This post is the fourth in a series discussing our adventures helping Jeff & Amanda Barger harvest and process an experimental plot of wheat into flour the traditional way—using traditional hand tools and equipment. This process requires a number of separate steps completed over a long period of time.
Previous posts in this series:
Reaping Wheat – A Shocking Experience (July 5, 2018)
Bringing in the Sheaves (July 20, 2018)
Winnowing It All Down (August 8, 2018)
One of the oldest structures I recall from the family dairy farm where I was raised was the “corn shed.” It was a small, square shed—approximately 20 feet wide by 20 feet long—built upon a cut stone foundation. The foundation stones were simply and precisely stacked, not mortared into place. The framing for the shed consisted of four-by-four-inch, hand-hewn timbers connected by mortise and tenon joints with wooden pegs. Each peg had squared tapers that were driven into round holes for extra strength. The exterior planks were all mounted up and down lengthwise on the framing, instead of side to side. It was an impressive marvel of pioneer hand construction that stood for about 200 years before it finally collapsed under a heavy snow load.
I don’t believe it was always called a corn shed, but it had probably served in that capacity for 50 years before my parents bought it with the farm in 1960. The more modern name for the shed was likely given to it when a small, hand-operated corn mill was installed in the center of the building. We never knew how old it was, but it probably dated back to the turn of the century. As I remember, it stood about four feet tall, topped by a square wooden hopper. The internal grinding components were completely enclosed in a wooden frame (about three feet deep by three feet wide), so we couldn’t see its inner workings. At the base of the mill was a wooden chute that dispensed the ground corn meal into a receiving bowl. A large hand crank was mounted on one side of the device. Aside from the legs upon which it stood, the crank was the only other visible metal component. It was shaped like a steering wheel with four slightly curved spokes and a heavy wooden handle bolted to it. What painted labeling we found on the front of the mill had faded and worn so much over time that it was no longer legible. We tried to crank it a number of times over the years, but its inner gears and grinding components had degraded or worn to the point that the crank was frozen in place. Since we knew nothing about its operation and we had no need to use it, we just left it alone and filled the rest of the shed around it with an assortment of tools, tubs of nails and fencing staples, burlap grain sacks, spare construction materials, and other miscellaneous farm implements until it eventually collapsed.
Although I never saw the corn mill operate or learned how it was constructed, we used a very similar milling device on Saturday, October 20, 2018 to grind Jeff and Amanda Barger’s summer wheat crop. The Bargers bought the portable mill from a farm in central West Virginia and restored it to what we all hoped would be a stable operating condition. The mill was well worn by decades of use. The wooden hopper at the top was missing, but we were able to scoop the wheat grain into the top of the grinding stones. The grinding face of each mill stone showed significant wear and several of the cut channels that conveyed the wheat between the stones had worn nearly smooth, but Jeff felt it would be okay for the small volume of wheat we needed to grind. Jeff had mounted two wooden skids on the base of the mill and reinforced its framing, but it was clear that it was in an overall weak condition.
The first step in operating it was to connect it to a tractor. A wooden drum at the base of the bottom grinding stone was connected to a tractor flywheel (a metal drum that was powered directly by the engine) using a long, heavy leather belt. The most critical issue was to make sure that the tractor flywheel was properly aligned with and at the same elevation as the drum at the base of the mill. If it isn’t aligned properly, the belt will gradually work its way off the drum or flywheel as it operates. We struggled to get the tractor position, angle, and level correct so that the belt would remain in place during operation. After at least an hour of trial and error, we managed to get the alignment close enough to safely operate the mill.
Once the tractor engine was able to get the bottom mill stone rotating to grind the grain, we had to adjust the level of the bottom stone so that it would effectively grind the grain. This required a few small adjustments as we began loading grain into the mill. The next problem we encountered was the prevailing wind. Although the air was dry with outdoor temperatures of 55-60 degrees (quite typical for this time of the year), we had to fight against some blustery winds ranging between 10 and 20 miles per hour that blew some of the finely ground grain away as it discharged from the back side of the mill. Most of the flour we produced was too light to fall into the bowl we used to catch the output, leaving behind the larger grit that the mill stones were unable to completely reduce to powder. We tried grinding the wheat twice, but were unable to get all of it thoroughly reduced to flour. The age and wear on the mill had reduced its grinding efficiency and we could not prevent the winds from blowing away the most finely ground flour it could produce. We eventually decided that the product we obtained from the mill would need to be ground further using a smaller hand-operated mill inside the house to finish the milling process.
Despite the difficulties we faced, we all enjoyed the experience. Our gathering numbered about a dozen neighbors and friends, all of whom helped with various aspects of the milling process and/or prepared food for the evening pot luck buffet meal we shared. The spirit of comradery and fellowship that we shared through our work made the job more pleasant and enjoyable. Some of us had not met before, but we were all exchanging stories and laughs well before we sat down for the evening meal. It was another reminder that self-reliant living does not require working in isolation. As the Amish experience has documented over generations of determined separation from the modern world, nothing builds a stronger community spirit and social cohesion better than shared values and hard work.
Our cooperative efforts to process a plot of wheat into flour the “old-fashioned way,” using manual labor and technology at least 100 years old taught us that working closely together in achieving a common goal is a compelling social binding force that modern high-tech social media lacks. Working cooperatively in the face of a difficult task forges strong social bonds that builds interpersonal understanding and companionship that is completely lost in a faceless e-mail or text message from a person you’ve never seen or met. It is interesting to note that, while practicing self-reliant living, we were actually building a small community of people who share that basic lifestyle value. The memories we gained through that community effort will last us a lifetime—one that, for some of us, may last almost as long as the historic practices we used to complete our work. In a fitting celebration of those time-honored old ways, we concluded our meal with an impromptu bluegrass music sing-along. As we at Peeper Pond Farm insist, the old ways of living are not necessarily the wrong way simply because they are considered outdated by modern conveniences. A simple comparison of the strong social cohesion that exists in today’s Amish society with that of our modern, politically divided, technology-driven urban society will certainly make that point clear.
Once Amanda and Jeff have finished grinding the wheat into flour, they will give us some to use in making a loaf of homemade bread. That will be the fifth and final step in the process. If the weather is cold enough at that time, we will even bake it in our own wood-cook stove, which will allow us to complete the process using technology that is at least 100 years old. We hope you’ll continue to follow our farm website posts to learn the success of our effort.