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Grinding Grain to Feed the World

A Long History

People have used gristmills to grind grain for thousands of years. The technology of these mills evolved throughout the centuries, but the basic concept remained the same. Grain was placed between two prepared stones and then ground to produce flour that could be used for cooking. The oldest recorded gristmill dated to 71 B.C. in Asia Minor.

Local farmers brought grain to the gristmill and the miller would grind it, usually for the “miller’s toll,” a percentage of the flour or meal. Most early mills were water-powered. Some were wind- driven or animal-powered. Gristmills were very common in the past.

Mesilla Valley Gristmills

The Schaublin Mill

In 1849, after the founding of Las Cruces and completion of the Acequia Madre, Salvador Cordova erected the earliest known local mill. The mill supplied flour to Fort Fillmore and the surrounding areas. An 1853 plat map of Las Cruces shows the mill and calls it the Draper Mill, after new owner, Susan Draper.

After the Civil War, the mill changed hands several times and eventually, Las Cruces merchant Henry Lesinsky leased it to Swiss immigrant Jacob Schaublin, who in 1875 purchased the mill for $300. Schaublin’s widow lived on the property until her death in 1923. In 1939, Louise Topley and her adult children converted the building into apartments and a popular restaurant known as El Molino, Spanish for “the mill.”

This 1902 Sanborn map clearly shows the Jacob Schaublin Mill in downtown Las Cruces. The Sanborn Map Company was a publisher of detailed maps of U.S. cities and towns in the 19th and 20th centuries. The maps were originally created to allow insurance companies to assess their total liability in urbanized areas of the United States.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Growing and Grinding Grain in the Mesilla Valley

An Old Tradition

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, grinding wheat was an important industry in the Mesilla Valley. Local farms yielded an average of 35-40 bushels per acre. Some farmers claimed to be growing upwards of 100 bushels per acre.

When Elephant Butte Dam opened in 1916, much of the farm land in the Mesilla Valley was planted with more profitable crops like cotton, pecans, and vegetables. The focus on revenue producing crops, along with the ready availability of commercially produced flour, led to the demise of the local wheat industry.

The back side of the Schaublin mill, located in downtown Las Cruces, showing the Acequia Madre.
Image courtesy of Eric Liefeld and Mesilla Valley Preservation, Inc.

The Lemon Mill

In 1861, Thomas Bull built a mill on the Acequia Madre in Mesilla. The Bull Mill changed ownership several times after the Civil War and ended up in the hands of John Lemon. Under Lemon’s ownership, the mill ground wheat for many of the farmers in the valley and produced flour for area military forts including Fort Selden.

While we have only focused on two mills, in 1903 there were six gristmills operating in Doña Ana County. The Casad Mill, owned by Thomas Casad, employed three workers and had two runs of stones producing 250 bushels per day. In 1879, the mill ground 17,500 bushels of wheat to produce 3,500 barrels of flour.

New Mexico Gristmills

An Important Spanish Contribution

The first recorded evidence of a gristmill in New Mexico occurs in a letter written in 1599 from Don Juan de Oñate. Writing from the village of San Gabriel, he states, “the wheat is growing well, and the molino (mill) is ready.”

Wheat did not exist in the Americas before the arrival of the Spanish. Native Americans raised corn and ground it with manos and metates. Wheat bread was a staple food in Spanish culture, so they brought seed and milling technology with them to the new world.

Nearly every village in New Mexico had at least one gristmill which could provide enough flour for 30 to 40 families. At one time, there were as many as 445 gristmills in New Mexico.

Using a mano and metate, Native Americans could produce about two bushels of meal per day.
Photo courtesy of NMFRHM.

Using a mano and metate, Native Americans could produce about two bushels of meal per day.
Photo courtesy of NMFRHM.

The Albert Gusdorf Flour Mill, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Large mills operated until the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s and the receipt of shipments of less expensive quality flour from the Midwestern United States.
Photo courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA) HP.2014.14.1691.

The Albert Gusdorf Flour Mill, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Large mills operated until the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s and the receipt of shipments of less expensive quality flour from the Midwestern United States.
Photo courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA) HP.2014.14.1691.

The Old Stone Flour Mill at Cimarron, New Mexico during Indian Ration Day. The arrival of the military and the removal of Native Americans to reservations in the mid-19th century brought about the use of large vertical wheel and turbine powered gristmills with milling capacities that exceeded 10,000 pounds per day. Photo courtesy of New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collection.

The Old Stone Flour Mill at Cimarron, New Mexico during Indian Ration Day. The arrival of the military and the removal of Native Americans to reservations in the mid-19th century brought about the use of large vertical wheel and turbine powered gristmills with milling capacities that exceeded 10,000 pounds per day. Photo courtesy of New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collection.

The Truchas Mill: The Last Working Spanish Colonial Flour Mill

Raising the plutonium bomb to the top of the tower at Trinity Site.
Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory.

History of the Atom Bomb video

Horizontal-style Barela de Truchas mill. The Barela molino served the village of Truchas from 1873 to 1940. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Horizontal-style Barela de Truchas mill. The Barela molino served the village of Truchas from 1873 to 1940. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Vertical-style grist mill located near Ruidoso, New Mexico, 1950-1960. Photo courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM?DCA), HP.2007.20.473

Vertical-style grist mill located near Ruidoso, New Mexico, 1950-1960.Photo courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM?DCA), HP.2007.20.473

Milling Technology

Horizontal and Vertical

There are two basic designs for water-powered gristmills. The horizontal-wheel mill was first documented in Greece. Its design was refined and improved by the Romans who developed the vertical-wheel mill during the same time period. Both mill designs spread throughout the Roman Empire.

The vertical-wheel gristmill was the most common design in areas with reliable constant water sources. The horizontal-wheeled gristmill was more common in New Mexico and other Spanish territories. The horizontal-wheel mills should not be considered less sophisticated or important than the larger vertical wheel mills, nor is one design better than the other. They are different systems, used in different circumstances to achieve similar goals.

Vertical - Wheel Mill

Big Water - Big Wheels

The typical vertical-wheel gristmill has a large diameter wheel mounted on the side of the building. The water for the mill wheel is carried from a pond or river, and enters the wheel either at the top, the bottom, or in the middle where it runs downward, causing the wheel to rotate.

The axel of the slowly rotating wheel extends into the mill building and engages a series of gears. The principal drive shaft that powers the grinding stones is redirected unto a vertical gear and directly attached to the mill stone via a clutch mechanism.

Vertical- wheel mill diagram

The La Cueva Mill, located at the La Cueva National Historic Site, New Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Legends of America.

Horizontal - wheel mill diagram

Exterior of the flour mill in Taos, New Mexico. Ca. 1900. Image courtesy of New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collections.

Horizontal - Wheel Mill

Technology for the Desert

The water wheel in a horizontal-wheel gristmill is fairly small and hangs underneath the mill building. It rotates horizontally around a vertical shaft that extends upward into the building.

The shaft of the horizontal mill is fixed to the wheel and turns at the same speed. It passes through the bottom bed stone and is rigidly affixed to the top runner stone. This creates a machine with only one moving part. An advantage of horizontal mills is that they can be built from local materials and require only the skills of the local blacksmith.

Horizontal mills produce approximately 300-400 pounds of meal or flour per day. They are suited for placement along small streams and irrigation ditches.

A pair of gristmill stones found in the 1940s near Ocate, New Mexico. It is quite possible that they were made from a lava flow nearby.
On loan from Karl and Toni Laumbach.

Native Millstones

Most of the native stones used in New Mexico were made of vesicular basalt which was cut from ancient volcanic sites found throughout the Territory. These stones were much softer and needed to be “dressed” more often than the harder stones imported from Europe or those brought from the eastern states. Hand shaping a set of millstones out of basalt was a labor intensive process.

Mill Quote

French Burr Millstones

Best in the World!

French Burr stones were considered the best mill stones available in the world and were imported from France. The stone was a type of chert. It retained a very sharp cutting edge which was ideal for grinding.

The millstones were made up of several stones fitted and held together with iron bands and a simple plaster of Paris mortar. Some French Burr millstones had many sections, while others just had a few.

These stones were typically 48 inches to 54 inches in diameter, about 12 to 15 inches thick at the outer edge of the stone, and 15 to 18 inches thick at the center. The stones weighed as much as 2,400 pounds.

French Burr gristmill stone used at the Schaublin Mill. The stone has 20 individual pieces and is held together with plaster of Paris and an iron band.  
Gift of Jill Stull for Best Real Estate Management, Inc.

The tool of the millwright was the “millbill” or “pick,” which was made from specially tempered steel. Only the very best blacksmiths could keep them in good repair. The bill or pick was set in a wooden handle known as the “thrift.” Holding the thrift in both hands, the stone dresser will peck away at the stone for hours at a time.
Image courtesy of Whitemill.org.

Looking at how the furrows work, we see that grains of wheat accumulate in the furrow in the bed stone, but as this fills up the upper grains get cut by the passing of the furrow in the runner stone.
Image courtesy of Whitemill.org.

The Millstones

Turning Stone into Tools

After the basic stones were selected and prepared, the grinding surfaces were smoothed, and patterns of furrows or grooves were cut into them.

Contrary to what most people expect, the millstones do not rub against one another. They spin closely together. The stones run between an eighth and a quarter of an inch apart. As the stones are used, the furrows gradually become worn and must be refreshed or “dressed.” This might be every few weeks for a softer stone or every few months for a French Burr stone. This work was often done by the miller himself, but in many areas you would find itinerant stone dressers who traveled from mill to mill.

Modern Milling

In the 1870s, the invention of the modern steel roller mill revolutionized grain milling. The process was faster and more efficient. The bran and husk were removed from the grain kernel and discarded, allowing the purest white flour to be produced at a low cost. Beyond being inexpensive and wildly popular, this new type of flour could be transported great distances and stored for longer periods of time.

In the 1940s, American milling operations began to add supplements like thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and iron, into processed flour. By the late 20th century, whole grain bread was marketed as the more nutritious option and became popular in the American market. Even the process of stone grinding has become popular again.

The Pillsbury Flour Mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

The Pillsbury Flour Mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Modern milling machinery.
Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Modern milling machinery.
Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Stone Grinding Makes a Difference

White Flour

All-purpose flour is used most frequently and is available bleached, which creates a softer texture, as well as unbleached, which provides more structure in baked goods and retains more of the flavor nuance of the wheat.

Whole-Wheat Flour

Whole-wheat flour is brown in color and is made from the complete wheat kernel (the bran and germ). When used in bread baking it gives a nutty flavor and a denser texture.

Stone-Ground Flour

Stone-ground flour is produced by the relatively slow grinding of large stones together. This process leaves the germ intact and there is no heat buildup so all of the nutrients stay intact as the flour is ground. All stone-ground flour is whole-wheat, but not all whole-wheat flour is stone-ground.

New Mexico Farm & Ranch Logo

To see the complete exhibit, Grist for the Mill, plan a visit to the Museum when we open to the public again. Check our website for
re-opening dates.

Department of Cultural Affairs

Thank you to the following individuals and organizations for their contributions to this exhibit.

Rick Hendricks, New Mexico State Historian 

Eric Liefeld

Christopher Schurtz

Mesilla Valley Preservation, Inc.

Karl and Toni Laumbach

Carl Topley

Jill Stull

Best Real Estate Management, Inc.

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