Cocke County, Tennessee
Old Mills

This essay was written by Ruth Webb O'Dell and printed in the "Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin" Vol XI, Number 3, September, 1945.

In the days of the pioneers, converting grain into bread was a long and tedious process that required much time and patience.

This was particularly true in the case of corn grinding, for only one grain dropped at a time. The mill, however, was so constructed that a "turn" of corn could be placed in the mill at night, the mill started, and then left to grind all night. The next morning the meal would be ready. The grinding made a terrible noise like a storm in its fury.

Flour milling was even more tedious because of the greater difficulty of preparing the grain. First the wheat was cut by hand with a scythe and then spread out on the barn floor for threshing. This was done with a "frail" - a twisted pole of hickory wood, one end of which had been beaten with an axe until it was very soft. After the wheat was well threshed with the "frail" it was placed in a "fan mill." This was made of wood and operated by a double-geared crank. (I asked the old gentleman who gave me this information how to spell "geared." "Oh," he replied, "just put it down without spelling it.") The fan mill was screened, and thus the grain was retained while the chaff blew away. After the fanning process the wheat was washed and spread out to dry. Next it was ground on the "burr" or rock, after which it was sifted by hand through a sifter made of muslin stretched over a hoop. This was called a "sarch."

Long after the corn mills were modernized, wheat was milled by the above process. Later the flour was "bolted" by a hand reel, falling into five--or ten--foot chests, from which it was dipped by hand with a paddle and placed in sacks. This process was used until in the 80's.

Occasionally there would be connected with the wheat and flour mills a "sash saw," which was something like a cross-cut saw but straight on the teeth side. This was fastened in a sash or frame and propelled from a wheel below which sent the saw up and down. It is said that the sawyer could start the saw in the end of the log in the early morning, go about his other work during the fore noon, and return at mid-day to find the saw almost to the other end of the log. A plank sawed by this method was much more uniform in thickness than one sawed by the later circular-saw method.

Since Cocke County is so well supplied with creeks and rivers, it had many of the water-powered mills. One of the oldest is the DeWitt Mill near Bridgeport. It was called the Dowut Mill. Across the French Broad River at this mill was a covered bridge which washed away before Civil War days. The mill was located near the old Brooks Mill, which still stands and is a little to the east of the present Major James T. Huff Bridge at Bridgeport.

The cane mill was powered by a horse, but it was nevertheless a mill, and it figured large in pioneer life. For from the cane mill came the juice which was made into sorghum molasses, and sorghum molasses when made properly was a favorite "sweetning."

The cane mill consisted of two large iron rollers mounted near the top of a mill four, or five feet high. A lever was attached to the top of the mill in such a way that, when a horse was hitched to the lever and driven round the mill, it set the rollers in motion. The cane was hand-fed into the rollers, and the juice ran through a cloth into a tub. The ground cane was thrown into the pathway for the horse to walk on. The horses, incidentally, sometimes got very dizzy, and had to be changed frequently.

The juice was boiled in kettles of fifty or sixty gallons capacity and placed on a furnace of rocks and mud. Later the kettles were replaced by flat boxes, sheet-iron lined, which held around twenty-five gallons. These were placed over furnaces about two feet high wherein a hot wood fire was kept burning. It was not possible to make more than three runs a day, and even at that the third run was not apt to come off before nine or ten p.m.

The "box-boiler" was replaced by the "evaporator." This arrangement placed the juice in sections, and, as the juice came nearer to being molasses, it ran into another section, progressing from section to section until it was ready to come off the furnace. All the different processes required constant attention to keep the proper heat and to keep the boiling juice properly skimmed. In the early days the skimmers were made of army canteens, each canteen being divided into half.

Each cane mill served a radius of about twenty miles. The owner charged fifty cents a day for the use of the mill. This was usually paid in molasses.

Molasses makings were gala occasions. Neighbors often helped with the tedious task. After all was finished, much of the last run was allowed to boil until it was ready for candy. While it cooled, all hands were washed in the nearby stream, greased thoroughly, and then each Jack chose his Jill for the candy-pulling.

 - Ruth W. O'Dell