A small crowd of people at the Plimoth Grist Mill recite excitedly in unison, “One, two three: Water on!” One of the millers and a group of visitors are starting the water wheel at the same site where the Pilgrims built the first American grist mill in 1636. The replica mill, operated by Plimouth Plantation, works not only as an exhibit but also as a modern-day production facility. Kim Van Wormer and Matt Tavares are the millers.
They grind corn, and most of it becomes cornmeal. But they also get what the Wampanoag called Nasamp and what the Pilgrims later referred to as Samp. Most everyone knows it today as grits.
The mill sells these grits and cornmeal to local restaurants, bakeries, breweries, and distilleries. But the methods and equipment they use are straight out of the 1600s.
Kim explained how it works, “So you have the water wheel, water flows into the wheel, the weight of the water makes the wheel turn, so now we’ve just created energy.”
The water is forced through a dam that has a drop in elevation of about 81 feet, according to Matt. “It’s amazing how quickly the water can speed up,” he says.
The dam is on Town Brook in Plymouth, and the adjacent two-story building that houses the mill is an exact replica of the original—with the mill stone on the top floor and the machinery downstairs. Once the dam gate opens water starts turning a series of wooden wheels with teeth and gears inside that connect to a metal spindle to change the energy’s direction from vertical to horizontal.
“The metal spindle that goes up through that smaller gear pushes a giant 2500 pound mill stone over the top of a stationary mill stone, says Kim. “There’s just a teeny bit of distance between them that the corn flows into a hole in the middle of the turning stone, gets pulled in between the two stones, broken into small pieces, gets pushed around the edge, down a chute, and lands in the flour bin.”
The set up is pretty ingenious—and also, once upon a time, very common. In colonial America travel between settlements on rough inland roads was incredibly difficult and expensive. So almost every town had its own grist mill.
The original mill was built on the Plymouth site by a Pilgrim named John Jenny in 1636, and Pilgrims first arrived in 1620. So for the first 16 years they were grinding corn manually in wooden mortars and pestles. “It was probably highly frustrating for the Pilgrim women because they were used to mills back in England and Holland,” says Kim. “They’re like, uh, now we have to do it by hand again!”
In each new settlement, people came together to help build the town grist mill. The miller ground grain for local farmers, and in exchange got to keep a portion, called the miller’s toll. Grain was a staple food and the miller was a central community figure—for centuries, these mills shaped New England’s social fabric. We still reference their historic importance all the time without even realizing it when we say things like “nose to the grindstone” or “run of the mill.” Plymouth’s modern mill can’t get all of its grains from farmers in town, but Kim says they do try to source their corn locally.
She explains that they have three goals: one is to mill heritage grains, another one is for the grains to be locally grown so that they can be traced back to the farmer, and third, is it has to be delicious. “So we have this one corn when you think of Indian corn that you think of as decorating your door on Thanksgiving day it’s actually really delicious corn, for cornmeal and for grits,” says Kim. “So we have a farmer in Western Mass that grows that, there’s a beautiful red corn called Floriani Red that’s grown for us down in Westport Mass, and then we have some beautiful organic corn that comes from a distributor in upstate New York.”
In 2017 the Plimoth Grist Mill hosted the first ever modern-day state-wide grain gathering for Massachusetts. They brought together farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, maltsters, brewers, and distillers to talk about the future of the local grain economy—and it’s a conversation they hope will continue.
You can read about different grinds and varieties of corn on Elspeth's blog, Diary of a Locavore.
This piece first aired in May, 2018.