Sunday, March 08, 2009

If a Miller Were My Trade/At a Mill-wheel Grinding

There are days you don't want to trade for anything. Today was such a day.

Suppose, on a lovely, unseasonably warm early-spring day, you were wandering through woods such as these, on Short Hill Mountain in far Northern Virginia...

...and you came across this object poking out through the leaf-mulch:

What would you think? Perhaps that you'd stumbled across a Flintstones-era car-factory, interrupted in mid-manufacture of a prehistoric wheelbarrow? Or perhaps a demented Indian coin-minting facility?

In fact, what you've found is a nineteenth-century millstone, its creation begun but never ended, left for the ages in the middle of this primeval forest. Its creator, his name probably forever lost, abandoned his craftwork in this forest half-finished, halfway up a mountain in the middle of what is functionally nowhere. No doubt he had been commissioned by a local miller to carve a millstone, and for whatever reason, the work was left undone.

The object is exactly three feet across; I measured it with my forearm, an excellent gauge to measure 18 inches twice. I have no knowledge of Standards and Practices among the millers of the east coast of the United States in the nineteenth century, but that precise three-foot diameter is suggestive.

He began by picking a likely rock -- my mineralogical powers are greatly reduced since I took that stone to the head on the highway on my motorbike, but granite schist seems to be the right formula -- roughing out a three-foot circle, flattening the face of the stone, then carving the thing into a rough circle, slightly larger than the three-foot spec. Then, much more carefully, he began to cut his true line.

Here we see where the rough line ends and the true line begins:

But he stopped working on it, didn't he. Why? Did the carver, or somebody with interest in the matter such as the miller who commisioned the stone, die? Was skulduggery somehow in play?

We examined the stone carefully. It occurred to us that there must be chips from the stone nearby, if this was the true site where the stone was carved -- not necessarily a reliable assumption, as we were on the side of a mountain. Gravity and earth-heaving could have moved our millstone a good long way from its original site in a hundred-plus years. We found no obvious chips, however. It's possible that they were buried under many inches of accumulated leaf-mulch.

Then one of us noticed this, an imperfection in the roundness of the stone:

Could it be that, after what must have been days and days of work, his chisel slipped? Or an inherent imperfection in the stone, a crack, dropped a few fractions of an inch off the carefully carved stone? What kind of despairing profanities painted these trees blue at that point?

I've said we were in a primeval forest. That's not quite true. At some point in the nineteenth century, this was inhabited land. An abandoned road above us on the mountain is strewn with trash from the 1950s. Decaying stone walls, delineating long-dead property lines, limn the landscape:

The stone foundation of what might have been a carriage-house lies a few dozen yards downhill from the millstone:

Daffodils do not grow naturally in North America; whenever you find daffodils on the woods on Short Hill, you know you are near what someone once regarded with pride as a precious garden. They're also astonishingly long-lived. Here, some few short yards from the millstone, we find this:

We are on property that also encompasses a working dairy-farm. Cows die from natural causes as well as slaughter. The ones that die on their own are inedible (who knows what kind of nasty virus carried them off?), and have to be disposed of somehow. Here we see how that happens; they are dragged into the woods uphill to feed the carrion birds and coyotes:

We were invited to inspect the grounds of the decaying, abandoned farm that once flourished on this land. Its 200-plus acres were bought by a foreign investor in the mid-1990s, and since then has been simply a place where cows live. The investor had intended to put up some 40-plus homes on the acreage, but... Well. We've seen how well that housing market has been going.

But what's bad for housing vultures is good for historians concerned with preserving the local folkways before they're paved over. The farm began with the early-nineteenth-century stone structure to the left of this photo. The bovine individual to the extreme right of the picture, I only discovered after taking it, is an ungelded bull. I spoke softly and invoked Brotherhood to get past him.

The interior of the slate-roofed bank-barn is stunning; imagine this as a living-space:

Placing outbuildings above ground prohibits rot. This looks mighty precarious, but this building has stood in this spot for over a hundred years:

Here is the death-knell for this beautiful building. When that crooked supporting beam goes, this stunning space will be no more. It will collapse. And we'll have lost one more reminder of where we come from.


RobotSlave said...

Given that the top surface looks quite smooth, I'd suspect what you've found there was a working (albeit rustic) bedstone rather than an abandoned runner stone.

But then, I don't know a damned thing about how they went about milling grain in Olden Tymes out there in your, er, neck of the woods.

Kevin Wolf said...

How I love these historical posts of yours, Neddie. The leisurely stroll through an unassuming wood that reveals signs of the prior passage (and perhaps permanent dwelling) of earlier generations. Signs, you gratefully point out, not yet paved over.

It occurs that there's no place I'm aware of here in notorious Salem, Mass, where I could take such a walk. We're too much a city, and even open areas are preserved primarily for paying tourists. I'd have to move inland, I think, to equally quaint but lesser-known towns, to find a field or stand of trees worthy of perambulation. Eyes peeled for the errant bull, natch.

Decatur Dem said...

Posts like this are the reason I keep coming back to Jingoland. Keep it up.

Dan said...

I love the tales of your local journeys. Thanks for sharing them.

I'm a bit further down towards Hillsboro and always cherish sunsets over Short Hill ... and curse the winds screaming across the flatlands below her.

Neddie said...

Hey, Dan!

Don't be a stranger!

Linkmeister said...

I am at a loss to decide which I like better, the rambler posts or the musical ones. Fortunately, it's a decision which needn't be made.


GenB said...

Looks like a nice day out. Hard to believe that such remnants still exist so close to Dulles, Ashburn, etc.

That house and barn look like fixer-uppers well worth rehabbing.


Trudy Steger said...

I had a fabulous urge to blow a humongous fart after reading this. I did so and, immediately, for about 300 feet 'round, all the native schist cracked into millstones! "Oh, Schist!" quoth I, grinning savagely at the burnt hole smoking in the back of my pantaloons.

Did you ever think, what the hell does "subgum gai pan" really mean?

Mona Albano said...

"Food for foreign devil!"

Around here, it's lilacs and asparagus and orange day lilies that tell you where the old farms were.