Regional Millers Carry on Stone-ground Tradition
Story by Gina Malone | Photos by Steven Tweed
Southerners have Native Americans to thank for two of their culinary staples—grits and cornmeal—around which so many traditional meals center. By all accounts, British and Irish settlers of the South were accustomed to eating oats. Native Americans introduced them to corn and the grinding of its kernels into cornmeal and grits and the rest is southern cuisine history.
The nineteenth century saw the proliferation of water-driven gristmills, liberating rural people from laborious hand grinding and providing community gathering places. So pervasive in the culture were gristmills that many expressions still used today come from milling terminology—“run of the mill,” “wait your turn,” “grist for the mill.”
Although automation largely replaced traditional milling by the 1960s, many old mills still operate today, including the Dellinger Mill near Bakersville, NC. Operated by fourth-generation miller Jack Dellinger, this scenic 1867 landmark is on the National Historic Register. “It runs just like it did in the 1800s,” Dellinger says. “I use the same wheel, gears, pulleys and millstones that my ancestors did.”
Many millers, Dellinger included, attest that corn ground slowly by millstones cannot be beat for taste. Jesse Adkins uses a Meadows Mills gristmill at his Hurricane Creek Farms in Pelzer, SC. Although not the idyllic water-wheel operation of the past, it does contain granite stones that allow him to control the grinding process. He grows heirloom corn—“pencil cob” and “truckers favorite”—on his organic, hydroponic farm. “We don’t get the yield,” he says, “that we would with the hybrids, but we’re looking for flavor.”
The W.C. Meadows Mill Company, as it was first known, began manufacturing stone burr mills in North Carolina in 1902. These small mills allow farmers and millers like Adkins to produce the same high-quality products his grandfather did on his water-driven mill, now idle, across the road. Adkins, who “shifted gears” from landscape design after 30 years, would like to restore the 1936 mill someday.
Dellinger grew up on a farm across the road from his mill, but, he says, “I wanted to get away from that cornfield real bad,” adding, with a laugh, that it was where he “learned to cuss.” Enlisting in the Air Force during the Korean War helped him attend college for electrical engineering and led eventually to training in early computer programming. He was on the elite IBM team that worked with NASA’s Wernher von Braun to develop the onboard computer for the Saturn V rocket that first put men on the moon.
When he retired and came home in 1997, the gristmill had been non-operational for 42 years. “I was standing there beside the water wheel,” he says, “poison ivy all over it, and I got this crazy notion. I wanted to see that water wheel turn again.” It all came back to him— necessary repairs, stone sharpening, dam building—and in 2000 he ground his first bushel of corn: Hickory King, the same heirloom variety he cursed over as a young man. He grinds and sells white grits and cornmeal and—after being educated about it by a friend—polenta, what some call Italian grits.
Adkins produces white and yellow corn products. As to the rumored preference for milder-flavored white grits among southerners, he says, “A lot of the old folks will tell you that white is for people and yellow is for mules.” However, he adds, “the restaurants use mostly yellow” and grits of all kinds—coarse, fine, white, yellow—are his best sellers. Lisa Wortham, who along with husband David owns the 1784 Timms Mill in Pendleton, SC, says, “We find the yellow grits are more unique to people and we sell more of them as compared to the white.”
All three mills supply restaurants along with offering their products to the public. Because most stone-ground corn products are natural with no preservatives, they should be stored in the freezer after purchase.
Gina Malone has won awards for feature writing, poetry and short fiction. Before devoting herself fully to writing, she owned and operated The Village Book Shoppe in Tryon, NC, for 19 years.