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Millstone Memorabilia

The Book of Revelation compares the punishment of Babylon to a mighty angel heaving a giant millstone into the sea.

A “millstone around the neck” is a stern reminder of certain destruction after a lifetime of plodding along the path of unforgiving travail.

Yet, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry—“Little motion in the air except the mill-wheel’s sound”—savors the comforting notion of permanence and stability.

Here on Plum Lick, Missus and I only wish we had a millstone or two to brag about—something to greet the yuppies and baby boomers of our time. Instead, we turn for guidance to the Kentucky Old Mill Association for a renewal of faith that all unselfish efforts amount to something and will one day be rewarded.

At the turn of the new century, six “old mill nuts”—Fred Coy Jr., Harry Enoch, Dennis Feeback, Tom Fuller, Larry Meadows, and Eugene Peck—held a meeting at the Red River Museum in Clay City, where there are about 40 millstones, 24 grindstones, and 20 grist mills.

SPOOM, the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, was off to the races, where water and gravity have their way, and the organization’s newsletter—The Millstone—has quickly become a who’s who of millstone memorabilia with a yarn or two thrown in for good measure.

For instance, the Volume 4, Number 1, 2005, issue includes stories about Wolf Pen Branch Mill, Pine Hill Valley Mill, Early Mills of Bourbon County, and Mills from Dawn Comes to the Mountains.

It goes without saying that millstones aren’t known to be found on grocery shelves along with other quick mixes. Instant biscuit lovers and cornbread connoisseurs armed with zipped-up plastic bags need not apply.

Miracles of grooved rock respond only to a combination of moving water, gravity, and a flood of human ingenuity—a reminder of how far we’ve dipped into the modern world of sliced bread and glazed doughnuts.

Fred E. Coy Jr. has written about Frank Perry, who “had a wealth of knowledge about the many varied goings-on in the upper reaches of Red River.”

“Mr. Perry explained that his father would take a big flat rock and made grooves in it that extended over the edge. Then he would gather rich pine from an old stump and split it into small pieces. The pieces were stood on their ends in the middle of the rock and set on fire. As soon as it was burning well, he would place an upside-down kettle over the pine slowly burned, the pine tar would run down the grooves in the rock and into a container. When we asked about the use of pine tar, Mr. Perry said that the gristmills in those days had no metal bearings, they were made entirely of wood, and pine tar was used for lubrication.”

Here’s the thing—

One day, we just might have to pull back from the mad rush of instant gratification. We might be called upon to start over again after sputtering out on the high-tech, yellow brick road. Engines may run dry of energy and computers may be hacked to death. Oil may go undiscovered. Armageddon may come sooner than we dare imagine.

If there’s one last chance for a sturdy few to sit down quietly by a millstone, it might be a good, positive idea to know how it was in the beginning.

In her classic Seedtime on the Cumberland, Harriette Arnow traces the evolution of the 18th-century water-powered mill… “a landmark in the development of the community…a sign of permanence…as a rule there were mill days, once or twice a week, or in dry weather the miller with a small pond might have to stop grinding for weeks together, and when mill day at last came it was in the nature of a community reunion.”

More information can be obtained from the Kentucky Old Mill Association, P.O. Box 195, Clay City, KY 40312.

See you down by the old millstream.

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