Clark Falls Grist Mill
JIMMY DICK, 13 years old, poured 50 pounds of white corn kernels into a hopper at the Clarks Falls Gristmill. Then he headed outside to pry open the head gate, letting water from the mill pond flow into the race. As the water rushed toward a turbine beneath the wooden mill building, Jimmy's father, James, opened a second gate.
"The pressure of the water coming into the casing around the turbine turns it," Mr. Dick explained. Soon a gentle rumbling sound filled the air, as the turbine turned one giant granite millstone against another, to grind the corn into meal.
The mill has produced the same sound, with the same stones and the same kind of corn, since the late 1840's. But in the late 1970's the old structure -- in the rural Clarks Falls section of North Stonington -- was deteriorating.
"It was going to fall by the wayside," said John P. Palmer, 39 years old, who has spent his whole life living and working on his family's dairy farm nearby. So Mr. Palmer bought the mill, which he called the last water-powered gristmill in Connecticut. He began to repair it and eventually hired Mr. Dick to operate it.
"It's a nice old mill, and it's a part of history," Mr. Palmer said. "It wouldn't be the same in Clarks Falls without a gristmill." Five Generations of Millers
The mill was built in 1848 by a member of the Clark family that gave the area its name. The original millstones -- from a Rhode Island quarry -- are still at work, Mr. Palmer said.
The 3,000-pound top stone is 54 inches across and 27 inches thick; the bottom stone, of the same diameter, is only about 14 inches thick.
Five generations of Clarks ran the mill, but the family sold it in the 1950's, and subsequent owners and operators could not always give the mill enough attention. Mr. Palmer faced problems like a leaky roof, rotting beams and a washed-out race. Taking care of those -- along with rising at 4 each morning to work his family's farm -- left him little time to grind corn, he said, and operations were sporadic for a while. The mill grinds some yellow corn into meal, but most of its efforts are devoted to white corn, which produces the meal for the traditional white corn cakes of southeastern New England. These were originally called "journey cakes," then became known as "jonny cakes," and now are often labeled "Johnny cakes," to the dismay of purists.
The white corn for the Clarks Falls mill is grown by Harry Records, a farmer in Exeter, R.I., who is quick to explain that he prefers the old "jonny" spelling, uses old methods and grows a very old kind of corn.
"It's white-cap flint corn," Mr. Records said. "It's as old as corn is in this country. This is the corn that the Indians grew."
The early settlers were soon growing the same kind of corn, he said, and Mr. Records grows it today, with the aid of three Belgian horses who pull his plow and other equipment. He supplies Clarks Falls and a few other gristmills that run on electric power, he said.
But with Mr. Palmer's schedule, little corn would be ground at Clarks Falls if Mr. Dick, a Pawcatuck resident, had not come upon the mill four years ago, on his way to pick up a Christmas tree with his family. Now a chemical engineer with a company in Groton, he had once run an Ohio feed mill, he said, and he was intrigued with the Clarks Falls gristmill.
"I started poking my nose around," said Mr. Dick.
Mr. Palmer was not alarmed to see a stranger, he recalled. "I knew he wasn't a robber, even though he was under the mill, looking around," he said. The two men began talking, and Mr. Palmer offered Mr. Dick a job operating the mill on weekends. Mr. Dick accepted, considering milling a relaxing activity to share with his son. Greasing the Gears
Last April Mr. Palmer got married at the mill. Mr. Dick, now friend as well as an employee, sang at the wedding.
Conditions like low water in summer and pond ice in winter halt operations, but Mr. Dick and Jimmy run the mill regularly during the fall and when needed at other times. Mr. Dick greases the turbine gears each working day, and if corn arrives on the cob, he and Jimmy put it into a 19th-century sheller.
During milling Mr. Dick makes various adjustments, like narrowing the gap between the stones to make the meal finer. Often he stands by the wooden bin where the meal lands, checking the product.
A miller's job, he said, is "to control the feel of the meal." He noted that he usually grinds 200 pounds of flint corn in a four-hour period -- less than he would of yellow corn. "Flint corn is very, very hard," he said. "So grinding is slower."
Jimmy sifts and bags meal, often with the help of Jeffrey Slater, a 3 1/2- year-old neighbor considered a champ at such chores. Jimmy also heads outdoors periodically to clean the gate that keeps any debris in the race from being swept into the turbine. A few times each year Mr. Dick dresses, or sharpens, the millstones, using mauls with iron grooves.
Mr. Palmer distributes the bagged meal to local stores. He also sells it at the mill (at 60 cents a pound for yellow, $1.20 a pound for white). Visitors are welcome at the mill on Sundays through November, from noon to 4 P.M.
"A lot of older folk who have lived around here forever are regular customers," Mr. Dick said. "This meal was a staple, as common in their homes as a loaf of bread."