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3. 20th-Century Reincarnations

Millstones Came in Pairs

Eric Sloane's illustration of of how mill-stones work shows his talent for rendering pre-industrial technologies with clarity and an eye for their functional beauty.  The various patterns of "land" and "furrows" has the quality of folk art.

Eric Sloane (1905-1985) was one of the most influential historians of folk and traditional technologies. Amidst a postwar trend of suburbanizaton, his many books archived now-forgotten rural wiseom that he saw as more sustainable and appropriate in scale. Sloane's lucid descriptions and clear-line illustrations continue to attract many readers,  perhaps intrigued by the older technologies for post-carbon use. In this excerpt from Our Vanishing Landscape (1955), he describes the flexibility and importance of watermills.

Because a few restored water-mills are still grinding flour, we might forget that the old time mills did many other jobs. Any chore that could be make lighter by water or wind power became work for the miller.  A century ago in a small country community, where you would today find a total of ten shops and a few gasoline stations, you might have found water-powered mill wheels making axes, salt, barrel-staves, hats, pottery, bone-meal, doing calico-printing, and hundreds of other jobs [...]

Because there were few connecting trails and no highways at all, each early village was dependent upon itself for every necessity. Often the smallest community had its own mills for flour, linseed oil, cider, salt, lumber, flax, plaster, tobacco, paint, grain, resin, and so on "down river" to where various smaller mills had set up shop.

In listing subjects of our old-time landscape, you might wonder why mills have been mentioned before roads. The reason for this is that mills were usually built on streams without any regard to land access. The roads came later, beaten as paths to the mills. There are still thousands of "old mill roads," leading only to nearby streams and mill-sites. Many towns and their original roads were built around this arrangement of mills, which explains why most inland towns are located on rivers and streams.

Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, and Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures, 1931.

Adapted from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, this version of Frankenstein remains iconic for its striking visual design and overall madness. In a departure from their source material screenwriter John L. Balderston and director James Whale locate the film's climactic, confrontational scene in an old windmill surrounded by an angry mob of torch-wielding peasants. The trope of a mill's grinding mechanisms makes for an intriguing comparison to scientific creation.

The Old Mill. Dir. Wilfred Jackson (uncredited). Walt Disney Productions, 1937.

Undoubtedly less lurid than the windmill in Frankenstein, this one from a 1937 Disney Short nevertheless depends upon abandonment as its source of drama. When the film opens nature is reclaiming the picturesque ruin, which is reactivated--and seemingly comes back to life--in reponse to a passing storm. Not strictly for the kiddies...

Given the globalization and extreme mechanization of our food systems, the poetics of local "real food" have asserted themselves since at least the 1970s.  Here, Patricia LaLand describes a water mill in evocative terms that recover food--and its production--as an embodied experience.  (“The Legacy of Water Mills,” Early American Life 32.1 [2001]: 38)

Being inside a water mill when it is running is an experience that stimulates all the senses.  The wondrous engineering feats that accomplish the fascinating, convoluted inner workings seem to be a cross between the technical engravings in the eighteenth-century encyclopedia by Denis Diderot and the zany cartoons of twentieth-century American humorist Rube Goldberg.  Gears, wheels, belts, pulleys—all seem to be moving at different speeds and in every possible direction.

Vibrations from the multiple moving pieces rumble and quiver through the structure; water flows and splashes.  The heat generated by the grinding puts a toasty aroma into faintly dusty air.  The miller’s senses are finely tuned to the pulse of his mill, and he makes constant adjustments to the intricate machinery.  A change in the flour’s texture or a difference in the sound or the smell when there is a variance in friction sends him running up the stairs to make fine adjustments, then down again to test the texture of the flour streaming into the bin.