What Does a Grist Mill Do? How Do Old Grist Mills Work?

Cable grist mill in cades cove

The Cable Mill in Cades Cove is one of the most iconic mills in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Mary Terriberry/shutterstock.com)

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Mitchell, a tiny dying town in the middle of Southern Indiana, is probably the closest thing I have to a hometown.

It’s where my mom’s people come from, where my mom and her siblings grew up. And it’s also where I lived my formative years from nine to 13.

There’s nothing that’s remarkable about Mitchell, a town that formed because of the mid-1800s railroad boom. Essentially, Mitchell became a town because the railroad needed one there.

Over the years, its biggest claim to fame was likely the Carpenter Bus plant. In fact, the bus plant for decades was responsible for building a large portion of the nation’s school buses. However, it is also the hometown of the ill-fated Mercury Seven astronaut, Gus Grissom.

Since the bus plant closed, Mitchell doesn’t have much of a claim to fame at all.

But it does have a hidden gem: Spring Mill State Park.

When I think back, Spring Mill looms large in the course of my life. Among my earliest memories are my aunt’s wedding there when I was tiny. Today it’s a blur. But I can remember bridesmaids in light pastel dresses in the garden like angels there in the shadow of the giant grist mill.

The mill, for which the park was named, is the centerpiece of the park’s pioneer village.

Spring mIll grist mill
An old mill at Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell, Indiana (arthurgphotography/shutterstock.com)

The Spring Mill aqueduct system: How it works

The three-story mill is fed cold water from a pair of springs up in the park’s limestone caves via an impressive aqueduct system. It carries the water to the top of the wooden wheel which powers the slow turning of the old grindstones. It’s an impressive feat of engineering.

During the school year, class hours were often spent touring the historic sites. The working museum that was the mill and the Gus Grissom Museum were both included. Certainly, it was quite a juxtaposition. Namely, in little more than 100 years, Mitchell had gone from being this primitive pioneer village to literally sending a man into space.

Of course, that’s not what our historic tours meant when I was a kid for whom the march of time meant very little.

We took it all for granted. In other words, our field trips chiefly meant trying to pay attention as a worker pretending to be from the late eighteenth century dryly explained water power, top stones, mill stones and the 30-foot water wheel.

It meant watching them make the cornmeal or the stone-ground flour while sneaking glances at the blue skies and green grass begging us to come out and play.

But when we returned to the park during the summer, it was different. I was old enough and free enough to be given free rein of the park.

I could go from the lake where my uncle spent the summers of his youth as a lifeguard and up through the village where my aunt, and later my mom, got married.

You know how it is when you’re young and confident and free and fearless.

Cades Cove Grist mill
The John P. Cable Grist Mill is an iconic part of Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

The John P. Cable Grist Mill in Cades Cove

When we moved to Tennessee, it was not that I missed Spring Mill. After all, we moved right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But what I missed was that generational familiarity. That confidence that came with knowing a place so completely that you could walk its paths in the dark.

When we moved to Maryville, one of the first things we did was tour Cades Cove.

It wasn’t the same as my Spring Mill of course. But there was enough familiarity that I found it comforting all the way down to the historic village and the John P. Cable Grist Mill.

The Cable Grist Mill was built in 1867. It is also likely the most popular landmark in the Cove. It served as an integral part of the Cades Cove community of about 700 people in its heyday. The stones on the mill are original, meaning they’ve been in use for more than 150 years.

At one time, there were seven operating mills in the Cove. But the only remnants of these are the stones on the original site outside the cable mill. 

The GSMNP works the mill from April to October and can answer questions and sell souvenirs from the gift shop, including fresh cornmeal. 

What does a grist mill do?

Grist mills were essential to the growth of the United States and a necessary part of community and village life as the wilderness pushed west.

The miller was an important centerpiece to a rural community, turning corn and wheat into meal and flour that could be preserved and used to feed a family and a community during the lean months.

The miller usually did this in exchange for a percentage of the meal or flour which could then be used to feed his own family or traded for other goods and services.

Read Also: Cades Cove secrets: 5 best hidden gems you shouldn’t miss

Are any grist mills still used today?

It kind of depends on your definition. There are many mills that are still working, including the ones in Cades Cove and Spring Mill as well as the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge.

The National Register of Historic Places has dozens of grist mills. Are any of them necessary? I don’t know.

Most are just there to serve as a living museum, a celebration of a bygone time. Most commercial milling is done with electricity and steel and cast iron rollers.

There are, I’m sure, a few people who work a grist mill as more than a historic endeavor but not many.

How did old grist mills work?

A grist mill uses hydropower. It takes water from a mill creek or river and runs it through a sluice to the top of a large wheel outfitted with a series of buckets that capture the water.

Then, gravity pulls the heavier buckets down and water is dumped and the wheel spins.

The force of the spinning wheel is used to rotate a large, grooved mill stone that grinds the corn or wheat to make meal or flower. The force of the turning stones grinds the corn or wheat, creating a long-lasting food product.

Are there any working mills near the Smoky Mountains?

Sure. Here are some of our favorites.

Grist mill at Dollywood
The Dollywood Grist Mill is also where you will find cinnamon bread (photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

4. Dollywood’s Grist Mill

Built in 1982, the Dollywood Grist Mill was the first operational mill built in Tennessee in 100 years. Authentically constructed, the mill uses the power of the giant wheel to grind corn and wheat.

The shop sells a variety of unique kitchen gifts, jams, jellies, honeys and butters as well as cornmeal and grits.

Mingus mill near Cherokee, NC
Cherokee, North Carolina features the Mingus Mill, a historic grist mill built in 1886 (photo by Jill Lang/shutterstock.com)

3. Mingus Mill

The Mingus Mill is a working grist mill in Cherokee, North Carolina and was built in 1886. Today, mill workers can demonstrate its sluice, turbine and full process.

A short walk off of Highway 441 along Mingus Creek Trail, you can purchase jams, jellies, molasses, lye soap, flour and meal there.

The Old Mill at Pigeon Forge TN
The Old Mill Square is all built around this mill, which has been running since 1830 (photo by Laura and Greg Akens/TheSmokies.com)

2. The Old Mill Pigeon Forge

A complex of shops, restaurants and more in Pigeon Forge was built around a mill that has been grinding with water power since 1830.

The Old Mill is one of the oldest continually operating grist mills in the country and because it’s right there in the middle of Pigeon Forge, it’s easy to visit.

Read Also: The Old Mill Shops of Pigeon Forge, everything you need to know

Flume on Cable grist mill in Cades Cove
A flume chute on the Cable Grist Mill in Cades Cove (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

1. John P. Cable Grist Mill

We’ve already talked about the Cades Cove Mill, which is special for many reasons but not the least of which is it’s in the middle of Cades Cove, one of the most scenic settings in the Smokies.

Have you visited a grist mill? Did you try the meal and grits? Let us know what you think in the comments!


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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for TheSmokies.com LLC – the parent company of TheSmokies.com and HeyOrlando.com.

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