Water-powered mill still in operation

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Gene Barksdale watches the progress of corn during grinding at the grist mill. News photo/Tilda Sumerel

Stone-ground corn meal is a long-standing tradition that still continues for some Red Bay citizens.

Nestled in the hills of Franklin county on Little Bear Creek, the Barksdale Grist Mill produces mountains of fluffy white corn meal each Saturday.

It serves as the only water powered grist mill that is still in operation in northwest Alabama.

The local grist mill is located approximately five miles east of Red Bay on Highway 24. A branch of the Little Bear Creek flowing through the area falls over the “Andy Jordan Dam” and powers the water wheel, which is located 10 feet under the surface of the water.

The water wheel is connected to machinery inside a rustic building, which covers the mill and provides an area for processing grain as it is fed through the mill.

Many years ago, people would bring corn to the mill in wagons, have it ground, and take it back home on a journey lasting several hours. Today, people come from far and near to bring corn to mill but the wagons have been replaced by modem vehicles.

On a typical Saturday morning, the fanners arrive as early as dawn with buckets, sacks, and other containers of corn. They get in line to wait their turn and have their corn ground the “old fashioned way.”

Many of owner and operator Gene Barksdale’s regular customers like to stand around and talk. They don’t seem to mind the wait or be in a big hurry to be on their way.

Barksdale says that he learned the trade from his father and grandfather as a child.

He reports that it takes approximately 10 minutes to process 100 pounds of corn through the mill. He says the mill can handle an average of 500 pounds of corn per hour.

Barksdale starts the grinding process by opening a valve that provides water power to the machinery of the mill.

Shelled corn provided by the customer is lined up, measured, and poured into a wooden hopper that feeds the mill.

A mirror is mounted over the mill and Barksdale uses it to keep close watch on the grinding process. It also serves to let him know when to add more com. He relies on feel to know when the meal is the right consistency and takes samples of the freshly ground corn at frequent intervals.

Working in the mill as he was growing up, Barksdale learned the techniques used by his father in operating the mill and in keeping the machinery in working order. Over the years he has perfected the process and is most knowledgeable about the technical aspects of this quickly vanishing craft.

During the milling process shells of the corn are separated from the meal and fall to an area at the left of the machinery. This substance is used in making livestock feed and meal brand. The remaining finely ground meal is collected and emptied into a huge sifter that further refines the product.

As a final step to the process, customers can get plain meal, or they can have “self-rising” ingredients added. If they choose self-rising, they get Barksdale’s original recipe, which he has formulated over the years.

After sifting, the milling process is complete and the meal is measured into five or 10 pound sacks and sealed. If a customer prefers, the meal can be carried home in containers which they provide.

One hundred pounds of self-rising meal can be ground at the mill for a cost of $10.

Plain meal is ground at a cost of $1.50 per bushel. If the meal is put in bags, there is an additional charge of 10 cents per bag for bagging.

Barksdale says that a person needs to have at least 100 to 115 pounds of shelled corn if they want to have self-rising meal made. Any amount of corn can be processed if plain meal is desired.

Many people prefer the “home ground” variety of meal as compared to the commercially made product. Comparable in cost, the advantage in using the home-ground variety seems to be that it produces a lighter texture and unique taste.

Barksdale has been operating the mill since he took over from his father in 1980.

W.A. Barksdale started the mill in the 1930s. At that time there were several other grist mills located in Franklin County. The Barksdales say they don’t know of any other mills still operating with waterpower in the state of Alabama at the present time.

Originally, the mill was a two-story building that included a sawmill, a cotton mill, and a grist mill. It was located further up the creek than it presently is.

According to Barksdale, the original building burned in 1962 and the grist mill was all that was salvageable. Andy Jordan constructed the present dam and building and reopened the grist mill shortly after that.

Barksdale says that people come from all over Alabama and from the surrounding states to have their corn ground at the mill. Some people also come in just to watch the process or to buy meal that is available for purchase. Barksdale says their water ground meal is available at many of the local grocery stores in the Red Bay area.

The mill opens at 6:30 a.m. each Saturday morning and runs until the last customer is served.

The weather and growing conditions in the area this past season resulted in a poorer than usual crop of corn, but regular customers still line up at the mill on Saturdays with what corn they can spare to have made into meal.