It was already old 150 years ago, this stone grist mill on the dim road to Cincinnati; old before the throughways and the strip malls that are strangling the corn fields and woods, the valleys and ridges and streams around it.
The big wooden wheel hasn’t turned in more than twenty years; leaves accumulating in the scuppers have rotted them, and so millwright Ben Hassett’s first job when he began the restoration this spring was to take the huge wheel down and chop it in half with chain saws.
Next he’ll build a new wheel at his workshop in Lynchburg and somehow haul it back over the mountains to Kentucky.
The three story tall mill is perched on a ledge over a waterfall with a twenty foot drop, which turned the wheel when there was a wheel to turn. Now, the building is stripped out, empty; even the rotted floors are gone, as well as the ancient barrels, the levers and tapes and wheels and wires that together carried the corn down to the millstones—French, the best—and then hauled the ground corn up to the sifters and the barrels. The white corn grain was separated from the yellow and both were sold or bartered to the farmers who’d brought their corn in on wagons or on foot.
When corn was last ground, forty years ago, the children of the family learned to eat cornbread baked from yellow and white grain that had by mistake been mixed together.
A lot of the unmixed corn meal went to the cooks on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad where it was baked into loafs to serve with plenty of butter to the passengers in the dining cars.
Now—or at least in six months or a year, the wheel will be back in place and turning steadily. The machinery, refurbished, will be stationed on the three floors, and the big mill stones will be turning again. When the wheel turns, the old building shakes from its foundations in the creek to its rafters under the trees. Dust falls everywhere, mixed with dead wasps and flies. It’s as though the past has come alive.
And the corn meal? Who knows? Cornbread is no longer a staple of Kentucky cooking—we’re way beyond that—and anyway the health department won’t allow us to sell it. There might be a dead wasp in there somewhere.
That doesn’t matter, though. Stream water will gush over the wheel, and it will turn, and the stones will grind, and the old building will shake, just as it was all intended to do more than 150 years ago.