While eating may be the ultimate necessity, food processing has been humanity’s mother of invention. We think of our ancestors—charcoaled figures on cave walls pursuing large game—on par with the most fearsome of carnivores. But just as early humans brought down large beasts, they also gathered plants.
Grass fruits may seem an unlikely food for a great ape, but what these fruits lack in size, they make up for in abundance. People gathered them; they set fires to encourage their spread; they scattered grass seed where they planned to return. A grass fruit—what we call grain—consists mostly of a single seed. The outer fruit is far from edible. Just try chewing a mouthful of dried corn or barley. Rather it makes up bran—the indigestible armor that protects what is nourishing in the grain. Our ancestors knew if they could get to what’s inside grain, they had food.
Alongside spear tips, Neolithic tools include stones for grinding. The technology was generally the same the world over: complementary stones—one held in hand and pounded on or pushed across a flat or concave stationary stone below. In between, grain was transformed into something that could be mixed with water and boiled into a porridge or baked on a stone. (The brewer will offer another suggestion.) This was true whether the seeds were foraged or cultivated. With our handy stones, we could trade spears for hoes and settle down to farming.
Scaling up milling operations enabled civilizations to grow, as oxen and slaves were made to walk circles, turning enormous millstones. Eventually we turned them with the power of running water—a paddled wheel laid horizontal in a fickle current. Roman engineers added gears and set the waterwheel vertically in the flow of diverted water, giving the mill operator control over the flow of water and the speed of the millstone. This became the modern water-powered gristmill that western civilization would rely on into the 20th century.
People had conquered bran, but the victory was a double- edged scythe. We had gone from discovering a new food source to being dependent on it, which also meant being dependent on milling. The ancients understood our new predicament. In the Bible’s Old Testament, there are rules governing what can be taken as collateral if someone owes a debt:
No one shall take a handmill or an upper millstone in pledge, for he would be taking a life in pledge. (Deuteronomy, 24.6)
Those who controlled the milling, controlled the people—a hard truth urgently understood by peasants across medieval Europe, who were often banned from possessing handheld millstones, instead they were required to bring their harvest to the lord’s mill for a cut of the flour, of course.
Today about half of all calories consumed by people come from rice, corn, and wheat. Like field mice and songbirds, we became granivores, eaters of seeds. Yet how often do we consider who is milling our flour?
An Historic Mill
Fowler’s Mill, built in 1834 along a scenic stretch of the Chagrin River in Chardon by brothers Milo and Hiram Fowler, changed hands over the generations, with several modifications made along the way. The original wooden waterwheel, which harnessed the power of flowing water to turn the burrstone that grinds grain, was swapped out for larger and, eventually, steel wheels. Ferdinand Kobliha, a Czech immigrant, converted the mill from stone to steel to produce a more refined flour. In the late 1940s, Kobliha’s son-in-law added an electric hammer mill to make animal feed.
When Billie and Rick Erickson bought the mill in 1985, it had been vacant for 20 years and needed work. Rick, an engineer with a newfound penchant for French bread, restored the mill building with the intention of converting it to a bakery. In the end, the couple decided to learn how to mill grain. Using two World War II-era electric stone mills, they returned Fowler’s to producing whole grain flour. “There was more of a market for specialty flours. And we didn’t really think we could compete with Pillsbury,” Billie says with a laugh.
They purchase non-GMO corn and wheat grown on contract by a farmer in Orwell. “When you mill wheat you get only two products, [whole] wheat flour and wheat bran,” says Tony, Fowler’s miller. Milling corn yields cracked corn, grits, meal, and flour. Eventually, these are packaged as-is or combined with other ingredients to create baking mixes—the bulk of what Fowler’s sells. Packaged in quaint cloth sacks, Fowler’s mixes can be found at roadside farm markets throughout the country. Retail sales at the mill spike during the holidays, making up a third of their annual sales. People are interested in stopping by an historic mill, and a gift from that mill comes gift-wrapped with a sense of history.
Billie offers to show me the mill’s ground floor. Descending the wooden staircase, she stops to point out sepia-toned photos of the mill. Tony moves a shelving unit, revealing a door, which he opens with some effort. I step over the threshold and take a giant step down onto a rough bedrock foundation. Across the space I can make out enormous rusted gears and a metal waterwheel, axles, and wooden beams. The machinery that once linked the power of running water to the grinding of sustenance sat before me, silent as its often forgotten history.
A Turbulent Start
Not everyone in 1830s Ohio had easy access to a mill such as Fowler’s. Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio features the “cheery reminisces” of Robert Bowers’ boyhood:
The nearest mills were at settlements in adjoining counties, and the labor of going thither through the wilderness and the delays … in getting [our] grain ground, [were] so great that [we] had recourse to hand-mills … [These] were always reliable and in constant use as a means of preparing our breadstuff. I was my father’s miller … My daily labor was to gather corn and dry it on the kiln … and after supper made meal for the johnny-cake for breakfast; after breakfast I made meal for the pone for dinner; after dinner I made meal for the mush for supper.
Ideally, but not always practically, the window of time between the arrival of settlers and the first turns of their mill was narrow.
In 1783, General Rufus Putnam, an officer in the French and Indian War and a Revolutionary War general, helped found the Ohio Company of Associates and became the superintendent of its first settlement in Marietta. He was also a millwright, an engineer of mills.
For Putnam and his compatriots, Ohio was an investment. To see returns, the settlers would have to indeed be settled, not hungry. The company would see to it that mills were built, donating land to those who would build them, and even exercising a sort of eminent domain to build them at favorable locations along creeks and where settlements were in need.
The establishment of Ohio’s first mills was fraught with setbacks. A mill on Duck Creek, just two miles from the Marietta settlement, was destroyed by a flood during construction. Wolf Creek Mill, some 22 miles up the Muskingum River from Marietta, became the first mill to operate in Ohio. Just 10 months after it began grinding grain, however, the mill was shut down when 14 settlers were killed at a nearby settlement. The Big Bottom Massacre was one of many skirmishes that collectively define the Northwest Indian Wars. The threat of Indian hostility weighed against the need for mills sometimes meant the construction of floating pontoon mills anchored in the Ohio and other large rivers, which offered a reliable current for the millwheel and a watery buffer against attack.
Following the massacre, General Putnam, along with a contingent of soldiers and militiamen, was ordered by President Washington to defeat Ohio’s first residents and force them to relinquish their land. By 1795, the settlement of the state and the urgent construction of mills proceeded in haste.
A Rapid Rise and Fall
By 1840, five decades after the Wolf Creek mill began operating, Ohio had 1,861 waterwheel gristmills. But the era of the hyperlocal mill was short-lived.
Ohio’s new canal system made trips to and from the mill easier, forcing mills to compete for farmer’s grain as well as for urban markets. This competition grew as railroads and improved roads shrank the distance between farmers, mills, and markets.
Determined mill owners responded by becoming larger, adding waterwheels and millstones, and adopting the latest in milling technology. For example, Lanterman’s Mill, built into the side of a waterfall south of Youngstown, opened for business in the mid-1840s. As the 14-foot diameter waterwheel rumbled into action that first day of milling, German Lanterman couldn’t have known that the number of Ohio mills had reached its peak. Although Lanterman eventually replaced its waterwheel with a newfangled turbine system and was operating with three grinding stones, the future of milling was shrouded in smoke and forged in steel. As waterpower gave way to steam and then electricity, powering steel roller mills and elaborate sifters to make refined flours, mill owners either found a way to pay for these upgrades or, like the Lantermans, got out of the flour business.
Manifest Destiny provided a final incentive. Following pioneer settlement and railroad expansion, grain production was moving west, and by the early 20th century the corn belt hugged the banks of the Mississippi, making the western Great Plains America’s bread basket. Large milling operations set up shop where the grain was—from Minneapolis to Kansas City.
From its peak in the 1840s to 1870, Ohio lost more than a third of its mills. By 1922, only 94 mills were recorded in the state, and by 1958 Ohio had 32 fully modernized mills. Today, Ohio’s seven mills, most owned by multistate or multinational companies, grind grain from Ohio and beyond.
One can argue that these changes make perfect sense and are for the best. Economists bemoan the inefficiency of redundancy. Don’t a few large mills benefit everyone? Ohio farmers can sell their grain to mills that aggregate and process for a global market, not just the nearby village or town. Ohio bakers have reliable access to a wide variety of flours with a quality and price anchored to global averages rather than tossed and turned by the volatility of local events.
Modern needs are met in a modern way. Small-time mills are obsolete, except as a museum or a place to buy a holiday gift.
The Stutzmans Take Up Milling
“My dad’s 87 now and he’s still grinding flour,” Monroe Stutzman, in flour-dusted coveralls with only a hint of grey in his beard, tells me as we wait for the grain-puffer to reach critical pressure.
Stutzman family history unfolds across the rolling fields of Holmes County. Here, for more than a century, many of them have been horse-powered grain farmers. When Monroe’s dad, Levi, bought his own land in 1956, he started farming, dairying and growing grains. Some of that grain would be ground on the farm for feed, but most was milled into flour somewhere else. “Back then they would load the wheat on the box wagon and take it to Millersburg and put it on the train,” he says. Monroe couldn’t say where that grain wound up.
Monroe explains that sometime in the 1970s, his father’s doctor told him he’d better stop eating as much white flour, which motivated him to get his own mill and grind his own grain. Levi focused on milling for family consumption, while selling a little flour through a couple of local stores. Later, Monroe’s sisters baked and sold bread and their own version of grape nuts. When Monroe took up a trade, it was milling. His present operation is on five acres of land, adjacent to his father’s. In 2005, he erected a building to house an assemblage of milling machinery—all of it bought used—some supposedly worn out that he refurbished or rebuilt.
He offers me a grain-eye view of the system, from the huge storage bin outside to the 25-pound flour bagger at the end. In between is a lively conglomeration of whirlydoos, whizbangers, and rattleshakers that pre-clean, dehull, sort, blow, crack, sieve, flatten, and grind grain. To me, the 20-by-30-foot block of machines, tubes, hoppers, levers, and pulleys looks like Dr. Seussmeets-Rube Goldberg; to Monroe, the system makes perfect sense, as he tries to figure out why spelt has stopped loading into a particular hopper. When everything is working smoothly, 250 pounds of spelt is stone-milled into flour every hour.
Located midway between Cleveland and Columbus, Stutzman’s has a foot in both markets, selling direct to customers through farmers markets and local food subscriptions. Students of three area universities are eating Stutzman products served in their dining halls. But the majority of his sales are through small nearby grocers and from retail sales at the mill that have picked up in recent years, as migratory locavores navigate between fields of grain destined for Monroe’s mill—a way station between farm and table. Twenty or so farmers, cultivating between 200 and 300 acres, grow for Stutzman’s, which provides them the seed upfront and buys their net harvest. It’s a system that works well enough to have encouraged local farmers to switch to growing organic staple grains.
As big as Stutzman’s footprint is, Monroe points out that 200 acres isn’t much in Holmes County. Still, he claims his operation is as big as he wants it to be, a claim undermined by the solar- powered mini-mill, peanut butter grinder, and oil-seed press he recently assembled, as well as the experimental plots of ancient einkorn wheat customers have been asking for, and an expanding line of value-added products.
And then there’s the grain puffer.
The whistle alarm rises above the general clamor of the mill and Monroe offers me a pair of earplugs and an upfront view. In one explosive instant, a gallon of dried corn, loaded into what looks like a sawed-off artillery, shoots out in a violent cloud of corn bran that covers me. To the side sit bags of grain—special orders for a custom puffing.
Perhaps what Stutzman offers is too good not to expand.
Shagbark and the Staple Food Revolution
“Grain and bean farmers say ‘We’ve never eaten what we’re growing,’” Michelle Ajamian recalls to me. We’re sitting in two folding chairs as a trade show is being dismantled around us. I had been warned that Michelle is very busy in her drive to build a regional food system. Despite the hectic schedule, she is relaxed and happy to tell the origin story for Shagbark Seed and Mill.
In 2008, she and Brandon Jaeger asked a seemingly simple question: Why aren’t Southeast Ohio farmers growing staple crops for local consumption? That year, Ohio farmers planted over 3.1 million acres of corn and nearly 4.5 million acres of soybeans—almost 30% of the state’s total land area. Not much of that was eaten directly by people.
Michelle scornfully points a finger at Earl Butz, who, as Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, famously directed farmers to “get big or get out.” The consequences of such advice, intended or not, were the continued decline of small farms and an increased reliance on corn and soy by the big farms that stayed. The beneficiaries were the chemical and animal feed industries, that turn these crops into useful, if not always edible, products. The two wondered how many bowls of corn grits and black beans all that acreage could produce?
With the help of a grant, Michelle and Brandon bought seed for some staple crops and gave them to area farmers to grow out experimentally. Low yields weren’t an issue. Rather, their problem did indeed amount to a hill of beans and grains that needed to be processed before people could eat them. They soon discovered there were no mills, no processing, unless you go big.
Some friends pointed out their obvious next step. “I don’t think we necessarily wanted to start a mill, it was more like ‘Yeah, I guess that’s what has to happen and I guess we need to do it,’” Michelle concedes.
Two years later, they founded Shagbark Seed and Mill in a nondescript building located in a business park on the outskirts of Athens—Rufus Putnam’s backyard and ground zero for Ohio’s milling history. Here Shagbark cleans beans and grinds grain using two stone mills.
With the opening of the mill, farmers in Appalachian Ohio have more options regarding what to grow, knowing that there is a local processor who will provide them with seed and pay premium prices for their crop. One farmer agreed to throw some black beans in his yard as an experiment, according to Michelle. Three years later, he planted 62 acres of black beans. “[Farmers] feel like there’s some security—that their kids are gonna be able to sell to us and work with us,” Michelle says.
Restaurants wanting to support local food often have had a tough time finding staple products that are local, instead having to pair local produce with flour, grains, and beans from who knows where, pulled from the truck of some big food distributor.
Now some of them are turning to Shagbark directly or through one of the several regional distributors of its products.
And Shagbark works with food access programs and public schools, offering them organic staple products at a pricing that works for them.
In the few years since its inception, Shagbark products can be found from Cincinnati to Cleveland and its revenue has seen more than a 40-fold increase. “Everything has happened because of good relationships and good networks, and listening to people, and seeing what the need is and trying to fill it on a shoestring” she glows.
I ask Michelle if all this adds up to Shagbark’s “Staple Food Revolution.” Her reply is earnest and urgent. “It’s amazing that these foods that we don’t really think about—staple grains and beans and oilseed—are in our diet every day.
“[We need to] look at what we’re eating and the impact it has on us and on the rest of the world and start to change those systems [of production]. Let’s get the scale back so that we can say ‘Here are the farmers who come to our mill; here’s how many acres each of them grow.’ We are the opposite of get big or get out. I don’t know what you’d call us … maybe get small and live.”