In southern West Virginia, Reed's Mill has been stone-grinding local cornmeal since 1791. It's one of the few gristmills that has been in continual operation in this country, and it grinds a local heirloom corn that has been passed down for generations.
There's a mesmerizing sound of tumbling corn kernels, as Larry Mustain shows me an overflowing handful of Bloody Butcher corn. The dried corn is multicolored and magic--in his hand are a dozen seeds of red, purple and yellow that have been passed down at Reed's Mill for generations. The corn may even go as far back to when Reed's Mill first opened in 1791.
And there is something perfect about eating cornbread made from Larry’s coarsely-ground meal. It has a unique gritty texture. The butter clings to the bits of grit, and there is an earthier, more complex taste than commercially ground cornmeal.
Spiderwebs cling to the wooden rafters above us as Larry pours the Bloody Butcher corn into an electric stone grinder. The mill's old water turbine, behind us, is rarely used these days, although earlier this spring Larry did get it running briefly, when creek water swelled with heavy rains.
Historic Mills of Second Creek:
Along Second Creek, there were once 22 mills that ran by the rushing waters, some were lumber mills, and woolen mills, but most were grist mills much like Reed's Mill.
Today, only this mill is standing. All the others have been closed for decades. The old buildings have all burned or are in disrepair. A couple of years ago, Larry drove me to see one of these abandoned mills, called Nickel's Mill, that was still standing. A swampy forest had grown up between the old wooden floorboards. I stumbled into knee high water just outside the mill's main entrance. Now, that mill has been torn down too.
Gone with the Wind:
Larry says he used to drive his mother around these old back-roads to see the abandoned mills, just before she passed away. With a heavy heart, she used to sit and stare at the decaying old buildings, expressing a deep nostalgia for her childhood, when Second Creek and nearby Gap Mills were thriving communities, with dozens of prosperous farms.
“And it was like a scene out of the old south. And she'd say, “It's just looks like Gone with the Wind. Same thing down there at Nickels mill where we just were. She'd say, it's just like Gone with the Wind. It's all gone now.”
But it's not all gone, not as long as Reed's Mill is still in operation. There are still plenty of customers every Saturday, when the mill is usually open (Larry sometimes opens the mill other days too, if a group or a tour bus calls ahead). But Larry is now 77 years-old, a retired schoolteacher. And though he doesn't plan on retiring from the mill anytime soon, he does admit that health issues have slowed him down in recent years.
Losing Last Year's Crop
To complicate matters, Larry is losing a battle against the geese and deer. Last year, they ate his entire crop of Bloody Butcher corn. He claims the animals prefer the heirloom Bloody Butcher corn to the hybrid corn that grows in all the neighboring fields.
Most of the customers who come to Reed's Mill seem to prefer the heirloom corn, too. They claim it has a different texture and taste, compared with the yellow hybrid corn he also sells at the mill.
One of these customers is Lowell Lewis, of Frankford, who learned how to bake salt rising bread and cornbread from his mother.
“She wouldn't use any store-bought cornmeal. It had to be stoneground from Reed's Mill. And I still use that today,” said Lowell.
Another Bloody Butcher Farmer in West Virginia:
To be able to continue selling heirloom corn at the mill, this year, Larry found a nearly identical corn in Craigsville, at Spring Creek farm. Frances Meadows helps her father Edgar Meadows run the farm.
“The Bloody Butcher Seed is a very unique seed. It’s been in our family for probably five generations. My dad is 93 years old and he grows the Bloody Butcher every year.”
This year, she sold Larry Mustain about 1,200 lbs of Bloody Butcher to grind at Reed's Mill. Frances Meadows also gets Larry to grind some of the Bloody Butcher into a coarsely ground polenta, which she sells to chef Tim Urbanic at Cafe Cimino Country Inn, in Sutton.
To visit Reed's Mill, call Larry Mustain: 304-772-5665. The mill is open on Saturdays and by appointment. Reed's Mill is located on Second Creek Road. Heading south from Lewisburg on US 219, as you cross the Monroe County line, Second Creek Road is on your left. The mill will be on your right about a mile down the road.
Tomorrow, in part two of this story, we'll travel to Cafe Cimino to find out how chef Tim Urbanic makes Italian polenta using the Bloody Butcher cornmeal.
Helen Kershner's Cornpone:
Frances Meadows says her family has been eating this Bloody Butcher cornmeal for generations-- using it for cornbread, stuffing, corn mush and cornpone (the cornpone is her favorite way to eat it.) If you've never had cornpone- the West Virginia variety at least, it's a thicker, sweeter cornbread-type dish. Meadows says her family sprinkles pieces of bacon into theirs.
When I lived on Droop Mountain in Pocahontas County. My neighbors, Helen and Betty Kershner, gave me their family recipe for cornpone and cornbread:
2 cups cornmeal
1 1.2 tsp. salt
2 cups boiling water
mix corn and salt, and pour in boiling water. Let sit overnight, or at least for a few hours.
Then add the other ingredients:
½ cup flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp. salt
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup butter
Cut in the pieces of butter and fold the egg in gently and mix, but don't beat it. Pour into a greased pan or a cast iron skillet and bake around 375 degrees until the top is golden brown.
Betty Kershner's Cornbread:
1 cup cornbread
1/2 cup flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp. baking soda
5 tbs butter
1 cup hot water
Mix dry ingredients together. Then cut in the butter. Fold the egg, don't beat it. Put in water and buttermilk. Don't overmix. Pour into a greased pan or a cast iron skillet. Bake in a 350 degree oven till golden brown.