From the Museum
This week we can announce the arrival of an exciting new addition to the museum’s inventory. Tom Rabb of north-central Drew County has donated a unique piece of farm “equipment” to the museum so that it may be shared with the public. The aging relic is actually a gristmill used for grinding corn into meal.
Although no one knows its exact age, the main body of the gristmill had sat around the Rabb place for many years, deteriorating as time and the elements took their toll.
Looking back in time, we know that most farmers raised their own grains and corn and took them to commercial mills to be ground into flour or meal. (You can relate this to the famous War Eagle Mill in Northwest Arkansas.)
At one time, a Mr. Garrison operated a store and blacksmith shop near the site where Calhoun’s Grocery sits today on North Gabbert Street. Farmers on their way to town would drop off their corn to be ground and pick their meal up when they started for home after a shopping trip to town.
Rabb’s father, Tom Rabb Sr., had bought the mill when Garrison closed his business and used it to grind cornmeal for several years. Then it was laid aside for many more years.
In the early 1980s, Rabb and a brother, Grover Rabb, wanted to get some corn ground into fresh meal, but couldn’t find anyone to perform the task. They resolved to repair and/or rebuild the old gristmill and grind their own corn. However, their gristmill had been reduced to a mass of rusting metal – and the two granite grinding stones.
Their restoration project began with a trip to Hampton to examine a gristmill exactly like theirs – or like theirs should have been. Then the real work of rebuilding the old gristmill began.
Replacing the wooden parts of the mill that had rotted away proved to be a challenge. The blocks of wood had to be chiseled by hand to fit properly around the heavy granite grinding stones. The original metal “hopper” had rusted away and had to be replaced with a wooden one.
A fan was rigged on the side of the gristmill to blow away some of the silk and chaff. Several other small parts had to be rebuilt, reassembled or “re-engineered.”
Unlike our popular conception of mills that are powered by water or electric motors, Rabb’s gristmill is powered by his small farm tractor which pulls a long belt, turning the grindstone.
Here is a brief explanation telling how the gristmill works after the tractor starts and the belt begins to pull. First, shelled dry corn (up to 50 pounds) is poured into the wooden hopper. (The corn must be dry or it will gum up the mill.)
The corn travels down a feed chute to the grinding stones. (At this point, a small adjustment of the width between the two grindstones can determine the consistency of the meal.)
By virtue of friction, the stones grind the corn into meal. As it is ground into a meal texture, it flows out the bottom spout and is collected in sacks or buckets.
For several years in the 1980s, Rabb would grind dry corn into meal for his friends and neighbors. If you wonder why anyone would want plain cornmeal with all the pre-mixed commercial products available in grocery stores, the reason is this fresh meal makes the absolute best cornbread you’ve ever tasted! Bar none!
Of course, cooks have to adjust their recipes for baking with fresh cornmeal. The major difference is that cornbread made using fresh cornmeal requires a reduction in liquids added. (The meal already has much of its own liquid in its substance.) The cook also has to add her own salt, soda and baking powder.
(At one time we have taken our shelled corn down and, when ground, returned with 5 five-gallon buckets of meal! We ate it, gave it to friends, froze it and still had meal for a year or two! Great tasting cornbread though!)
As time went by, Rabb’s health prohibited his gardening and once again the gristmill was set aside. Last winter, Rabb moved to Guest House. When it was decided to sell his house, he wanted the museum to have the old gristmill.
Our biggest problem? Moving it! That problem was solved last Wednesday evening, however. Museum commissioner Tommy Gray, son Ted and two other young men came to Rabb Road and easily moved the gristmill to the museum grounds.
Now all we need is a big corn crop! Come visit us at the museum!
The historical society will meet this Sunday, April 5, at 2:30 p.m. at the chamber of commerce building. Guest speaker Cliff Gibson will present the program about the history of the Drew County community of Jerome. Everyone is invited and welcome to attend.