19th Century History

Nethers and Runners: A Flavorful Tale of Northwest Milling Origins

This summer brought an opportunity for our extended family to spend several days at Curlew Lake in north central Washington near the town of Republic. Located about twenty miles from the Canadian border, Curlew Lake is magnificent place to fish while enjoying the music of the wind in the towering pines and joyful shouts of young explorers along the shoreline. My son, Karl, and I decided to also investigate the story of Ft. Colvile, the old Hudson’s Bay Company post located near Kettle Falls northwest of Spokane. This area marked the location of the region’s first farms and the historic grist mill that produced the first flour on the upper Columbia. (Note that the present town of Colville, as well as the 19th century military fort of that name, are spelled with two “l’s,” while the old fur trading post preserved the original spelling of namesake Scotsman Andrew Colvile.)

Left: Hudson’s Bay Company “Myers” Mill on the Colville River (looking southeast) near present Kettle Falls, Washington

Left: Hudson’s Bay Company “Myers” Mill on the Colville River (looking southeast) near present Kettle Falls, Washington

Same location today (looking southwest)

Same location today (looking southwest)

We learned that Hand-burr (buhr) milling equipment was used to produce the first flour at Ft. Colvile until a water-powered gristmill was built in 1830 several miles south of the fort at Myers Falls on the Colville River. Workers laboriously chiseled a pair of millstones from local granite, and the original stones are now housed at Spokane’s Museum of Arts & Culture. The early mills used two granite grinding stones with canted grooves cut in the rock so grist would be crushed rather than smashed between the stationary nether (bottom) and runner (top). As the runner turned, the grain gradually moved out more finely in the furrows to be thrown out at the edge as flour.

This crude milling required considerable time and produced an oily, starchy germ (which causes flour to become rancid) and whole wheat mixture of protein-rich gluten, fibrous bran, and vitamins. Other products used for “flours” and cereal included brans (outer skins or husks), shorts (bran and germ), and middlings (endosperm and bran). Five bushels of wheat weighing about sixty pounds per bushel typically yielded one 200-pound barrel of flour. Larger areas were soon under cultivation at two nearby company farms that yielded 3,000 bushels of wheat, corn, barley, oats, buckwheat, and peas in 1832. A second, more efficient gristmill was constructed near the original Ft. Colvile structure in the late 1840s and became operational in 1850 to enable substantial distribution of company flour to New Caledonia and the Snake River country.

Rob Smith,  Historic Hudson’s Bay Company Flour Mill

Rob Smith, Historic Hudson’s Bay Company Flour Mill

Ft. Vancouver’s first grist mill used a small hand-turned stone and was apparently located near the sawmill about 1828. Little of the original fur trading post remains in present Vancouver, Washington, but a magnificent living history recreation and museum are located along the Columbia River in the southwest part of the city. A larger mill at Ft. Vancouver made of locally quarried stone was operating in 1834 but powered by a slow-moving oxen or horses so provided barely enough flour for local needs, though pioneer missionary Samuel Parker considered it “of excellent quality.” Millwright William Crate’s water-powered gristmill was completed in the spring of 1839 on Mill Creek and could grind and bolt about sixty bushels of wheat per day, or 10,000 bushels annually.

Quern (Hand-Burr) Milling

Quern (Hand-Burr) Milling

The sonorous sound of rotating stones accompanied by the rhythmic clacking and splashing from the enormous wheel played pleasantly throughout the valley. A visitor to the fort wrote that the mill’s “deep music is heard daily and nightly half the year” in order to process the previous year’s harvest, which also came via wheat bateaux and barges from farms of Willamette Valley settlers. Rev. Parker noted in 1836 that the French Prairie “hunters turned farmers” McLoughlin had charitably aided were producing “first quality” wheat and found a ready market at the fort where it was traded for imported molasses, cocoa, salt, rum, claret, and Chinese tea.

Ft. Vancouver, Ft. Colvile, and Ft. Nez Perces (near present Pasco) soon came to employ a host of voyageurs, farmers, herdsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, tailors, and other laborers. They regularly worked from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. six days a week at these remote outposts where they raised such heritage grains as White Lammas wheat and Scots Bere barley. Ohio native and wagon train leader Lansford Hastings described bustling Ft. Vancouver in the 1840s as a place of “diligent and incessant plying of the hammer, sledges and axes, and the confused toiling and ringing of bells, present all the impetuous commotion, rustling, tumultuous din of a city life, in the oriental world.”

Palouse Colony Farm Scots Bere (July, 2018)

Palouse Colony Farm Scots Bere (July, 2018)

Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and Agrarianism (Part 2 of 2)

Reconciliation and The Threshing Machine

 Among the World Columbian Exposition’s most magnificent paintings was Russian master Grigoriy Myasoyedov’s monumental Time of Toil—The Reapers, identified at the fair as Harvest-Time. Nearly nine feet wide and covering forty-five square feet of canvas, the expansive painting and gilded wood frame may have been the largest at the exhibition, and appropriately dominated one of the Palace of Fine Arts’ four large halls as a gesture of cultural goodwill from Tsar Nicholas II’s personal collection. One marvels not only at such immense treasures, but at the time, expense, and labor needed for crating and secure global transport. Harvests and other agrarian scenes painted by artists with personal experience in farming like John Linnell and Parisian Albert Gabriel Rigolot (1862-1932), who had instructed Evans and the “Utah Missionaries,” depicted the new order in realistic scenes that were at once natural and humane.

Grigoriy Myasoyedov,  Time of Toil—The Reapers  (detail, 1887),   Wikimedia Commons

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Time of Toil—The Reapers (detail, 1887), Wikimedia Commons

Linnell’s Storm at Harvest, which was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and Rigolot’s The Threshing Machine, painted that same year but not shown in Chicago, both exemplified prospect of an emerging cultural consilience in the aftermath of what agricultural historians term the Second Agricultural Revolution. (The first took place with medieval farmers’ introduction of crop rotations to increase soil fertility and grain yields.) To be sure, the workers in Rigolot’s painting appear too intent on their duties to sing harvest folksongs, which probably could not have been heard above the din of the thresher anyway. But as with the group scenes in the 1870s Harvest Time pictures by William Hahn and William Rogers, they still work together. In Rigolot’s canvas a woman helps to feed a similar stationary thresher, and the team likely eats together, converse throughout the day, and are probably grateful for the mechanical marvel that spares so many weeks of toilsome flailing. The scene is vibrant from the artist’s admirable talent for rendering the soft, hazy effects of summertime heat, and balances a spirit of innovation with the adjacent timbered farmhouse and barn where as many animals are seen as in any Barbizon painting.

Albert Gabriel Rigolot,  The Threshing Machine; Loiret  (1893), Wikimedia Commons

Albert Gabriel Rigolot, The Threshing Machine; Loiret (1893), Wikimedia Commons

Similar views are in Albert Kappis’s many German harvest works like Farmyard Threshing Machine (1885) which shows no less than twenty people—men and women feeding the enormous wooden Dreishmaschine while children play among chickens, turkeys, and geese. One can almost hear the whine of pulleys and belts as an elderly man stokes the engine’s fire with a shovelful of coal. The overall wholesomeness of paintings by Linnell, Rigolot, and Kappis reveal a hopeful oeuvre in which agrarian landscapes with agricultural innovations need not represent contradictory values, but complementary ones. Their works also represented an important middle way between the aesthetic tensions of an age that divided critics and commoners into rural and urban, traditional and progressive, mystical and visionary.

Albert Kappis,  Farmyard Threshing Machine  (1885),   Columbia Heritage Collection

Albert Kappis, Farmyard Threshing Machine (1885), Columbia Heritage Collection


World’s Fair Journalism and Sculpture             

Popular Iowa journalist and novelist Alice French (1850-1934), who authored many stories under the pen name Octave Thanet, visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 for two “Sketches of American Types” Scribner’s Magazine articles, illustrated by Pennsylvanian A. B. Frost 1851-1928), “The Farmer in the North” (March, 1894) and “The Farmer in the South” (April, 1894). Frost was colorblind which may have enhanced his notable use of grayscale for photorealistic art as seen in A New England Type, his tender Scribner’s depiction of a young girl in a harvest field who appears to deliver a lunch pail to an elderly worker.

French’s approach as a local colorist emphasized rural custom and dialect in sentimental prose that described various farm folk she found visiting the fair:

Sunshine seemed to fit her; for she was a comfortable and ample presence in holiday black, brightened by the red rose in her bonnet and the pink on her comely cheeks. She listened to a monotone of complaints of the crowd and the weather and the restaurant fare...; she was sympathetic but she was unflinchingly cheerful. I perceived that here was one of those homely saints who hide their halo under a zest for laughter…. I know she bakes the wedding-cake for the rural brides, and has fifty sensible, homespun remedies for sickness, and comes to watch with the very sick, and helps babies come into the world, and is a sturdy comforter and provider to the rural clergy.

…All the classes and divisions of the American farmer were at the great Fair. There was the prosperous farmer of the New England states, and the equally prosperous farmer of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa; there was the tenant-farmer of the South, who may not prosper, but is always sure of cornmeal, pork, and molasses as long as his planter landlord does not go bankrupt; and the unprosperous farmers farther West, with their mortgaged farms and their discontent. Nor did it take any especial gift of discrimination to pick them out, the one from the other.