This photo was taken quite a few years ago of the old mill at Zenith, in Monroe County, West Virginia. Today as you drive by, I'm not even sure that it's all standing! I went by there on Monday, and all you can see is a tangle of overgrown trees, and undergrowth. The mill itself, invisible behind the forest that's grown up around it.
McClung's Mill, according to the "Wild Wonderful West Virginia" website, was moved to its present location in the early part of the 1900's from Craig County, Virginia. I remember speaking with some of the old timers who had been going there all of their lives, back in the 1970's. They couldn't remember a time when it hadn't been there, and many of them were born in 1880's, so it must have been moved before 1910.
As a teenager, in the 1970's, we often purchased ground cornmeal there for our homemade cornbread. You could get it ground superfine, fine, and coarse. We always got it ground coarse, as there would be pieces and bits of the hard corn kernels in the meal, which added to the flavor and texture of cornbread.
As you entered the mill, the huge stone burr wheels were the first thing you noticed. There was no mistaking they were powerful!
Outside the waterwheel would at times seem to be barely turning, but for every single revolution it made, the interior burr wheels made 3-4 rotations.
I remember at least a couple of times buying buckwheat flour [whereas other flours are from a grain, buckwheat is actually derived from a plant]. This dark flour makes the absolute BEST pancakes in the world! Top those delicious griddle cakes with a little butter and moleasses, and you are in seventh heaven my friend!!!
Sadly, there aren't any mills locally that are operating that can sell me either the coarsely ground cornmeal, or the buckwheat. Occasionally I find the bags of it in a specialty market. But it's just not the same.
Aubrey Reed [1904-1989], one of the longest running mill owners in Monroe County, who owned and ran the Second Creek Mill, used to take my hand and place it in his. He'd ask me what I thought about his old rough hands. They were full of hard lumps and bumps in the palms.
I recall the first time he did this I was about 14. It kind of scared me! I wasn't sure if he had a disease or deformity!
"This is the mark of a real miller," he told me.
It seemed that after more than a half-century of running the mill, pieces of the burr wheels [stones] would get imbedded into his hand as he'd have to work with the stones. Keeping them ready to grind at all times. He'd have to knock burrs off with a chisel. Sometimes, his hand would slip, and a burr would break off and imbed itself into his hand. What he could pick out he would. Others were left there to fester and finally heal. The small pieces of stone beneath the skin still palpable.
I've read many other reports of millers, over the years, with the same kinds of lumpy, bumpy hands. And they never ceased to amaze me.
The old mills are few and far between these days. And very few in our country remain viable. They are reminiscent of a time long gone. A simpler time. A time when values and morals were held high. When a promise made... was a promise kept!
Sometimes I think I was born a century, or perhaps two, too late.