FreshPlans Visits a Grist Mill

…a what? Long ago, millers were very important people in any village. A mill would take the grain farmers grew and grind it into flour or meal so people could bake with it.This essential step in the progression from raw materials to finished goods makes a good lesson in economics, and the mill wheel itself is a great start for a look at energy or force and motion. Of course, this is also a good history lesson.

War Eagle Mill was built in 1832 to serve the needs of pioneers in our area. It is one of the few pioneer era grist mills still working today, and we feel fortunate to be able to visit and see how grains used to be made into flour in the past. We’re also glad War Eagle Mill still operates today, because this old fashioned method makes for very delicious baking.

Without a mill, people had to grind up grains themselves. Where we live, this would usually have been corn. War Eagle Mill shows the tools people used, and even lets people try them out.

Kids can use a stone to grind different types of corn so they can discover the differences among the different types. They’ll also discover what hard work it was to grind up enough to feed the family!

The grinding stone has a bowl in it where the stone has been worn away by the grinding, and of course that means that very small particles of stone ended up in the meal or flour, increasing the mineral content. When we visited the Ancient Village at the Cherokee Cultural Center, we saw (and posted a photo for you) the other type of grinding tool: a hollowed log with a wooden stick. This took more muscle power, but leverage helped. Have students try grinding dried corn with different kinds of tools to compare the effects. An ordinary kitchen morter and pestle is an easy option.


A 19th century mill like the War Eagle would use a millstone like this one to grind the meal, and the grinding was powered not by human strength but by water. This is how it’s still done at the War Eagle Mill today.

grist mill

The grain would go down through the pipes into the mill, and the stones would be turned by the machinery you can see above. The machinery was in turn powered by the mill wheel. Again, this is still how War Eagle Mill mills grains.

mill wheel

Water from War Eagle creek is caught in the paddles of the wheel and turns the wheel. Since it is attached to the mill inside the building, the mill wheel makes the mill turn, and grinds the grain. You can easily make a model water wheel in the classroom, and this is also a good time to look at gears. We like’s page on the history of water wheels for the science connection. In fact, lessons on energy fit in very well here.

The mill wheel works the same way that the paddle wheel on a boat like the Steamboat Arabia works. The mill race has a lot of power from the movement of the water, and the mill harnesses that power and uses it.

mill race

Modern mills usually use electricity to run their mills, and their mills are quite different from War Eagle, but the principle is the same. Grains like corn and wheat are ground up into flour so that they can be used for baking.

War Eagle mill

War Eagle has jars of different grains, including quinoa and other grains that are newer to us, and the flours and meals they can be milled into.

War Eagle mill

They take those grains and meals and bake them into traditional foods like cornbread, pies, and cinnamon rolls which you can eat upstairs in their restaurant.

They also have displays of artifacts from their history there. On the day we visited, there was a lady who had been born in 1926 having beans and cornbread at the mill, and she told us all about how she had used similar items as a child. We’re not children, but we might not have been able to guess the purposes of all the objects we saw, so we were glad to have the information.

At War Eagle Mill, you can buy flour and meal and things like that, so we brought some home to use for our Thanksgiving baking. In the picture below, you can see some things we still use today: flour and meal ground in the traditional way at the grist mill, my grandmother’s cookbook from the 1940s, my great-grandmother’s dough bowl hand carved for kneading bread dough, and her hand carved rolling pin for rolling out pie crusts.

For young children, just seeing how things were long ago can be very intriguing. Many urban children have no idea where bread comes from, besides the grocery store. Following grains from the farm to the table is a good study for elementary school students, and middle school and high school students should be ready to consider how automation of grinding would impact the lives and work of the pioneers. In our region, this would include both European American settlers traveling West from the colonies and Cherokee settlers taking up more modern technology. Bring in your region’s local history as well — chances are, the transition from home grinding to the use of a grist mill took place where you live, too.


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