Old Grist Mill carries on long-standing traditions
The Dartmouth-Westport Chronicle
October 20, 2004
By Paul A.Tamburello, Jr.
Westport has a way of casting a spell on visitors, vacationers, and assorted wanderers who venture within its boundaries. If Roger Williams had made his way to Westport as opposed to Providence, RI after being banished by the Massachusetts Great and General Court in 1636, the history of this corner of the state might have been altered forever. The region put a spell on Philip Taber back in 1717 when he became the first documented owner and operator of “Taber’s Mill”, now known as Gray’s Grist Mill on Adamsville Road in Westport, MA.
Grist mills were an integral cog in the infrastructure of the early New England economy. Farmers, self sufficient though they were, needed mills to convert wheat, rye, and corn into flour for the family and fodder for the livestock. Mills relied on water power and Gray’s Mill Pond draining south into the headwaters of the West Branch of the Westport River was a logical site to provide that power.
The wooden floors of the mill have been worn smooth by the boots of farmers during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and more recent global conflicts. Our dietary needs haven’t changed much between 1700 and today but our shopping habits and the footgear of the mill’s customers have. The ground corn meal produced by Gray’s Grist Mill occupies a unique perch in a niche market for consumers with a taste for the past.
Survival in rural America has always required a strong back, a streak of independence, and a sense of service to the community. The survival of Gray’s Grist Mill is the story of three families who followed in this flinty New England tradition.
Various members of Taber family operated the mill for about one hundred years until 1799. A few owners later, Philip K. Gray purchased the mill in 1880. In a remarkable run, a father and son team, Roland Grayton Hart and his son John Allen Hart, kept the mill stones grinding during an entire 100 year span. In 1980, after 62 years in the business, John Hart sold the mill to a Mr. Ralph Guild. Fascinated with the workings of an honest to goodness artifact of the past, Guild had been carting his family from Westport Harbor to Adamsville Road to visit Hart every summer since the 1960s. The men and the mill hit it off. When it came time for Hart to retire, he knew just the man to call. As Guild said, “He knew a sure thing when he saw one. A chance to own a piece of history, ‘I’ll take it!’” Guild, who shared Hart’s passion for the art and science of milling, promised Mr. Hart that he’d keep the mill running as a working mill. Except a hiatus of five years for refurbishing it in the late nineties, Guild has faithfully kept the shop’s millstones turning.
The next family to step into the cosmic web of Gray’s Grist Mill is that of Thornton Simmons. Simmons, a retired contractor/carpenter who lives in Little Compton, was reading the paper four years ago when he came across a part time job opportunity to grind corn and manage a working museum on Adamsville Road. It just so happened that several branches lower on the Simmons family tree, Benjamin Simmons operated Simmons Mill Pond Grist Mill in Little Compton, RI in the 1600s. “Little Compton was incorporated in 1675 and his mill predates that,” says Simmons. “I must have corn meal in my blood.” It goes without saying that Simmons got the job.
Thanks to the Tabers, Grays, and Guilds, this little piece of real estate represents one of the oldest continually running grist mills in New England. It must also be noted, lest Rhode Islanders take offense at the omission, that the mill straddles the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts, drawn in 1747 right down the middle of Gray’s Pond, across the street from the mill. The mill has, pardon the pun, become an ingrained part of the history of both states.
The mill site currently consists of two interconnected buildings. The sign on one of the weathered gray shingled structures proclaims “Gifts, stone ground flour, crafts, museum.” The clanging ‘ding a ling’ produced by swinging open the screen door temporarily startles customers, who are more accustomed to hearing mood music in their shopping haunts. The tiny shop is gloriously crammed with a most extraordinary collection of bric a brac. Weather vanes, model ships and planes, jams and jellies, cards and crockery, and books of local lore are either hung, propped, or stacked in every conceivable nook and cranny and surround the squat wood stove in the center of the shop. Bags of fresh corn meal and pancake mix stand bagged and ready to travel at the small wooden counter in the back. A rainy afternoon could easily occupy the most seasoned shopper and get the cash register ringing as loudly as those bells over the front door.
If he’s not behind the counter, Thornton Simmons, will emerge from the mill room in the adjacent building to greet customers. If he’s been bagging corn meal, his hands will be as white as his apron and neatly trimmed beard.
The main attraction these days is the same as it was for Mr. Guild in the 1960s, the milling room. Over the years, corn, easier to grow locally than wheat or rye, became the grain farmers most frequently carted to the mill. Much of it was thrown, stalk, husk and all, into a ‘corn cracker’. The resulting chunks of corn were hauled back to the farm where they were used as silage and feed for the cattle over the winter. The corn cracker is now a relic on display in the grinding room.
The two granite mill stones, weighing in at 1.5 tons, are the stars of the show, sharing the lime light with Narragansett Indian Flint Corn milled there. Through the years, due to the vagaries of nature, other types of corn have been ground at Gray’s resulting in a coarser grain and different taste. “None were as sweet as the organic Flint Cap Corn now grown in Exeter, Rhode Island. It’s hard to grow, only two ears on each stalk and only eight rows of kernels on each cob,” says Simmons. He believes the combination of the soil it comes from and the use of the old fashioned mill stones achieves what has become known as the sweetest, finest corn meal in the territory.
Corn meal was the main ingredient, along with water or milk and a pinch of salt, of ‘jonny cakes’, a type of pancake that could be eaten hot off the griddle or rolled up and stuffed into a pocket for later consumption. The ‘journey cakes’ evolved into ‘jonny cakes’ and can probably be thought of as the original granola bar. Folks will come a long way for a taste. “Some people find us on the web, others have heard about us by word of mouth. Once an Amish man, big black hat and all, stopped in to see how we ground our meal,” says Simmons.
Michael Frady, manager and one of the chefs at The Barn in Adamsville, says, “Jonnycakes are a hard to find item and one of the items by which we’re most strongly judged. Western Rhode Islanders insist the authentic cakes are thick and eastern Rhode Islanders say the authentic cakes are thin. We make the thin kind since that’s what’s called for in the traditional Gray’s recipe.” Tradition seems to be the unwritten ingredient in the recipe. “We try to preserve part of the food history of this part of New England,” says Frady.
And that’s exactly what Ralph Guild has in mind when he says, “We’re not just selling cornmeal, we’re selling history.”
Since being signed by then Governor Joseph Garrahy in 1983, October 22 - 31 was proclaimed as “Jonnycake Week” in Rhode Island. In honor of that, Simmons’ wife will be offering a taste of jonnycake to wayfarers passing Gray’s Grist Mill on Saturday, October 23, between 1 and 3 PM.