Corn has been the main crop of Rabun County farmers since the first white settlers arrived over 200 years ago. Gristmills were built by Rabun farmers to grind the county’s corn harvests into meal for bread, grits and hominy. The output from gristmills also was used for something more potent than Johnnycakes.
Virtually every Rabun community, from Persimmon in the west to Pine Mountain in the east, had its own gristmill. They had to be located within easy distance of farmers, because poor roads, more aptly called rutted wagon trails, made for slow going even in good weather. They became impassable quagmires when it rained. As an important part of their communities, gristmills became centers of village life as people waited for their corn to be ground into meal.
Flumes and Overshot Waterwheels
Rabun County’s water-powered gristmills were built on strongly flowing streams such as Persimmon and Warwoman creeks. Water from the stream was conducted by a wooden flume to a large, vertically-mounted overshot waterwheel. A continuous series of blades or paddles were mounted around the wheel. The power of water falling onto the blades pushed the wheel forward, causing it to rotate. In some cases, mill ponds were created by damming a stream. A narrow mill race was dug to channel water from the mill pond to the waterwheel.
The rotating waterwheel turned wooden shafts and gears that transmitted power to grooved millstones. From a hopper, corn kernels were fed into the upper rotating millstone. The lower grooved millstone was stationery. The action of the upper stone against the lower stone ground the corn into corn meal. Only corn kernels dried to the hardness of pebbles could be ground. Wet or freshly harvested corn had to be dried for about two months before it was ready for milling.
Millers cut and shaped their own millstones, each weighing a ton or more. Depending on the amount of usage, millstones could last up to 10 years. However, the grooves in the stones had to be sharpened periodically with a pick. It could take days to sharpen both millstones.
Adjusting Millstones for Meal, Grits and Hominy
The gap between the two millstones could be adjusted to control the fineness of the ground corn. When moved as close together as possible, the result was finely ground corn meal for bread. Successive adjustments to widen the gap between the millstones resulted in more coarsely ground meal for grits and hominy.
Farmers did not pay their miller in cash. Instead, a miller’s toll was collected. In Rabun County this toll ranged from an eighth to a tenth of the corn meal that was ground. Millers were never lacking for bread, grits and hominy.
It took upwards of an hour for a water-powered mill to grind a bushel of corn. It is claimed that slow grinding results in better tasting corn meal. Twentieth century mills powered by motors can grind a bushel of corn in a matter of minutes, but in so doing, the meal is heated. Some say this imparts an odd taste to the corn meal.
Captain Beck’s Mill on Warwoman Creek
Although firm documentation is lacking, the gristmill that once operated on Warwoman Creek off Sandy Fork Road is believed to date back to the 1840s. Known as Captain Beck’s Mill, it was built by one of Rabun County’s few slaveholders, Samuel Beck. He moved to the county from South Carolina in 1822 and became captain of a company of volunteers that fought in Florida’s Seminole wars in 1837-38. A substantial landowner in the Warwoman Valley east of Clayton, Beck was bestowed the honorary title of “Colonel” after the war. He was elected as one of Rabun County’s delegates to Georgia’s secession convention in Milledgeville in 1861. Although a slaveholder, Beck was a Unionist, who initially voted against secession. But under intense pressure, Beck ultimately changed his vote.
Operation of Captain Beck’s Mill, which also housed a sawmill, continued after Beck’s death in 1876. The mill later was destroyed by a flood on Warwoman Creek. Dixie Wilbanks eventually restored the gristmill, operating it as Wilbanks Mill for 27 years.
Grinding Corn for Moonshiners
In a 1973 Clayton Tribune interview, Dixie wryly said, “I shouldn’t maybe tell you this, but on occasion we’d grind malt (for moonshine). ‘Course, I never took no toll for it. I never had to buy no liquor, either. Those guys who I ground the malt for usually kept me supplied…The sheriff has slowed folks (moonshiners) off now, and it’s been a good while since I ground corn for anything but bread.” There can be no doubt that moonshining on the scale once practiced in Rabun County would have been impossible without gristmills like Dixie Wilbanks’.
Dixie also talked about how the government made it difficult for traditional millers. “Government got too strict…They wanted you to purify it (cornmeal) and put stuff in it (vitamins) that people didn’t want. Folks wanted bread to taste like bread. I didn’t put it in. Warn’t no use. People wouldn’t eat it if I had.” He reminisced that back in the day, nobody ate “store-bought bread. Corn meal was good enough for us all. We made hoe cakes, Johnny cakes, pone bread, lots of different ways to cook cornbread.”
Dixie retired in 1968. The mill was destroyed by a flood in 1973 and stood idle until it was restored in 1980 and resumed operation as the Darnell Mill for several years. The mill currently is in a state of near-collapse.
Largest Overshot Waterwheel East of the Mississippi
Built in 1840, Sylvan Falls Mill served residents of Wolffork Valley for nearly 100 years. The mill’s original wooden waterwheel was replaced in 1952 by a 27-foot-diameter, 10,000 pound steel wheel that was fabricated in Tennessee in 1929. This overshot wheel is believed to be the largest east of the Mississippi. It is powered by water from springs atop Black Rock Mountain. The mill has been renovated and converted into the Sylvan Falls Mill Bed & Breakfast.
Dickerson Mill was a second gristmill that served Wolffork Valley. Built in 1926 by Bill Dickerson on Keener Creek, the waterwheel also powered a sawmill. The mill now is part of the landscaping of a private residence.
Barker’s Creek Mill at Hambidge Center
Barker’s Creek Mill, located at the end of Betty’s Creek Valley outside Dillard, was built in 1944 to meet the needs of the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, an institution founded by Mary Hambidge in 1934. The mill was built on the site of an earlier mill that served the community since the time of the first white settlers in Rabun County in the 1820s.
The mill operated until the end of World War II when it fell into disrepair. The renovated mill reopened in 1975 but was again idled in 1986 for major repairs. Since 1991, Barker’s Creek Mill has been milling whole wheat flour, corn meal and grits.
The slow speed and small output of water-driven gristmills rendered them obsolete in the age of large grocery store chains. Unable to compete with high-volume, power mills, Rabun’s many gristmills ground to a halt. Memories of picturesque mills with their slowly turning waterwheels live on as remembrances of an idyllic past. And moonshiners are among those who have lamented the demise of the community gristmill.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in April 2021.