Friday, 08 May 2020 09:11

COLUMN: The ol' millpond

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Capel Millpond Capel Millpond J.A. Bolton


Our past generations did not always have the opportunities we have today. No sirree, they couldn’t just run down to the grocery store and stock up on supplies. In most cases. the rural communities grew or made just about everything they needed.

Living miles away from towns, our rural ancestors might not get into town but once a month, or maybe just a few times a year.

When the pioneer families moved into an area, most settled along small creeks or rivers. But some families only had a spring on their property. This source of water and the good bottomland they farmed provided staple crops of corn and wheat. Both were used to feed the families and their livestock.

Grains have been a mainstay to feed people just about since the world began. Man’s digestive system mostly requires that the grain be ground before ingested. To grind these grain products, some type of rock was used to grind or beat the grain into a meal which could be made into bread.

As time went on, more meal was needed to feed the growing population. Gristmills began appearing on the landscape. Men or livestock were used to turn two large round stones called millstones. Later, someone came up with the idea that energy from water could be used to power the gristmills. Thus, the gristmill had to be located on a small stream or creek.

To maintain a good water supply even during a drought, dams were built on the streams to form millponds. Some millponds might just be a small body of water, but others could form large lakes. Even with dam control, flooding could be a major problem. Sometimes when the stream was in flood stage, the force of the water would take the dam out as well as the mill. This was a great loss to the local communities who depended on the mills to grind their meal. 

Not only was the gristmill a place to get your grains ground into flour or cornmeal, but it also served as a local gathering place. While waiting their turn to have their grain ground, folks would catch up on local happenings and their children would play in the water or the mill yard.

Unless you lived on a large river or natural lake, the millpond was the only place deep enough to actually swim. Back in the day, even a couple of generations ago, most folks never learned to swim. You see, it’s hard to learn to swim in the knee-deep water of a small creek. Seems ‘bout the only folks that ever got their heads under water were the Baptists. My Dad and his brothers learned to swim in Capel’s Millpond just below their house. Dad said when he got drafted in the Army, only a few of the soldiers could swim so a lot of his comrades drowned while trying to get across the Rhine River going into Germany.

Instead of paying cash, which most people didn’t have, the miller would take a percentage of the product he ground. He would later sell his share to stores in town, or some mills even had their own store on site.

A gristmill operator had to be a jack-of-all-trades. In a lot of cases, it was just him and a helper running the mill. With all those turning parts and all that dust, the equipment had to be regularly maintained and greased. If a component ran long without grease it would overheat and catch on fire. A lot of mills, including Capel’s Mill, were burnt down by fire.

The millstones used to grind the meal were five feet across and weighed a ton each. A lot of folks don’t know that Millstone 4-H Camp, east of Ellerbe, was once a rock quarry and produced a lot of millstones for our local gristmills.

Most gristmills were two-story, and sometimes even three. The building included several sets of stairs, windows, and doors. As you can imagine, a lot of grain dust filtered through the cracks of every floor and out of the windows, as the mill ran.

With all this movement, some grains were dropped while others were blown from the mill on the ground or into the millpond. All this food attracted a lot of critters. Yessiree, that free food was eaten by ducks, turtles, fish, snakes, raccoons and squirrels. With the abundance of small animals around the area, larger animals such as catamounts, deer, and even bears roamed close by. Most millers allowed a house cat or two on the property to keep the rat and mice population down.

Why, some old grist mills were even considered to be haunted. A lot of times, the miller had spent his entire life working the mill and knew every sound and quirk the mill might make. Sometimes strange sounds and movement could be heard that seemed to even be supernatural. At other times, the heavy feed pendulum scales used to weigh flour and other meals could be seen swinging back and forth for no reason. Sometimes at night, strange lights could be seen moving around the millpond. On foggy mornings, ghostly figures rose from the pond.

I hope you have learned a little bit about the rural life and work that took place around the many gristmills and millponds that once were prevalent along our streams and rivers. During this pandemic time, we need something to take our minds off our problems. Stay safe and remember: we are in the same storm together, but some are just in different boats.

 J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together” and his newly released book “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories.” Check-out his website at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2020 17:43