They could weigh up to 1,600 pounds, but quality millstones were so valuable that some 19th century immigrants lugged them along when they departed Europe. The expertise of millers was equally critical. Until mills were established, the earliest settlers in Minnesota of European heritage had to grind their wheat by hand. Some, like native Americans, pounded grain in a mortar. Others grated wheat through holes punched in a piece of tin. Some used coffee grinders.
Grist mills were among the earliest commercial enterprises on the frontier. The first one near Spring Grove, maybe the first in Houston County, was started in 1851 by William Banning on Riceford Creek. Local historian Percival Narveson, noted it was “the butt of many jokes – that mice consumed the grist as fast as it was ground.” However, Banning used a homemade water turbine, a precursor of the manufactured turbines that would revolutionize the industry some years later.
In the 1870s and 1880s, there were 24 flouring mills in Houston County, 35 in Fillmore County and 22 in Winona County, which annually produced about 124,000 barrels of flour. There were small mills and large mills. The largest was the Kaercher Mill at Clear Grit in Carrolton Township, Fillmore County.
Stone buhr mills used two circular stones from two to seven-and-half feet in diameter, which were mounted horizontally, one over the other. The lower stone remained in place while the upper stone was rotated, usually by water power. Grain, which when poured into a hole in the center of the upper stone would be ground fine between the radiating grooves of the two stones.
Millstones needed to be of proper texture and hardness and be correctly balanced. Milling was a skill not quickly acquired, needing years of experience to learn how to produce good flour from different varieties of wheat that were brought in. Stones needed to be the correct distance apart. If they were too close together, excessive heat caused the mash to stick to the millstones.
When stones became worn, they needed to be skillfully re-cut. Accomplished millstone refinishers were highly valued. One of the best was Norwegian immigrant Hans Prestseter, who was the head miller at Joseph Schwartzhoff’s mill at Bee. Many of the larger mills imported their millstones from France, which was acclaimed for its milling excellence. Also valued were millstones from rock quarried in New York. However, most of the frontier mills in southeast Minnesota used stones quarried and dressed from local rock. A few immigrants who had operated mills in Norway brought their prized millstones with them.
In 1855, Ole Kaasa in Highland Prairie, Fillmore County was known to have a hand-operated mill, using homemade millstones. There was a crude grist mill in Canoe Township, Winneshiek County, Iowa, that was powered by two men walking in a circle. Huge windmills sufficed where water was not available. But almost all early mills used water power to set millstones in motion and were located where dams could be built on a waterway. They employed large unwieldly water wheels, about 19 feet in diameter and three feet wide. It was risky business as flash floods could wash away dams and mills. The August 6, 1866, flood destroyed or damaged most of the mills in the Riceford and South Fork valleys.
Some primitive mills ceased operation when unable to upgrade facilities and keep up with improved production methods. Increased efficiency came with turbines, which when submerged in moving water, produced more power without increasing the height of dams. Small ones varied with diameters of two-to-four feet. Manufacturing water turbines became a highly competitive business.
Steel rollers were developed in Hungary during the 1860s. However, the first roller mills in 1870s Minnesota did not crack the wheat kernels so that the bran and middling flakes could be sifted out, so many mills continued to use stone buhrs for the first grinding. But in 1871, a new roller was developed with corrugated iron rolls for the first grinding – a process so superior that millstones were no longer used.
The era of 19th century milling suirvives in Sheldon, where in season, visitors may tour Schech’s Mill, which since 1876, still operates on water power.
Source: “Percival Narveson’s Historical Sketches”