Gristmills: North Carolina’s First Public Utilities

Gristmills—mills that use water power to grind corn and wheat into flour—were a “familiar feature of the 19th century countryside,“ wrote Grimsley T. Hobbs in 1985. His book, Exploring the Old Mills of North Carolina, includes detailed, hand-illustrated descriptions of 39 of the most interesting mills remaining in the 1980s.[1] A few mills continued to operate then, and a few continue to do so in the 2020s.

Although such grain mills go back to the earliest days of the colony, they were not just ordinary businesses. “Gristmills were, in essence, the first public utilities,” writes David M. Gold.[2]

Public utilities are private companies that are regulated by a government body such as a commission. Today, public utilities are most often electric utilities or perhaps water-supply companies. They are regulated on the grounds that they are natural monopolies.

What is a natural monopoly? Many economists think that some kinds of companies become monopolies “naturally.” Electric companies, for example, require enormous capital investment. Their costs go down as they increase that investment. In other words, the bigger the company, the lower its costs. Such a company will drive out all competitors, becoming a monopoly that will then start to raise prices. To protect the public from price-gouging, the argument goes, they must be regulated by governments.

Why the Mills Were Regulated

Gristmills were not regulated because they were monopolies—but because governments wanted to be sure there were enough of them! They were so important that they were viewed as providing “public services” (as are today’s electric utilities). That term can be found in the first North Carolina Constitution of 1776. It says that no one can obtain “exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges” from the government unless they provide “public services.” Emoluments are pay; we’re talking about privileges here.

Farmers depended on mills to transform their crops into food they could eat or sell. With muddy roads and trails limiting transportation, the farmers needed mills nearby. So the early colony governments helped create them by giving special privileges to mill owners.

First, a short explanation of a water mill: It was built on a waterway that had a substantial slope. A dam at the top held back the river or stream water. Pressure built up to the point where the water fell down a narrow millrace over a waterwheel that turned the grindstones inside the mill.

Now, here are the privileges that a typical mill law gave a person who wanted to build a mill on a river or stream:

  • If that person didn’t own the land on the other side of the waterway, he could take that land.  (A dam has to hold back the entire river or stream.) Virginia authorized a taking of an acre for this purpose; Maryland, up to 10 acres.
  • If water backed up onto a neighbor’s property, that, too, was allowed.
  • Furthermore, someone who had a good mill site but didn’t use it could be required to do so (or required to lease or sell the land to someone who would).

These privileges weren’t entirely free. The owner of the mill had to pay the owner of the submerged or taken land. However, the amount of payment was decided by the courts—usually by a jury. This seems to have been a way to keep the cost of compensation below market value.[3]

Local or state governments also regulated the prices (“tolls”) for grinding grain. And nearby mill owners could prevent others from building mills if they could persuade the government that there were enough mills. [4]

Nearly all the colonies had Mill Acts, including North Carolina. Maryland’s 1669 Mill Act explains the reason for the laws: Most suitable locations had been taken. They

“are already in the hands of persons under age or unable to be att the Charge of building a watermill or else of such as are wilfully obstinate in for bidding and hindring such persons as would purchase the said places fitt for building watermills . . . much to the Publick damage of the Province.”[5]

So, the “obstinate” owner of a good mill site could be forced to put a mill on it.

What Changed?

We don’t have regulation of gristmills anymore, and most provisions of the Mill Acts of North Carolina were repealed. Why?

The importance of water-powered mills declined, of course. Once replaced by steam-driven mills, which could be set up almost anywhere, they became less of a public service. “Now that wheat was successful and more capital was available, entrepreneurs could be expected to build mills where most needed, without an artificial stimulus,” wrote John F. Hart.[6]

In some cases it took a long time to repeal the laws. Judges, more than legislatures, undermined the laws protecting “antiquated public utilities”—especially since many laws had begun treating sawmills, ironworks, and even other production facilities as public utilities. Citing cases in 1869 and 1871, David Gold writes, “Some judges, although upholding the statutes, repeated the familiar refrain that if the question were new, the acts would fall.”[6]

In other words, times had changed.

Examples of North Carolina Mills

Baldwin’s Mill—Pittsboro: One of Chatham County’s oldest buildings, the mill was constructed in 1790. Originally, it contained multiple enterprises: dry goods store, blacksmith shop, saw mill, and a cotton gin. Now, only the store remains. It was restored in 1941.

Winebarger’s Mill—Boone: Originally built in 1840, the mill burned and was rebuilt in 1910. It is in a picturesque setting on Meat Camp Creek and has been featured in movies and television programs. The mill produces corn meal, wheat, rye, and buckwheat flours.

Weaverville Milling Company Restaurant—Weaverville: From 1912 to 1965, the mill operated strictly as a grist mill. In 1981, it was turned into a restaurant. Visitors used to be able to learn about gristmill architecture while they enjoyed a meal. Today, the mill stands vacant.

Stepps Mill—Hendersonville: This mill may have the largest wheel in North Carolina (34 feet). Over 100 years old, the mill was moved higher and higher on its old foundation. Poet Carl Sandburg frequented the place and undoubtedly enjoyed the site and the sound of water.

Morgan’s Mill—Brevard: This tiny structure has a massive 30-foot wheel. Built in 1855, the mill is surrounded by meadows and a waterfall. It was known for producing white corn meal, rye flour, and cracked corn for stock feed.

Mingus Mill—Cherokee: In 1886, John Mingus hired Scion Early to build a mill. The property has been part of the National Park Service since the 1930s. In its heyday, the mill produced 40 to 50 bushels of meal per day.

Jordan’s Mill—Flat Rock: There has been a mill on this site since 1830—although for a while around the Civil War the mill provided energy for a furniture factory. Willliam Jordan completely rebuilt the mill after he bought it in the 1920s.Today it is a lodge for tourists.

Yates Mill—Raleigh: This picturesque mill is said to date to 1750, but it has weathered the years well. Owned since 1963 by North Carolina State University, it is managed as a park by Wake County and Yates Mill Associates. The mill itself is open to the public for a limited number of tours.

West Point Mill–Durham: A mill that had been built along the Eno River in 1778 collapsed in 1973. Local citizens decided to rebuild it. They used architectural drawings that had been saved before the mill collapse and brought in machinery from an unwanted 19th-century gristmill. It is located in a city park.

Brock Mill—Trenton: Although this mill was built in the 1940s, the site was used for grinding flour since at least before the Civil War. Owned by Jones County, the mill provides a backdrop for a large mill pond.The grounds are open all the time, although the mill itself can be entered just once a year.