This essay was written by Ruth Webb
O'Dell and printed
in the "Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin" Vol XI, Number 3,
In the days
of the pioneers, converting grain into bread was a long and tedious
process that required much time and patience.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"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.
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.
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.