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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

Gristmills

by Joey Powell, 2006
Additional research provided by Natalie Popovic.

Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The first recorded North American gristmill was built in Jamestown, Va., in 1621. As settlers moved from the Jamestown area into what is now northeastern North Carolina, they carried their milling techniques with them and began building small mills to grind grain.

Yates Mill, a gristmill in Wake County, 1958. Courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.

Gristmills generally operated by guiding a stream of water into a waterwheel, which provided the power to rotate the series of huge millstones that crushed the grain into progressively smaller pieces. Most early North Carolina gristmills were situated along creeks for a source of waterpower, usually near natural falls. Many gristmills had saws attached, harnessing the waterpower not only to grind flour but also to saw lumber. Power was increased by building dams. On some mills, millraces were built to carry water to the mill, particularly those equipped with an overshot type of wheel.

The demand for grinding grain for use as flour or meal grew as the population of North Carolina increased. In an effort to encourage the settlement of the Carolina backcountry frontier, the legislature in 1715 passed a law granting 50 acres of land and exemption from taxes and service in the state militia to gristmill and sawmill operators. This act contained a provision subjecting all mills to government regulation because of their "public" character. Despite these efforts, the number of mills in the colony remained small until the mid-eighteenth century. A more extensive and detailed law was passed in 1758, giving the colonial government greater supervision over the operation of mills.

Roller mills, an 1876 invention first used in John Sellers's mill in Philadelphia, had a tremendous impact on the milling industry. The roller mill had several advantages over stone mills. Primary among them was a product that was more uniform and had a more appealing appearance to customers. The use of rollers eliminated the need for stone "dressing," the periodic sharpening of millstones, saving the miller money and time. The rollers also extracted more flour from the same amount of wheat as the millstones. Most North Carolina mills built after 1876 were of this variety.

Few of North Carolina's older gristmills remained operational at the beginning of the twenty-first century, having become obsolete in the shadow of the larger, more efficient grain processors of the Midwest. House's Mill near Newton Grove in Sampson County claims to be the oldest continuously operating gristmill in the state, having ground flour and meal since 1812.

Reference:

Grimsley Hobbs, Exploring the Old Mills of North Carolina (1985).

Additional Resources:

Catawba County Historical Association. "Historic Murray's Mill." http://www.catawbahistory.org/historic_murrays_mill.php (accessed June 14, 2012).

The Society for the Preservation of Old Mills. "The Old Mill of Guilford." http://www.oldmillofguilford.com/ (accessed June 14, 2012).

Dunaway, Stewart E. Grist mills of North Carolina: a historical review using county records  [North Carolina?]: S.E. Dunaway ;Morrisville, N.C.: Distributed by Lulu.com. 2010.

Stephen Cabarrus History Club, Harrisburg School. By the Old Mill Stream: The Story of Early Industry in Cabarrus County. [Harrisburg, N.C.: Stephen Cabarrus History Club, 1967?].

Dellinger, Jack David. Dellinger Grist Mill on Cane Creek, Mitchell County, North Carolina: A Personal History. Folk Heritage Books, 2004./p>

Image Credits:

Yates Mill, a gristmill in Wake County, 1958. Courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.

Comments

Comment: 

Answering my own question about wind-powered gristmills on the OuterBanks:
https://villagecraftsmen.blogspot.com/2017/10/windmills-on-outer-banks.html

Comment: 

Just now the Ocracoke Preservation Society posted these photos of a millstone there on the Island. It's hard for me to imagine a gristmill there as there is no elevation and no appreciable flow in the creeks there. But some have suggested that windmill gristmills might have been on the Outer Banks. This seems farfetched based on what little I know (and have now read) about NC gritmills, but I'm open to new information. Any evidence of milling on OBX? Or should we assume that these are decorative imports from somewhere on the mainland?
https://www.facebook.com/opsmuseum/photos/a.129077253796370/229652126371...

Comment: 

Since I retired I am constantly searching out old mills and mill sites in North Carolina and so far have taken pictures of 57 of these. So many have been destroyed in recent years due to neglect or from flooding, particularly in eastern North Carolina. Some are on private property and can not be accessed for photos. Most of my pictures are from eastern North Carolina but I am presently looking towards central and western North Carolina. If you are looking for recent pictures of an old mill please let me know and I my have the one you are looking for or for that matter you may give me suggestions for adding a new one to my list.

Thanks
Larry

Comment: 

Hello.. I was wondering if you know the locations of old mills what is now Fuquay Varina. I think I found the remnants (just a little of the cement walls left)of an old mill on Kenneth creek and was trying to do a little research on it

Thanks
Ross

Comment: 

Hello, I'm looking for information on the grist mill belonging to John W. Wells (b.1815-d.1891) which was on Willow Creek. He built a house near there for his wife, Rachel Penland, which I don't know if it's still standing. Any information is appreciated.

Comment: 

Hi Jenn:
The house is still standing!! I have pictures to show proof.
best regards,
James Jones

Comment: 

Hi Jenn:
Do you have a continued interest in the John W. Wells property? Are you interested in his family background or the property itself?

best regards,
James Jones

Comment: 

Hi Jenn:
The reason that I asked the question is that I have the answer for you. I am an ex
assistant librarian. I am now doing research. If you are interested please contact by email.

best regards
James Jones

Comment: 

Hi Jenn,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and especially for taking the time to share your question.

I am going to forward your question to reference librarians at the State Library of NC. A librarian will contact you shortly to help with this question.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC.

Comment: 

I am looking for information regarding a grist mill in eastern NC in the vicinity of Wilson / Pikeville / Goldsboro. My great grandfather, Cyrus Cox,is said to have operated this mill, known locally as Cox's Mill. My father helped his grandfather at times. Any information and / or pictures would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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