MO Bicentennial Minutes: The Role of Mills in Missouri Life in 1821
Nearly every stream drainage in settled parts of the state had at least one mill 200 years ago. Grist mills were necessary for converting corn, wheat, oats, barley, rye, and other seeds to more versatile meal or flour. Thus, mills were usually the first commercial ventures to appear in new settlements. Millstones were initially local sandstone or limestone, which were relatively soft and therefore not ideal. Later, larger mills imported commercially produced granite millstones, which produced superior meal and flour.
Undershot or overshot water wheels provided the power for most mills. Usually damming a stream was necessary to direct water across a mill wheel. Early laws regulated milldams, which might flood neighboring land. Draft animals powered some early mills. Other types of mills were sawmills for processing lumber, often operated at the same site as a grist mills, and rarely fulling mills for processing wool.
Farmers hauled grain by wagon or bagged on pack horses. The milling process resulted in a mix of bran, removed by screening and fed to livestock, and flour. Flour was unbleached, and contained all the germ and most of the partly ground husk of the grain. Most millers kept part of the grain as a fee, then sold it to traders or local merchants.
Grist mills not only served for agriculture and food processing, but served as key social gathering sites for rural neighborhoods in the 1800s and earlier. Most families needed to haul grain to the mill after harvest, usually at about the same harvesting time. The trip to the mill allowed them to renew acquaintances, socialize, perhaps share a meal, and exchange local and regional news.