Living History: Atkinson’s Mill and The Cornbread Man

16 Jun
Yeah, not for show.  This is the real deal, folks.

Yeah, not for show. This is the real deal, folks.

Two things made me well up with joy this weekend.  Seriously.  One of the Things happened on Saturday, and one of them happened Sunday.

I will tell you about the Sunday Thing very briefly.  Best Carnitas Ever.  If you’re in the Triangle area of NC, you really need to check out Las Margaritas on Timber Dr.

On to the Saturday Thing.  About three weeks ago, the Welcome Wagon lady came to see us.  It’s not called Welcome Wagon anymore, but still, she did have a wagon.  So there you go.  Anyway, one of the Treats she brought us was a map called America’s Main Street:  Not-To-Be-Missed Stops Along North Carolina’s I-95 Corridor. We focused on those Attractions that were in Johnston County, because it’s right next door to Wake County, where we live.  The Attraction that immediately leapt out at us was Atkinson Milling Company/Exit 97.  Here’s the entry:  “Bult in 1757, this mill has been in continuous operation for more than 240 years.  Today, Atkinson’s Mill is the only water-powered gristmill operating in the area.”  Just try and tell me that doesn’t sound like The Coolest.

So, we went, expecting to see a wee picturesque mill with a bunch of cute burlap bags o’ grits and such for sale next to the Moonshine Jelly and the Bone Suckin’ Sauce.  Nope.  This is a Serious Operation.   There were all sorts of grain storage bins and Official Looking Machinery and buildings.  This place is not in operation to cater to tourists, although they do have a small retail shop in the office; they are in business to make the best corn-based products that they can.  I tasted some hushpuppy mix straight out of the mill and still warm from friction…….mmmmm………….hushpuppies…..Oh, sorry.  I drifted off for a moment there.

Like I said, we drove up into the Johnston County version of a Serious Operation.  We didn’t see anyone; we didn’t see signs saying, “come on in, ” so I called them up from the parking lot and said that we were here and were Unsure of How to Proceed.  The man who answered said that he was there, too (ha!) and to come to the trailer marked Office and he would let us in.  And that’s how we met Ray Wheeler, owner and operator of the mill since 1971, who came to work there with his wife in 1958.  Ray Wheeler holds the official North Carolina trademark for and is known in restaurants and stores far and wide as “The Cornbread Man.”   He is smart and shrewd and funny and knows everything there is to know about cornmeal and milling.

I’m sure there are many people all over the place who own and operate mills, but the cool thing about Ray is that he decided to write a book about his love affair with his “old 250 year old grist mill.”  More on that in a moment.  Ray told us a bit about the history of the mill, and then he called down to the Mill Proper to get his son to give us a tour of the actual workings.  Fascinating stuff.  Did you know that a mill stone lasts about 75 years?  Nope, me neither.  I also learned that they engineer a lot of things on the fly.  There’s not a great market for parts for grist mills, so the Wheelers just make what they need, often coming up with solutions on a trial and error basis.  The bearings for the mill stones are leather.  Leather!  The metal ones would get ground up and spit out in about a week.  They learned through experimentation that leather bearings hold up for a year.  They tried wooden covers for the stones, but they would rot.  They tried metal covers, but they would rust.  Now, they use plastic.

This is living history at its finest.  But this place isn’t just a time capsule.  This is a thriving, modern company that employs over 60 workers. They aren’t just doing things “the old way” as part of an Historical Exhibition.  They are doing it because they think it’s the best way.   And I think they’re right.

Okay, back to the book.  I’ve read every word.  Some of them twice.  It is written with the voice of every farmer who tried to make a living in the early to mid 20th century in Eastern North Carolina.  It is written in the vernacular, which I happen to love.  The Eastern NC accent is colorful, musical and fast, and I love hearing it and seeing it written on the page.  The Cornbread Man talks a little about his grandparents and his parents.  Then, he talks with pure joy of his 53-year-old (and still going strong) marriage to Betty.  He talks of how he came to work at the mill, to buy it and to eventually build a secure future for his family.

I have to give you just a taste of this book.  I can’t help myself.  Here’s a bit from the introduction:

As I said at the beginning of this introduction I wanted to tell my great grandchildren about their ancestors and what they went through to make a living and all their hardships and their disappointments and their successes.  But out of all the hardships we old folks went through, I have come to the conclusion that as bad as we thought those hardships were at that time in our lives, they were really small bumps in the whole scheme of life.  What I have found, by looking at the total life of each family that I have written about is that the love in that family overshadows every hardship and disagreement they ever had.  Each family really had a great love affair and this book has turned out to my surprise to be more about love than I ever expected.  —The True Life Story of The Cornbread Man, p 4

On hard living:

I laid down the cigarettes and the strong drinks many years ago now.  When you see a person that never adjusts their wild lifestyle as they get older, they ususally have to endure their friends doing that slow walking and sad singing much too early in their life. —The True Life Story of The Cornbread Man, p 44

On honesty:

[Granddaddy] kept me busy doing things for him such as opening his beer and it seemed like every 10 minutes he wanted me to count all the money he could drag out of his pocket, which was probably less than two dollars in change.  I didn’t know until years later why that money had to be counted so often.  He told my daddy that I had counted his money a thousand times and never took one penny of it.  I didn’t know at the time that he was testing me for honesty.  –p 6-7

On marriage:

When a person can’t find anything but negative things to say about their spouse, they have not looked very deep into their marriage or they just need to be in the frame of mind to be able to garner praise and sympathy for themselves from their friends.  I think most spouses that are always saying “poor me,” should stop for a minute and count up all the good things about their marriage and they may find that they have had a big long love affair and had not noticed. –p 10

Through this little book, we learned about the Wheeler family and about Atkinson Milling, but in more general terms, we also learned about how folks lived in the rural south, barely making a living on a rented farm.  We learned about trust and values and family and community.  And we learned it, not from a dry history text, but from a man who was born into and raised up living those ideals.  Not that he was a saint, of course.  He warned us that his wife thinks that some of “that book is pure pornography!”  The Beloved is especially thrilled to have what amounts to an oral history, what with his academic roots in Public History.  He perked up like Studs Terkel when Ray told us he’d written a book.

And, yes, of course we Purchased some Items.  I chose a fine cornmeal and The Beloved chose grits.  Very soon, I will be making Some Treats with these products, but for now, I just wanted to post about the mill.  Guys, if you are ever in this area, make it a point to get by Atkinson Milling.  Oh, and buy the book.  You’ll be glad you did.

Photo Essay Time!  Yay!

It's all gravity fed, and each set up is configured a little differently. That's how it goes when it's all engineered in house.

It's all gravity fed, and each set up is configured a little differently. That's how it goes when it's all engineered in house. And see the plastic cover around the top of the deal? See--not wood, not metal. I have just one word for you. Plastic.

Here's another view of the corn as it travels down all its shoots to get to the mill stones.

Here's another view of the corn as it travels down all its shoots to get to the mill stones.

There's that hushpuppy mix I was talking about.  It goes through the hole there in the floor and shoots into a bin down below.

There's that hushpuppy mix I was talking about. It goes through the hole there in the floor and shoots into a bin down below.

The floor is covered with fine corn dust and history.

The floor is covered with fine corn dust and history.

This is the outside of the corn kernels.  It gets blown off and sold to add to chicken feed.

This is the outside of the corn kernels. It gets blown off and sold to add to chicken feed.

The teeth in the old gears were made of wood!

The teeth in the old gears were made of wood!

This sign is for the guys bringing in truck loads of corn to make sure that someone meets them out front.

This sign is for the guys bringing in truck loads of corn to make sure that someone meets them out front. We did not toot our horn, because we figured it didn't mean Us.

7 Responses to “Living History: Atkinson’s Mill and The Cornbread Man”

  1. fred June 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    Looks like a great trip. The mill reminds me of Nora Mill near Helen, GA.

    • onlinepastrychef June 16, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

      They are milling on a much larger scale than Nora Mill, but we immediately pictured Nora Mill when we saw the listing for this place. Need to get back to Nora Mill sometime and grab some of their Pioneer Porridge. Great stuff!

  2. D.P. June 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm #

    That is a great place and a great story!!!!!

  3. Donna Absher July 2, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    Amazing! I’m putting you and Atkinson’s mill in my own blog. This one is really in business. I wonder what it’s revolutionary war story is? I was an Atkins from Wake county. Wonder if Atkins and Atkinson were kin?

    http://southerncampaigninnc.blogspot.com

  4. Patricia Frank April 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    What a fine piece of writing! I liked how you captured the warm character of the Wheelers and inner workings of an old time mill, still going strong. People and businesses like this mill are what make me love North Carolina.

    How can I get a copy of the Cornbread Man book?

    And I’m so glad you managed to resist calling your story ‘True Grit.’ lol

    Again, thanks for a wonderful piece of writing.

    Patricia Frank
    Editor
    http://www.vibrantvillage.com
    the Journal of Small Town Living

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tree Cutting and Cobbler « Pastry Methods and Techniques - July 1, 2009

    […] what I was about to do would hurt his stomach a Very Lot.  I also wanted to use some of my lovely corn meal from Atkinson’s Mill, so here’s how it went.  Oh, I did this by volume, just because cobbler is not an Exact […]

  2. Cobbler Redux: An Example of The Biscuit Method (plus another method and a few techniques) « Pastry Methods and Techniques - July 14, 2009

    […] at proportions.  The original recipe is here.  I tweaked it a bit, because I wanted to use my Atkinson’s Mill Cornmeal again, and because I am not very good at leaving Well Enough […]

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