News: Historic Corps gristmill operates during cornbread festival
Story by Leon Roberts
MONTICELLO, Ky. – Kentuckians arrived in droves here May 28 at Mill Springs Mill to see the many craft booths, enjoy music performances, and to eat “hoe” cakes during the 18th Annual Cornbread Festival. They also came for bags of cornmeal on sale at the gift shop, and watched as the largest overshot waterwheel in the world turned and ground corn for the masses.
The festivity is literally a journey back in time when cornmeal and wheat were once processed and shipped down the Cumberland River to customers downstream. Rocks on a nearby wagon trail still bear impressions from wagon wheels when settlers traveled in the 1800s to Mill Springs Mills with their harvest.
Billy Brown, a Corps employee and one of only a handful of licensed millers in existence today, maintains and runs the mill for visitors. He said he had a great time grinding corn for several hours during the cornbread festival, and everyone stopped to watch the 40-foot, 10-inch waterwheel turn.
Bolen E. Roberts, a past owner of the mill, originally installed the large-sized overshot waterwheel in 1908. The waterwheel is powered by 13 local springs that supply water that runs into a metal pipe flume to a gate that is opened and closed from the first floor of the mill.
“The pipes (supplying water to the waterwheel) are almost running uphill,” Brown said. “He (Roberts) went to have this waterwheel made. And he got down there, and he had planned on making it 38 foot. He made it 40 foot and 10 inches because somebody else had done made one 39 foot.”
Two 48-inch stones, or French burrs, imported from a quarry in northern France, are still used today and are capable of milling up to 1,600 pounds of corn an hour. Because the waterwheel turns the stones, and the stones can be damaged if operated without corn, Brown said he only operates the wheel off and on for about 45 minutes. This equates to about 50 pounds of corn, which is just enough cornmeal for the gift shop.
“The stones sit on top of one another… the cornmeal is in between them and acts as a barrier to keep them from touching one another,” Brown explained. “But as soon as the cornmeal leaves (from between the stones)… they’re going to start slapping on one another.”
After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impounded Lake Cumberland in 1949, it acquired the mill and associated lands. The original grainery was renovated in 1962 and is preserved with the help of the Monticello Women’s Club, a non-profit organization that organizes the cornbread festival. The effort of these volunteers helps people to remember when the mill once operated and served the needs of the local agricultural community.
Wonda Dodson, president of the Monticello Women’s Club, said she is pleased with the turnout for the cornbread festival, which helps them to raise funds that are used for worthwhile community projects and to maintain facilities at Mill Springs Mill.
“We’ve had an excellent day – one of the best we’ve had in the last few years,” Dodson said. “The purpose of the day is to get people here to Mill Springs, also to eat some of the cornbread, and to have a good time with family and friends. And also from the women’s club viewpoint, we use this as a fundraiser.”
Dodson said the event is especially great because it helps them to draw attention to the historical importance of the mill.
“The women’s club was instrumental along with other civic organizations to bring attention to the Corps, the importance as a historical site, and also its possibility for tourism,” Dodson added. “We’ve tried to cooperate with the Corps and to do things that are beneficial to the Corps and Mill Springs and to the women’s club.”
During the festival, the music group Fall Creek Boys performed popular country tunes. They were followed by The Bell Tones, a group of students from Bell Elementary School in Monticello, Ky. The young chorus sang patriotic and secular songs appropriate for Memorial Day weekend. Under the direction of Anita Peters and Tammye Sumpter, the kids honored veterans and set a great atmosphere for people eating “hoe” cakes, which are made from the cornmeal produced at Mill Springs Mill.
According to June Ramsey, who is on the event’s planning committee, the “hoe” cakes are rumored to have received their name from when settlers first made them.
“They made their cornmeal and fried it… we’re told… we don’t know that this is true, on a hoe. They cleaned the hoe and held it over an open fire, and that’s how it became known as a “hoe” cake,” Ramsey explained.
Tommy Duncan, 85, one of only two existing founding members of the women’s club, is still a volunteer at the gift shop and said she has so many great memories of time spent at the mill since 1963. She noted that one of her fondest memories over the many years and one of her greatest enjoyments even today is seeing the waterwheel turn.
“Oh I love to see that big old wheel turn,” Duncan said. “It’s the largest overshot waterwheel in the world, so that’s something to be proud of ain’t it?”
Duncan added that over the years the women’s club has enjoyed its partnership with the Corps of Engineers, and she hopes that it continues. “They have certainly been nice to us,” Johnson said. “We appreciate it.”
The gift shop, which is operated by the Monticello Women’s Club, is open Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cornbread festival is an annual event on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.
“We relish the idea of people coming back year after year and enjoying the Mill Springs cornbread,” Dodson said.
Mill Springs Mill is located on the shores of scenic Lake Cumberland and even has a boat dock that is accessible to boaters who want to visit. If driving, it is located off Kentucky Highway 90 between Burnside and Monticello, Ky.
For those who visit the Resource Manager’s Office located at 1000 Boat Dock Road in Somerset, Ky., there is a scaled model of Mill Springs Mill on display for people to see and learn about its history.
According to Park Ranger Phillip Sliger, the model was recently donated to the Corps by Gilbert Beasley and weighs 35 pounds. In addition, former Park Ranger Gary Hayes built a base for the display that weighs 80 pounds.
“We’ve wanted a model to display,” Sliger said. “This is a great addition and people often go to the mill after seeing it.”
Park Ranger Judy Daulton said this year’s cornbread festival was one of the biggest events in years and well attended because of the work of the women’s club and the fact the historic gristmill is such an interesting attraction and a perfect setting for the event.