristmill looked and operated like. The mill was owned by Hugh Vann of Taylor Bridge Road before it was sold to Mathew and Elizabeth Boney in 1934, rebuilt and operated it until 1956. The Boney family owned other mills in Duplin County. Other mills in Sampson County were the Warren Mills, both ceasing active milling in the mid-1960s, and the Blackman’s Mill. It does not look like a mill from the outside but it is, located on Oak Grove Church Road, Williams Mill, and Isaac Lane Mill on McCullen/Goshen Church Road
There are also several surviving mill ponds without their mill houses, and several dams that have either collapsed or have been drained. Mills dotted our country and Sampson County that were the social gathering places for our ancestors that allowed them to survive. The one thing you had to have to survive was water, so most creeks and swamps were damned to create water flow to run the mill. How the mill works starts with the grain of course. Grist mills grind a variety of grains, such as wheat, rye and corn. Most grist mills use native grown corn, the most common “grist for the mill.” The corn is husked, and then dried for 6 to 8 months. It is then shelled and bagged for milling. Into the hopper the dried, shelled corn is then poured out of the bag, and into the hopper. The hopper is the receptacle above the grinding stone. A vertical rod, called the “damsel,” is then used to shake the kernels downward, through the “shoe” and into the millstone. The hopper releases an average of three bushels of corn an hour for grinding.
Most mills have two millstones about 15 inches thick, and weigh 1 1/2 tons each. An enormous tonnage, considering that one was imported from France. The 4’ French Bhurr Stone was used for wheat and rye, and the 56’ granite stone is used for corn. The grinding surface of these “runner” stones, or top stones, is concave and carved in spoke patterns. The runner stone sits atop another “bed stone” or “nether stone,” which is also carved. As the top stone rotates, the grain first gets cracked in the middle of the two stones, and then is pushed to the outside by the spoke-like pattern. The finest grinding occurs along the perimeter. When the millstones need to be cleaned, sharpened or repaired, the runner stone is lifted with a Stone Crane, using a hand screw jack.
Traditionally, the millstone rotates by water power. A sluice gate was used to start and stop the flow of water from the mill pond across the road. The sluice gate was opened by a turning sluice wheel, which starts the flow of water, causing the water wheel to turn, thus providing power to grind the grain. Eventually, as water levels in the mill pond became unreliable, drying out during much of the year, water power at some mills was supplemented with a truck engine. By 1960, the mill was powered entirely by this engine. Now the mills utilize electric power.
The chaff of the grain is separated as the ground corn falls from the grain spout. It is filtered through a mesh screen that sifts out the courser pieces of the corn’s bran, or outer layers. Freshly ground sacks of corn are then hauled into the bagging room, where it is weighed on a scale and hand-bagged. Since traditionally milled corn contains none of the preservatives found in store bought grains, it should be kept refrigerated to preserve freshness.