Our Field Trip to the Burwell-Morgan Mill

Posted by Bob on 8/17/2011

We came for the armoire and stayed for the grist mill.

Saturday morning on a quest for a new armoire, an unexpected diversion landed us in an 18th century grist mill. Whoever says grinding your own organic blue corn flour isn’t fun has never been to the Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood, Virginia.

Burwell-Morgan Mill Built during the American Revolution by Hessian prisoners of war, the mill is the oldest operating merchant mill in the Shenandoah Valley, and thought to be the only operating Colonial era grist mill in the United States. The mill survived destruction during the Civil War and operated throughout WWII, only to be closed after one of its outer walls collapsed. Sadly, like many national treasures, the mill was left to disrepair until 1964 when it was acquired by the Clarke County Historical Association. Extensive restoration efforts and fundraising lead to its restoration and designation to both state and national historic landmark registers.

Entirely protected and enclosed inside the mill, the massive water wheel facilitates year round production. As the mill is fully operable, the visitor gets a total hands-on experience and can assist in some of the tasks. These tasks can include sifting and bagging of the stone ground corn meal, flour and grits.

We spent nearly three hours soaking up the awesome history of this pristine example of early American industry. We arrived just as they were prepping the blue corn for grinding. The two volunteer millers provided an extensive account of 18th century milling, explaining each step of the process as they ground the day’s corn. As we watched the ground corn come down the shoot and into the sifter, we were invited to take over sifting operations. Joe took over the production and bagging operation and I finished the bags and moved them to the weighing tables. We both kept up at a modest tempo, although we almost had a Lucy & Ethel moment when production went into “high gear. Fortunately, no one had to stuff ground corn meal or grits inside his t-shirt!

Burwell Morgan MillWhile it was interesting to witness 18th century food production, actual participation was much more fun. Joe’s ancestors have been in this country since the 1730’s and probably worked in similar mills producing flour by the very same methods. For a minute, I imagined local Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enjoying a bag of corn flour that we made – although they had their own mills.

But the most satisfying part of the experience was the intrinsic value of the flour we made and took with us (yes, we paid for it). It was local and handcrafted by us! By buying the flour from the mill, we supported our local economy while helping preserve an important American historic landmark. But most importantly, we manufactured it for ourselves and others to enjoy. Food you grow, pick or make yourself is more meaningful and valuable than food made by a multinational conglomerate sold at a chain supermarket. You just can’t beat the deeply satisfying feeling of eating bread made from flour that you ground and sifted.

Speaking of bread … this evening, Joe made an outstanding pan of corn bread from the flour we ground on Saturday. Unlike corn bread made from supermarket flour, this corn bread smelled and tasted like fresh, roasted corn, not overly sweet. Delicious! The mill produces and sells a number of different flours: red corn, blue corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, multi-grain.

We had a great time at the mill. We were inspired by the mill, its place in American and local history, and the dedication and knowledge of its volunteer millers. We will be returning soon, and will let you know what we bring back from our next Old Colony Company field trip.

See more pictures from the mill on Facebook.

- Joe and Bob