BY KENDRA MURRAY
Back in March, SEMAP co-hosted a Statewide Grain Gathering at the Plimoth Grist Mill. We packed the mill with farmers, bakers, and millers to discuss a localized grain economy throughout the Commonwealth. While there, I spoke with George Whitley, the miller at Gray’s Grist Mill in Westport. He invited me to tour the mill and learn a little bit more about the history and what was currently happening where he was milling.
Although I’ve driven by Gray’s Grist Mill many times, I have to admit that I had never stopped in. I knew they were milling corn, but after a morning with George, I became aware of the rich history of the mill. The mill was established before 1700, first recorded by deed in 1717, and began operating as a grist mill in 1750. It was purchased by the Gray family in 1880 and was purchased by its current owner, Ralph Guild, in 1980.
Gray’s Grist Mill grinds Narragansett Indian Flint Corn, a eight row northern corn. Ears of this corn can grow up to a foot and a half long. This is an original heirloom corn that Native Americans grew long before the Pilgrims even arrived here. Right now there are only approximately 25 acres of this corn being grown (anywhere!) and 15 of those 25 acres are grown right in Rhode Island at Harry Here Farm. Harry Records husks and dries his corn for six months before selling to Gray’s.
When corn arrives at the mill, it is poured into a hopper that sits on top of the millstones. Gray’s Grist mill has two granite millstones used that they use to grind their corn into meal. Each stone has deep grooves carved into it, creating patterns called harps. Each millstone has six to ten harps. When the stones are laid together, these patterns use a scissor action to cut and grind the corn. The lower stone does not turn, just the top, or “runner” stone. Originally the mill had two sets of stones running. While granite would be used for corn, French Bhurrstones, millstones made from Quartz from the Northern region of France, would be used for wheat and flour, grains that required a finer grind. After being ground, the chaff is sifted out through a mesh screen.
Gray’s Grist Mill was historically was water powered. A sluice gate would be opened and closed to allow water from the millpond across the road to flow. This water would provide power to the water wheel to grind corn. Water was used until 1938 when the mill became gasoline powered, and it is currently powered with electricity.
The cornmeal that Gray’s produces is unlike anything you’ve had from the grocery store, believe me! Rich and flavorful, it is perfect for making cornbread, johnnycakes, cornmeal waffles, and many other recipes. Although the grist mill does not have a store front, their cornmeal can be found at many local markets including Lees Market, Alderbrook Farm, How on Earth, and the Marion General Store. Find a full list of retailers here. Additionally, you can purchase cornmeal, pancake and waffle mix, and gift baskets right online.
In the area? Make sure you stop by the mill and visit George! He is a wonderful host and will provide you with a great tour and history. I recommend calling ahead to make sure he is milling, which is something you won’t want to miss.