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1. The Business of Milling

This extract is from the General Prologue to Geoffry Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1380-1400), describing a vigorous but not at all trustworthy Miller.

The millere was a stout carl for the nones;
Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones.
That proved wel, for over al ther he cam,
At wrastlynge he wolde have alwey the ram.
He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre;
Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre,
Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed.
His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,
And therto brood, as though it were a spade.
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys;
His nosethirles blake were and wyde.
A swerd and bokeler bar he by his syde.
His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys.
He was a janglere and a goliardeys,
And that was moost of synne and harlotries.
Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries;
And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee.
A whit cote and a blew hood wered he.
A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne,
And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.

The miller was a stout churl, be it known,
Hardy and big of brawn and big of bone;
Which was well proved, for when he went on lam
At wrestling, never failed he of the ram.
He was a chunky fellow, broad of build;
He'd heave a door from hinges if he willed,
Or break it through, by running, with his head.
His beard, as any sow or fox, was red,
And broad it was as if it were a spade.
Upon the coping of his nose he had
A wart, and thereon stood a tuft of hairs,
Red as the bristles in an old sow's ears;
His nostrils they were black and very wide.
A sword and buckler bore he by his side.
His mouth was like a furnace door for size.
He was a jester and could poetize,
But mostly all of sin and ribaldries.
He could steal corn and full thrice charge his fees;
And yet he had a thumb of gold, begad.
A white coat and blue hood he wore, this lad.
A bagpipe he could blow well, be it known,
And with that same he brought us out of town.


Types of Water Mills

In this plate from "The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide" (1795), Oliver Evans illustrates the four main types of water mills: undershot and tub mills (top row), the breast-shot mill (middle row), and the overshot mill (bottom row).  It's quite possible that all four designs were used at various mills in the Genesee Valley.

One of the most inventive minds of his time, the largely self-taught Oliver Evans began developing automated flour mills in the 1780s.  In The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide (1795) he combined scientific precision and cogent description, as in this brief explanation of how fly-wheels were relevant to milling.

Before I dismiss the subject of mechanical powers, I shall take some notice of the fly-wheel, the use of which  is to regulate the motion of engines: it is best made of cast iron, and should be of a circular form, that it may not meet with much resistance from the air.  

Many have supposed this wheel to be an increaser of  power, whereas it is, in reality, a considerable destroyer of it; which appears evident, when we consider that it has no motion of its own, but receives all its motion from the first mover, and as the friction of the gudgeons, and the resistance of the air are to be overcome, this  cannot be done without the loss of some power; yet this wheel is of great use in many cases; namely:  

1st. For regulating the power where it is irregularly applied; such as the treadle and crank moved by the foot or hand; as in spinning-wheels, turning-lathes, flax-mills, or where steam is applied by a crank to produce a circular motion.  

2d. Where the resistance is irregular, or by jerks, as  in saw-mills, forges, slitting-mills, powder-mills, &c., the fly-wheel by its inertia, regulates the motion; because if it be very heavy, it will require a great many little shocks or impulses of power to give it a considerable  velocity; and it will, of course, require as many equal  shocks to resist or destroy the velocity it has acquired.  

While a rolling or slitting-mill is running empty, force of the water is employed in generating momentum in the fly-wheel; which force accumulated in the fly, will be sufficient to continue the motion without much abatement, while the sheet of metal is running between the  rollers; whereas, had the force of the water been lost  while the mill was empty, its motion might be destroyed  before the metal passed through the rollers.  Where  water is scarce, its effect may be so far aided by a fly-wheel, as to overcome a resistance to which the direct force of the water is unequal, that is, where the power is required at intervals only. 

A heavy water-wheel frequently produces all the effect of a fly-wheel, in addition to its direct office.

"The Miller's Will," performed by the New Lost City Ramblers on Smithsonian Folkways (1962).

"The Miller's Will" is an old folk song known by many other names: "The Dishonest Miller," "The Dying Miller," "The Miller's Three Sons." With slight variations, all of them tell the story of three sons, each son greedier than the next; the youngest is bequeathed the family mill because he is most mendacious of all. This song is performed by the New Lost City Ramblers, on Smithsonian Folkways (1962).

Robert J. Burdette's parodic "Rime of the Ancient Miller" is taken from a collection of poems entitled Smiles Yoked With Sighs (1900). Its titular speaker accosts several listeners with a "mealy hand" and recounts his tale of traditional milling & bread-breaking fallen into chaos by new-fangled "cookerie." The poem's first appearace, in 1888, was for a trade journal called The Northwestern Miller--very much an in-joke amongst a class of prosperous tradesmen.

"The bolted flour, like snow-cloud flake, 
     Fell down as soft and fair;  
The wheaten cake the maids did bake
     Was lighter than the air; 
And the new-made bread, the good man said, 
     Was soothing as a prayer. 

"From Boston town of great renown. 
     And wondrous bookerie, 
A maid mature, of aspect dure. 
     Went teaching cookerie. 

"Down dropped the pan, the sifter dropped 
     Down fell the kneading trough; 
The broom down dropt, all work was stopt,
     And all the women off. 

"From house about, with laugh and shout, 
     They cooked from morn to night, stay at home 
While men stood hungrily without. 
     And could not get a bite.