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Gristmill with water wheel, Skyline Drive, Virginia, 1938
A gristmill or grist mill is a building in which grain is ground into flour, or the grinding mechanism itself. In many countries these are referred to as corn mills or flour mills.


Early history

The old water mill at Decew Falls, Niagara Escarpment, St.Catharines, Canada
The first water powered gristmills in Europe were built toward the end of the first century BC. The first written account is that of Strabo, describing the mill at Cabira, in operation in 63 BC. These mills had horizontal wheels. Vertical wheels were in use in the Roman Empire by the end of the first century BC, and these were described by Vitruvius. The peak of Roman technology is probably the Barbegal aqueduct and millmarker where water with a 19-meter fall drove sixteen water wheels, giving a grinding capacity estimated at 2.4 to 3.2 tonnes per hour. Water mills seem to have remained in use during the post-Roman period, and by 1000 AD, mills in Europe were rarely more than a few miles apart. In Englandmarker, the Domesday survey of 1086 gives a precise count of England's water-powered flour mills: There were 5,624, or about one for every 300 inhabitants, and this was probably typical throughout western and southern Europe. From this time onward, water wheels began to be used for purposes other than grist milling. In England, the number of mills in operation followed population growth, and peaked around 17,000 by 1300.

The first geared gristmills were invented by Muslim inventors in the medieval Islamic world, and were used for grinding grain and other seeds to produce meals, and many other industrial uses such as fulling cloth, husking rice, papermaking, pulping sugarcane, and crushing metallic ores before extraction. Gristmills in the Islamic world were often made from both watermills and windmills. In order to adapt water wheels for gristmilling purposes, cams were used for raising and releasing trip hammers to fall on a material. The first wind-powered gristmills were built in what are now Afghanistanmarker, Pakistanmarker and Iranmarker in the 9th and 10th centuries.Adam Lucas (2006), Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, p. 65, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004146490

Limited examples of gristmills can be found in Europe from the High Middle Ages. An extant well-preserved waterwheel and gristmill on the Ebro River in Spainmarker is associated with the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de Rueda, built by the Cistercian monks in 1202. The Cistercians were known for their use of this technology in Western Europe in the period 1100 to 1350.

Classical British and American mills

Classical mill designs are usually water powered, though some are windmills, or powered by livestock. A sluice gate is used to open a channel and so start the water flowing and a water wheel turning. In most such mills the water wheel was mounted vertically, i.e., edge-on, in the water, but in some cases horizontally (the tub wheel and so-called Norse wheel). Later designs incorporated horizontal steel or cast iron turbines and these were also sometimes refitted into the old wheel mills.
Glade Creek Grist Mill in Babcock State Park, West Virginia, USA, 2006
In most wheel-driven mills, a large gear-wheel called the pit wheel is mounted on the same axle as the water wheel and this drives a smaller gear-wheel, the wallower, on a main driveshaft running vertically from the bottom to the top of the building. This system of gearing ensures that the main shaft turns faster than the water wheel, which typically rotates at 10 rpm, or so.

The millstones themselves turn at around 120 rpm. They are laid one on top of the other. The bottom stone, called the bed, is fixed to the floor, while the top stone, the runner, is mounted on a separate spindle, driven by the main shaft. A wheel called the stone nut connects the runner's spindle to the main shaft, and this can be moved out of the way to disconnect the stone and stop it turning, leaving the main shaft going to drive other machinery. This might include driving a mechanical sieve to refine the flour, or turning a wooden drum to wind up a chain used to hoist sacks of grain to the top of the mill house.

The grain is lifted in sack onto the sack floor at the top of the mill. The sacks are emptied into bins, where the grain falls down through a hopper to the stones on the stone floor below. The flow of grain is regulated by shaking it along a gently sloping trough (the slipper) from which it falls into a hole in the center of the runner stone. The milled grain (flour) is collected as it emerges through the grooves in the runner stone from the outer rim of the stones and it gets fed down a chute to be collected in sacks on the ground or meal floor. A very similar process is used for grains such as wheat, kamut, etc to make flour as well as for maize to make corn meal.

In order to prevent the vibrations of the mill machinery from shaking the building apart, a gristmill will often have at least two separate foundations.

American inventor Oliver Evans revolutionized this labor-intensive process. At the end of the eighteenth century he patented and promoted a fully automated mill design.

Image:Flour mill 20050723 001.jpg|Old fashioned flour millImage:Gristmill Hopper 1938.gif|Gristmill hopper, Skyline Drivemarker, VAmarker, 1938. Grain was funneled through the hopper to a grinding stone belowImage:Grinding Corn Usquepaugh RI 1940.jpg|Corn over the grinding stone in Kenyon's johnnycake flour mill in Usquepaugh, RI, (near Kingstonmarker) 1940Image:Thomas Mill Basement Chester Co PA.jpg|Gristmill drive machinery, Thomas Mill, Chester Countymarker, PAImage:Pedal-wheat-mill.jpg|Pedal powered wheat mill, Shediac Cape, New BrunswickmarkerImage:foundations.jpg|Remnants of some of the scores of flour mills built in Minneapolismarker between 1850 and 1900. Note the underground Mill race that powered mills on the west side of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony FallsImage:Phelpsmill ottertailcounty.jpg|Phelps Mill in Otter Tail County, MinnesotamarkerImage:Sturbridgemill.jpg|Wheel of the 1840s-era Grist Mill at Old Sturbridge Villagemarker in Sturbridge, MAImage:Mt_Vernon_Gristmill_Slipper.jpg|"Slipper" feeding corn into the grindstones of George Washington's Grist MillImage:Splash_mill_inside.JPG|Splash mill from Småland, SwedenImage: Thorp_Gristmill_Weir.jpg|Weir at the old grist mill in Thorp, WashingtonmarkerImage: Thorp_Gristmill_Turbine_Wheel.jpg|Old turbine wheel at the old grist mill in Thorp, WashingtonmarkerFile:Wayside Grist Mill.JPG|The grist mill at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MassachusettsmarkerFile:Stockdale Mill Roann IN 1998.jpg|Stockdale Mill on the Eel River near Roann, Indianamarker

Modern mills

Historically, gristmills contained rotating stones powered by water or by wind; later mills used steam engines for power, and modern mills typically use electricity or fossil fuels to spin heavy steel rollers. These techniques produce visibly different results, but can be made to produce nutritionally and functionally equivalent output.

Gristmills only grind clean grains, that is, grain from which stalks and chaff have previously been removed, but some mills also housed equipment for threshing, sorting, and cleaning prior to grinding. Gristmills also grind corn into meal.

Modern mills are almost certainly "merchant mills", that is, they are privately owned and accept money or trade for milling grains, or the corporations that own the mills buy unmilled grain and then own the flour produced. Early mills were almost always built and supported by farming communities and typically a percentage of each farmer's grain called a "miller's toll" was set aside for the miller in lieu of wages. Although gristmill can refer to any mill that grinds grain, the term historically was used to refer to a local mill where farmers brought their own grain and received the flour from it, minus the "miller's toll." Modern mills use serrated and flat cast iron rollers to separate the bran and germ from the endosperm. The endosperm is ground to create white flour which may be recombined with the bran and germ to create whole wheat or graham flour.

Functioning historic gristmills


United States

Alabama Arkansas California Georgia Indiana Iowa Massachusetts Michigan Mississippi
  • Sciple's Water Mill in Kemper County, Mississippimarker was built in 1790 and owned by four families over the next fifty years. The Sciple family bought the property in about 1840 and has kept it running ever since. This mill also ginned cotton and sawed lumber until the 1950s.
Nebraska New Hampshire New Jersey New York North Carolina Ohio
  • Clifton Mill in Clifton, Ohiomarker is one of the oldest grist mills still in operation.
Pennsylvania Rhode Island
  • Carpenter's Grist Mill, Perryville, RI
South Carolina Washington West Virginia

United Kingdom

Ruined, remnant, or partially preserved gristmills

United States

  • Gurleyville Grist Mill, Mansfield, CT
Minnesota New Hampshire
  • Sanborn Grist Mill, Loudon, NH
South Carolina Virginia West Virginia Washington Washington, D.C.


  1. Gimpel, J., The Medieval Machine, Gollanz, 1976, Chapter 1.
  2. Donald Routledge Hill (1996), "Engineering", p. 781, in
  3. Donald Routledge Hill, "Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East", Scientific American, May 1991, pp. 64-69 (cf. Donald Routledge Hill, Mechanical Engineering)

See also

External links

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