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A Century of Milling Flour
There was a lot happening in 1880. Rutherford Hayes was finishing his term as the 19th U.S. president. A French team started trying to build the Panama Canal. Alexander II, tsar of Russia, survived an assassination attempt. The first pay phone had just been installed outside a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. The U.S. had 38 states. The Statue of Liberty wouldn’t be installed in New York Harbor for another five years.
And in Boonville, North Carolina, a stone-ground flour mill was built. At least, most reports agree it was built then. Now, 139 years later, Boonville Flour and Feed mill is still grinding.
As I was driving to visit a school nutrition program, I was surprised to see a mill. I always thought mills were located along rivers or other bodies of water, so they could use the water to power the mill. At this mill, there isn’t a river in sight.
I wasn’t planning to visit, but I’m glad the school nutrition director and I made a stop there after our meeting.
Standing at the mill it was interesting to see how much had changed, but also what hasn’t. The corn crib is still standing but no longer stores corn waiting to be ground. That is kept in metal storage bins.
When it was built, the mill was powered by a steam engine and boiler. The boiler “was fired with 4-foot cord wood bought from local farmers,” according to a handout on the mill’s history. I had no idea how much wood that was, so I looked it up. Cord wood is a volume of measurement of stacked firewood. A stack that is 4 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 1 foot tall equals ⅛ cord.
In the 1920s the mill converted to a diesel engine before eventually converting to electricity. The oldest part of the mill is original and still milling flour. A feed mill was added in the 1940s to mix feed for cattle, pigs, and other livestock.
The original floors are there, and what stories they could tell about farming over the last 100 plus years. The mill is still making stone-ground grits, which are a favorite among older customers. According to Eugene Phillips, whose father Sammie bought the mill in 1979, steel rollers get the flour finer, which gives it a different texture.
Eugene and his sister, Linda Amburn, grew up in their father’s mills, first in Virginia and then in Boonville. Virginia, now in her 70s, still drives an hour one way to work at the mill, which is open five days a week. Linda says she needs to retire, but “it’s hard to walk away when it’s family.”
Eugene took over the mill in 2004 and has seen changes in what his customers are asking. Some want to know who grew the corn (for the record, the white and yellow corn come from North Carolina farmers). Others want to know how fresh the corn was before it was milled. Some ask about GMOs or organic. He’s grinding less livestock feed.
The customers range from those who buy 2-pound bags, to one who uses 12,000 pounds of cornmeal a week. They ship flour to the West Coast. They sell flour, cornmeal, and other local goods in the country store in front of the mill.
I brought home a small bag of stone-ground corn grits. If my family likes them, I may have to make the trip back to Boonville to buy grits that have been made the same way for a century.