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Flour Mill at Stratford Hall

I visited Stratford Hall in Virginia, the home of two signers of the Declaration of Independence and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. While there I learned about the art, and I do mean art, of milling.

One of the aspects of gardening that I've always enjoyed is its ability to help us connect with so many other interests-such as cooking, painting, travel, and certainly history. It's especially nice with so many of these interests come together. This was the case one winter when I visited Stratford Hall in Virginia, the home of two signers of the Declaration of Independence and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

Steve Bashore operates the Stratford Mill and took me on a tour.  If you're like me and enjoy eating then you'll find it fascinating to see how the grain goes from the field to flour.

Steve Bashore: This is a restored mill so it was reconstructed in 1939, but it's on the original foundation of the Lee Mill which was built some time in the late 1740.

Allen: In the creation and sighting of a mill I guess there are components and elements that need to be in place.

Steve: Obviously with a water mill there has to be water source and it's amazing with how with all our computers and stuff today, those early mill builders, called millwrights, 9 times out of 10 sited a mill in the best location. I mean, you could plug all that data into a computer and 9 times out of 10 they got it right. And then after constructing the mill building, you have to construct the guts of the mill, which is the gearing.

The best way to think of a mill is to think of it as a machine with a building around it. Now, the water will come from the mill pound and it will fill this large wooden box above the waterwheel and this box is called the flume and the flow of water is controlled through gates, so there's a millpond gate that I could open that would control the water to the mill, a gate to the water will which would allow the water to flow out onto the wheel and rotate it. We really don't run the mill as hard as it was run in the 1700, because we really aren't in business for that. But remember, this was a business. People forger, it's romantic, it's picturesque, but remember it was built to make a profit.

So this mill in its hey day could make about 45 hundred pounds of flour a day. And that's an 8 to 10 hour work day or longer. But that's how productive a little mill like this was. The wooden gearing drives a metal spindle that runs and upper stone that rotates. Below that is a lower stone that we call a bed stone that is set in the floor. Only the top stone is turning and we feed that grain into the stone, it goes between the two and it's ground and the mill goes to the lower level of the mill. So, the close the stones get the finer the flower will be. The further apart the more coarse so when I do grits the stones are gapped out more then when I do wheat flour.

Now if you get it too close you'll know it right away, not because you can see it, but because you can smell it. You smell a burning smell inside the mill and you've heard "keep your nose to the grindstone" -that's where that phrase began because a miller could tell the stones were rubbing and he was in a danger zone and he could adjust the lever and gap out the stones a little bit so that smell will dissipate.

Allen: It truly is an art.

Steve: It's an old art, it's a dying art, just as the millwright, the builders of these things are a dying art. And that's what's more important than the milling. Milling can be taught more easily than how do you construct a gear, how do you construct a water wheel. That's more intricate.

Allen: Ten years ago did you think you'd be doing this?

Steve: No, no. I knew about mills, but I didn't think of doing what I do today. But it's something I've fallen into and love.