Working in the Grist Mill

Working in the Grist Mill



A shingle mill also began business here in Carleton Place in 1866, managed by John Craigie. He was the builder of the town’s first two steamboats, the Mississippi and the Enterprise. The local grist and oatmeal mills were bought by Henry Bredin from Hugh Boulton Jr. They continued to be operated by James Greig (1806-1884), who ran these mills from 1862 to 1868 after the death of Hugh Boulton Sr., founder of this first industry of the community.

Peter McCallum was born in the township of Goulburn in 1859, a son of James McCallum and Esther MacKay, Scottish pioneer settlers. After serving an apprenticeship with the Brown Flour Mills of Carleton Place he moved on to Almonte. So what was it like being in the Boulton Mill?

Back in the days when it was a farming society, hundreds of such gristmills dotted this part of the country. Some were small custom mills where local farmers would bring their wheat to be ground into flour for making bread. Others were merchant mills that bought large quantities of corn and grain, ground them and then shipped their milled products to whomever that needed it.

In those days before electricity, large and small mills operated the same way, by using water (or sometimes wind) to power the workings that ground grist into flour or meal. As the waterwheel turned, it engaged the teeth of wooden gears inside the mill, which in turn caused the main shaft that powered the grindstones (also known as buhrstones) to revolve. Grain was dropped from a chute into a hole on the upper stone where it would be split and ground between the grooves of the two grindstones. As the process continued, the ground flour would fall through a chute, go through a sifter, and be ready for bagging. In many ways, the gear-driven process is similar to the complex workings of a 20th-century car transmission.

It was hard work to run a grist mill.

The water wheel was connected through gears to turn the upper millstone (the “runner”) at about 120 rpm. The lower millstone was fixed to the floor of the mill.

The upper millstone could be uncoupled from the main drive shaft to allow power from the water wheel to be used for other purposes, mostly to power a hoist to haul bags of grain up to the top of the mill, and also to power a mechanical sieve to refine the flour.

Farmers would bring their grain to the mill to be ground into flour. The fee for the miller was traditionally, in Medieval times. one 12th or one 16th of the flour produced (depending on the quality).

Often the miller did not own his mill, he rented it so some of the miller’s share would go to pay the rent on the mill. (“Rent” is close, but might not be exactly the right word. The miller often paid a percentage of the flour milled, (just like he charged) rather than a fixed rent to the mill owner.)

Grain would be brought to the mill in sacks, generally by wagon or cart. The miller would connect the chain hoist to the drive shaft and use it to hoist the sacks of flour to the top floor of the mill (the “sack floor”) where he would tip the sacks into the bins. When he had hoisted all the grain, or the bins were full, the miller would disconnect the chain hoist and connect the runner wheel to the drive shaft. He would adjust the spacing between the runner and the lower millstone according to the grade of flour to be produced (and possibly re-adjust it several times once running). He would then open the hopper from the bins to allow gravity to feed the grain into a sloping trough called the “slipper”.

The miller would stand alongside the slipper and gently shake it to regulate the flow of grain and direct it into a hole in the middle of the runner stone. The ground flour would come out through the grooves in the runner to the outside rim of the mill stones where it would feed into a chute to take it down to the lower floor of the mill where it would either go into bins, prior to going through a sieve powered from the water wheel, which would refine the flour into uniform grades before it was sent down another chute into sacks, or the flour would be sent directly into sacks, if lower quality unrefined flour was being produced.

A helper would usually be required to direct the flour from the chute into the sacks.

The sacks would then be loaded into wagons or carts to go home with the farmers, except for the miller’s share.

Besides milling there was a lot of work to do to maintain the mill. Mill machinery got clogged with flour dust, and it was necessary to clean all the machinery at least once a week, and more like once a day in the hotter and busier summer months.

The miller also had to maintain his power system, the mill dam, the mill pond, the mill race, all had to be kept clear of floating debris and their structures maintained. The mill wheel had to be maintained, as did the gears, drive shaft, couplings, and other machinery (all made of wood, which wore out fairly quickly).


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Some of the most important maintenance involved the millstones. These needed to be periodically dressed (as often as every four weeks if the mill was running continuously – though usually much less frequently). Dressing meant reshaping (and re-sharpening) the grooves on the millstone which did the actual work of grinding the grain. Often the miller would dress his own millstones, though sometimes a specialist millwright would travel among all the mills in an area dressing the millstones.

Millstones eventually wore out and needed to be replaced. New millstones were expensive. All the best millstones in Medieval England came from France, where the best stone for the purpose was found. There were millstones made from Peak District grit stone, but this was an inferior stone, mostly used for course milling of animal feed.

Moving the millstones, to dress them or replace them, was a difficult and dangerous job. The millstones were very heavy, and there were no cranes in Medieval mills strong enough to hoist the millstones. The job had to be done with wedges, pry bars, and muscle power.

If you dropped a millstone, it would crash through into the basement of the mill destroying everything in its path. There was a superstition that a millstone which hurt or killed a man was forever unlucky and evil. It was thought to want to drink more blood. If a perfectly good millstone hurt someone, it was retired and never used to mill grain again. It often ended up as the headstone of the man it killed, or as a door step (so people would step on the stone and little by little carry the evil away with their footprints).

Worn out millstones which were got out of the mill without injuries were often used as bridge abutments, or as material to patch or re-enforce the mill dam.

Millers also had to maintain the mill building and the bakery (if they ran one).

Milling was a skilled job. A master miller was said to have “the miller’s touch”. He knew by feeling the flour how to adjust the speed of the turn, the feed of the grain, and the spacing between the mill stones to get the right quality of flour. He knew by the sound of his mill running if there was wear developing, or a problem brewing.

It took years of apprenticeship to become a master miller. Most millers would have one or two apprentices whom they were training up, as well as possibly other family members as helpers (more so if they were running the village bakery as well).

The miller was one of the more prosperous members of the village. Certainly more prosperous than the farmers, though less prosperous than the local landowner. Perhaps the local blacksmith might rival the miller as a sort of “middle class” villager.

Millers were sometimes resented by folks, as they were better off, and were sometimes suspected of taking more than their fair share.

Caroline Boulton — Boulton Mill Genealogy

Down by the Old Mill Stream — Carleton Place

The Brown Flour Mill Stories

One of the Many Hauntings of Mill Street

Coleman Family History–Just for Your Records

Jumpin’ Around in Carleton Place — Local Urban Acrobats

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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