Being an “Engine Nut”, (an 87 year old retired machinist friend calls me that) I noticed a Williams Grist Mill in an Antique store parking lot under a tree. Normally I don’t pay much attention to wooden and stone mechanical marvels of old that do not have igniters or flywheels that can rust and refuse to operate when other people are watching. This thing must have caught my attention just right, so I stopped to take a look. All of the parts were there and seemed to be in fair shape, I can’t say that for most of the engines that I have pulled out of the dirt or mud in South Texas. So, I decided to make an “offer” and of course there was the normal haggle and I could see that I was loosing ground fast, this guy was an experienced horse trader. I decided that I had enough iron to work on for the future and backed out of the “deal” with the idea that if he did not sell it in the near future I would make another offer. About 6 months later I went by the place and it was still there, this time, the price was “right”. The next weekend it was hook up the trailer and load my latest project.
When I loaded it my engine experience told me to check the main shaft which was stuck solid (made a mental note) and continued to break my back loading the thing and proceeded to leave before the guy changed his mind. When I made it to the house the first thing I did was to soak the bearings with assorted, guaranteed, certified, rust breaker formulas. After one day, which I knew was not enough soaking, I gave it a pull as I walked by. I thought I noticed some movement, pulled some more and it was free as a shaft turning granite stone could be. Next, which should have been first, I took the bearing caps off. To my surprise the bearings looked like they had been poured just before the mill went into “storage” which must have been at least 50 or 60 years ago. This really raised my curiosity, why did someone go to all the trouble to pour the bearings and just let it sit? Could the stones be bad, is the shaft bent, or did the owner find a better way to mill corn? I could only wish that I knew the history of this mill, which I am sure, is lost forever.
The first step in the restoration would have to be replacing the three main wood beams that hold the “box” up off the skids and keeps the shaft straight. I am not, nor will I ever be a carpenter, the dimensions of these beams are not to be found in the local Home Depot store or any local lumber store for that matter. After about a month of searching and calling lumber suppliers I happened to see a mailbox with the name of “Texas Timber Framers” on it, this must be the place I had been searching for, and only a few miles from the house. Sure enough, they could cut me any type of beam that would be needed for a price. I learned early on in life that you get what you pay for in most cases and in my case the “Deal of a Lifetime” always happened the day before I got there. Well, I had wasted enough time looking it was time to take action and get this project going. A price was agreed on and the project was off and running.
The next thing I tackled was the blower, it was all cast iron and stuck solid. For some reason the idea that a grist mill would have to have a blower had never crossed my mind after all, the corn you get in a bag does not have to be blown or cleaned, so much for my modern day thinking on old time machinery. After a good cleaning I applied different types of certified, unconditional money back guaranteed “Rust Breaker Formulas”. During the cleaning process I could see that the bearings on the fan shaft were babbit and had also just been poured. With a little soaking and tapping with a brass hammer the shaft moved from where it had been “stuck” for so many years. After the shaft had moved a little I soaked the whole thing again and let the hot Texas sun heat up all the parts. The heat seems to help the “Formula” find it’s way into all the rusted and frozen areas. I feel sorry for my brethren up north that don’t have this advantage. After two days in the hot Texas sun I started to work the shaft back and forth, this was of course after the sun had set, and the fan turned just like a new one.
The next big job was to replace the rotten timbers. The removal of the front beam revealed a main support for the fixed stone was bad and unusable. I had hoped to be able to use the original wood on the mill and only replace the support beams, but I could see that this plan, like all old iron plans, would have to be modified before I would be able to proceed. At this point I was able to get a good look at the stones, what I know about mill stones, or Grist Mills could be written on the pointed end of a center punch with room to spare. I decided to take some pictures and try to locate someone that might be able to tell me if the stones were usable. I was not about to go to all that trouble and not have the thing do what it was designed to do. As it turned out all was well and I was off to find a way to get the wood cut to match the arc and tenon joints of the rotten piece I had removed. I could only hope that this would be the only piece that would have to be replaced on the mill itself.
There are a bunch of nuts, bolts and lag screws associated with this thing. Not one nut was frozen, some of the metal on the lag screws was deteriorated due to rust and were unusable. This thing must have been made close to 80 years ago and I am sure it did not receive the best care in the world and I know it was not “Barn Stored”. The only thing I can figure is that the nuts and bolts must have been cast or poured from the same mix of iron. I have had first hand experience with dissimilar metals and I know that after a month or two in the weather they will lock up solid.
Well back to the main story. I installed the beam and started on the Hopper, here I learned a valuable lesson, ½ of a 90 degree angle is not necessarily 45 degrees. I used scrap lumber to experiment on and with a 45 degree cut the sides were nowhere near square. I knew I was in over my head, called a carpenter friend and explained the situation. He told me that if I didn’t wear a “John Deere Cap” all the time, I wouldn’t need my head at all because I surely never used it for anything else. This, I was informed, was a compound angle and three sides, or angles, had to be taken in to consideration because of the taper on the hopper. OK, so 90 divided by 3 equals 30 degrees, things started to come together just a whole lot better. The taper on the hopper was not exactly 30 degrees, but with an adjustment or two I was in the ball park.
An embarrassing experience but a good lesson, I guess I could have tried angles until I found the right one but, I like to rely on the experience of people that know a subject well, maybe I’ll learn something.
With the box, skids and beams in place it was time to drill the holes. This turned out to be another good experience. The holes must be drilled from both sides of the piece in order to come out where you want them. The first hole I drilled all the way through came out a long way from straight, the drill bit went off at an angle and I could see that it would never work. If the holes aren’t right the box won’t be square and that will put the stones at an angle etc, etc. After finding the right way to drill the holes it was time to bolt all this stuff together which went pretty well until I tried to lift the mill. The weight of all the oak beams and skids brought back memories of loading this thing the first time, with some assistance I was able to get all the bolts in, square the box and then tighten all the bolts. The Meadows Mill book says this thing's weight is 780 lbs. and I believe it.
Purchased Mill 5-20-01
Turned the mill for the first time 11-18-2001
Actually Milled 50 lbs. of corn 11-29-2001
Milled 15 lbs. of Wheat 02-23-2002 (Worked Good)
I purchased a book from the Meadows Mill co. that shows serial number/date lists. It shows that my Mill with serial number 3287 was made in 1920. The Book has some very interesting information in it. There were three companies that made mills in Wilkesboro, NC during the same time period. They were Williams, Palmer and Meadows as I understand it Meadows bought out Palmer and Williams some time in 1924.
The next project I undertake will be to finish all the projects that have been put on hold because of this mill. The lady that lives here says that I spend entirely too much time working on stuff that is not associated with household matters, of course I disagree, but we all know that never works. “If she ain’t happy, there ain’t nobody happy.”
After I finally got the Mill running my attitude has really picked up and I have learned that there is a lot more to milling than I ever thought. The stones need to be dressed from time to time and the speed of the mill determines the grade of meal along with the setting on the stones. “Keep your nose to the grind stone” means exactly what it says, if you let the stones run together the granite will give off a smell that is hard to describe, but is very noticeable. When the stones run together, that means all the work of redressing the stones and should be avoided at all cost.
When I first started milling there were a few people watching and from those few people the word must have spread quickly. I have people calling me all the time now asking me to mill something for them. All these people have been very considerate, because I don’t do this on a full time basis, and they have been a pleasure to work with. I have been asked to Mill Milo, Wheat, and Corn and not knowing too awful much about milling I gave it a try and to my surprise they all turned out good. Another thing is that a Gardner on a local radio show recommends corn meal to control fungus on lawns so I have milled 50 lbs. at a time for people that want corn meal for “a better lawn”. All in all I am having a ball with the mill. People always want to tell me their stories about the “old times” and I enjoy them very much, sort of like an Engine Show whenever I have the time. Of course whenever there is an engine show within 300 miles of home, me, the trailer, grist mill, engines and the “lady that lives here” are on the road. Works for me.