Gray’s Grist Mill, one of the oldest, continually running grist mills in New England, is technically located in Adamsville, Rhode Island. But it’s position on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border (the state line runs directly through the mill pond) means that both states can claim it as a historical treasure. (This being done in 1746-1747).
As with most historical landmarks, the Mill’s history remains shrouded in a bit of mystery. But for history lovers, the conjecture only serves to make it that much more intriguing.
We don’t even know it’s exact date of origin. Most agree that there was a mill on the site sometime before 1700. The first deed of ownership can be traced back to Philip Taber in 1717. And at least one Adamsville historian says that the village of Adamsville was known as “Taber’s Mill” for “the 100 years prior to 1799. And no wonder. What is clearly documented is that a confusingly similar-named line of Tabers owned and ran a mill at the location throughout the entire 18th century. Though very special today, at the time, grist mills in New England were quite commonplace. In fact, almost every small town had one.
Frequently, grist mills were paired with saw mills. SInce both grist mills and saw mills relied on waterpower, and both provided basic raw materials for the early settlers’ food and shelter, it made sense to build them at the same location.
With limited transportation and a reliance on homegrown products, townspeople needed grist mills to grind their grain into usable meal. Since wheat was not well-adapted to New England soil or climate, bread – in the form of “journey cakes” or “jonnycakes” – was commonly made from corn meal. Grist mills provided flour and meal for baking, as well as food for livestock. Often the mills became the center of the towns. Mill ponds were used for recreation, such as ice skating, fishing and swimming. Because of the foot traffic, other businesses generally rose up around the mills.
For instance, during the era of Taber’s Mill, we have evidence of a blacksmith’s shop, a carriage maker’s shop and a store all within close proximity. For this reason, the towns often took the proper name of the mills, as in Taber’s Mill, or the generic name. For instance, think of names like Milton, Milbrook, Milford, or Millwood. Generally, the owners of grist mills were rather prosperous men in their day, and well-known citizens. When farmers brought their corn, wheat, or rye to be ground, they would pay the owner a toll – usually around 1/16th of the grain brought for milling.
The barter system was eventually replaced by cash fees, which likely improved the profitability of milling wile demand lasted. Of course, as transportation systems improved, the reliance on locally grown products lessened, and the milling business suffered. The states in the Mid-west, known for their ability to grow wheat and other grains, began shipping their products East. Tastes began to change, and the finely ground white, wheat flour gained favor among bakers. In addition, by the early 20th century, large, machine driven mills in the Mid-west could grind almost as much grain in one hour as water-powered grist mills could grind in one week.
So around the turn of the 20th century, most grist mills shut their doors. Today, despite the large number that once existed, few grist mills remain. Grays Grist Mill is one wonderful exception. This is almost certainly due to the passion of it’s last two owners. The first, John Hart, purchased the property in 1939- a time when most grist mills were closing their doors. However, Mr. Hart, a man who by all accounts loved and respected both the Mill and the art of milling, went on to run Gray’s Mill for the next 41 years. In 1980, Mr. Hart, then 80 years old, sold the mill to it’s current owner Ralph Guild.
Mr. Guild, though a resident of New York City, had summered in Westport, MA since 1955 and felt strongly that the mill should be preserved for future generations. Mr Hart sold the property to Mr. Guild under the promise that he continue to run it as an operating mill. It was a promise Mr. Guild has gratefully fulfilled.