Grist for the Mill

It was the year 1837, and times were hard all over the country. Thousands of people were leaving the "civilized" comforts of Pennsylvania and Ohio to make a new start in the recently opened Iowa country. Already towns had been laid out along the western bank of the Mississippi River, and settlers were pushing up the Des Moines River.

Paths Into Untamed Country

Rivers were critical at a time when the land was often difficult to travel by foot or wagon. The smaller streams that fed the rivers were also very important as a source of power for mills. It is no wonder that the river valleys were quickly settled. 

Samuel Clayton had built his cabin at the mouth of Chequest Creek in the Des Moines River Valley in 1836. Now his two grown sons, Henry and James, traveled from Ohio to help him. Together they built the first grist mill in Iowa west of the Des Moines River.

The stream, backed into a pond by a solid dam of clay, stones and tree branches, pushed a water wheel. But the Clayton mill would not be used for sawing lumber. The machinery powered by the turning wheel was a pair of large round stones, called millstones or burrs. These stones ground corn into meal and wheat into flour. This was a necessary step in making bread. To best understand the art of grain milling, we need to take a step back.

Pioneers Grind by Hand

The earliest Europeans  in Iowa ground their corn by hand, as the pioneers in the East had done before them. This job was often done by the children of a frontier family. It took a long time to crack and grind corn kernels into meal using a wooden mortar and pestle. Luckier families owned a hand grinder, which made the job easier. Others used a carpenter's plane to grate the corn off the cob (called "jinted" corn). But a mill—if there was one in the area—was by far the best way to grind corn.

While the Claytons were putting a building up around the mill and shaping millstones from boulders found nearby, word of the new mill spread. Farmers came from as far as twenty miles away to have their grain ground. Because few people on the frontier had money, Mr. Clayton usually kept part of the ground grain as payment for his work.

Creek mills like the Clayton's did not run all the time, because the water in the pond was not always high enough to provide power. When the mill did not run, the farmers just had to wait to have their corn ground.

In their first years on new land, farm families raised just enough grain to meet their needs. But as farmers planted more land, they looked for a larger mill than Clayton's—one that could buy their extra flour. Such mills were usually built on a river, where the water supply was more dependable and where there were wagon roads or steamboats to carry the flour to other cities.

New Technologies Change Milling

As soon as they could get them, the millers bought steam engines. Steam power did not depend on the height of the water, and one engine could turn several sets of stones at the same time.

It took special care and skill on the part of a miller to produce fine flour. For two thousand years millstones—or burrs—had been used to grind flour for bread. The kind of stone used for burrs was important, and they had to be kept in good condition. The grooves in the stone had to be carefully carved and fitted.

Even when the miller had good stones, grinding wheat had special problems. Inside the grain of wheat is a soft oily part called the germ. When the burrs crushed all the wheat grain at once, the oily germ could cause the grist (or "ground grain") to stick together. Then only a small amount of fine flour was produced. The rest had to be sold for animal feed or as a cheaper grade of flour.

The invention of the roller mill by a Wisconsin man solved this problem. The wheat was run through five or six sets of rollers. After going through each set, the grist was cleaned and separated. In this way, the germ could be separated out, and more fine flour was produced from the wheat than ever before. Roller mills replaced the ancient millstones.

With the arrival of railroads, milling was taken over by large milling companies in the cities of Iowa, and most local millers went out of business.

The planting of wheat year after year had begun to wear out the land. Iowa wheat crops did not produce as many bushels per acre as they once had. Worse, in the 1870s and 1880s chinch bugs and grasshoppers invaded Midwestern farmlands, wiping out the wheat crop in those years.

Discouraged by thin crops and natural disasters, Iowa farmers turned away from wheat and planted more corn and oats. By 1890 Iowa was set on its future course, having taken first place in national corn production. And in 1900 it became first in oat production. By this time most of Iowa's smaller mills were empty and silent. There was no longer any use for them. The corn was fed to cattle and hogs, and the oats were made into cereal using a different method. Only a few large milling centers continued to work.

Early grain milling left its mark on the face of Iowa. Rivers and streams are still haunted by the half-standing remains of old mills, ghosts of a time that rang with the splash and creak of their water wheels.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Grist for the Mill,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 2 (November 1980): 5-7.