Sunday, December 27, 2009

My daddy was a miller, and I'm a miller's son...

For the union song-lovers of the world, you know those aren't the actual lyrics to the song, "Which side are you on?" but having spent a large chunk of yesterday at the Bale Grist Mill in St. Helena, CA, the song comes to mind.  We set out with several family members on a hike and outing to check out the old mill that dates back to 1846.  After a lovely walk through hanging vines and token Napa forests (photo below), we arrived just in time for a tour hosted by a retired 2nd grade teacher.  He told us all about the story of the the old mill and how it changed hands from the original owner (Dr. E.T. Bale) to his wife after he passed away, leaving her in a bit of a debt mess and a beautifully-functioning piece of amazing machinery.  With perseverance and a little help from some published guides dating back to the 18th century (which are still referred to!), she kept it up and running making it one of the gathering spots of the town.

I enjoyed this part of the story, as it gave you a real sense of what the old Napa-ites (Napanions?) experienced as a community.  After collecting corn and wheat for a couple of weeks, the residents in the area would gather to share a meal, catch-up with neighbors, and wait patiently for their chance to grind their goods into flour and the like.
Our guide was wonderful (with children, for sure, including Sophie as his assistant in many of his explanations [see below]), while sharing a real passion for the mill.  He took us step-by-step through the process of grinding as well as the parts of the machine that made it possible to turn corn and wheat in flour or meal.  From pointing out the different paths that the water must take to make its way to the large wheel that turned the whole system (below)... the gears and cogs (and various materials there of) to use as the inner-workings (below with Soph)... the technicolor explanation of how a grindstone works and why a miller must keep his (or her!) "nose to the grindstone."  As you can see from the photo at the right, the black and red lines represent the groves in the quartzite grindstone that work together to grind up the corn or wheat.  If the grindstones fall off balance or larger pieces of grain are stuck in there, a smell of rubbing rocks will be emitted instead of the rich aroma of the flour.  It is for this reason that the miller must keep a close watch (and nose) on how the grindstones are working so that the grindstone does not wear down too much (I imagine), but also so that the whole complex machine runs as efficiently as possible.
It was a wonderful day with family, new discoveries, a kid-friendly outing, all ending with pizza and wine and games (see photo of chef Sophie)! We're off to Londontown this evening - sadly leaving the California family with promises of "see you real soon, right?", but before reaching SFO airport, there will be some crucial stop-offs in the city to show Sophie the sights (more blogging to come, I'm sure.)
If you're ever in St. Helena, CA (smack in the mid-to-north end of the Napa Valley) and are in need of a non-oenophile experience, head on over to the Bale Grist Mill...
...they might even let you take the kernels off of some ears of corn!


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