One of the traditional occupations of New Mexico that has disappeared, a victim of technology, is that of the miller. He was once a familiar figure in villages up and down the Rio Grande, maintaining customs of his trade that stretched back to the Middle Ages in Spain.
The miller’s workplace was a small log building set over a mill race or sometimes an irrigation ditch, which provided the water powering the grinding stones. These small operations have been termed Spanish tub mills because their wheels lay flat in the water, the current hitting the paddle-like spokes and turning the direct drive shaft that rotated the stones.
Earl Porter, a milling authority at El Rancho de las Gonlondrinas museum in La Cienega, claims that the Hispanic design flour mill was an important part of colonial village culture in New Mexico. That was so even though the mechanism produced only 1 to 3 horsepower.
Porter did a survey that found several hundred mill sites scattered around the state. In almost every case, the buildings are long gone. Some that survived into recent times were chain-sawed up for firewood.
The first water-powered mill was built in New Mexico by Juan de Oñate’s colonists in 1598. They had brought the heavy grindstones with them up the Camino Real. Later, stones for new mills were quarried in the neighboring mountains.
In 1776, the Rev. Atanasio Domínguez reported three mills inside the town limits of Santa Fe and two more at Chimayó. After Socorro was founded, a visitor saw a cluster of gristmills there. Taos had perhaps the largest mill concentration, since its extensive wheat fields made it the breadbasket of New Mexico.
Millers were unusually independent operators who constructed and ran their own mills. Since their work was seasonal, concentrated at harvest time in the fall, they had to add to their income with other kinds of work, such as farming or stock raising.
Once the crops were out of the field, the rural folk shelled the corn and threshed and winnowed the wheat on the threshing floor. The grain was then placed in leather or cloth sacks, loaded on burros and hauled to the closest mill.
Early descriptions invariably mention the miller as being dusted from head to foot with a covering of white flour. He put in long, tedious hours at his task, but during intervals when the equipment was running smoothly, he might relax by smoking punche (native tobacco), reciting the rosary or singing hymns. In Spain, he sang special milling songs to pass the time, but I’ve been unable to find reference to those in New Mexico.
Customers paid a mill toll, that is, a percentage of the flour of their grain, as the miller’s fee for his work. Quite a few New Mexicans did not like paying the toll, so they had the women of their households reduce the grain to flour in the old way. That was grinding it by hand on a metate, or stone slab.
Through back-breaking labor on her knees, a woman could produce about two bushels of flour per day. That contrasted with a water mill, able to turn out 300 pounds to 400 pounds of flour daily. Hand-grinding on a slab added grit to the flour. From that came the New Mexican expression: “In the course of a lifetime, everyone swallows a metate.”
Sometimes a wealthy rancher would have a mill built on his own property. Then he would have an employee trained to operate it. In that way, he could avoid the tolls in the processing of grain.
Corn and wheat were the principal crops ground by the millers. But they also accepted other things as well. They included dry chile pods, which could be crushed into powder. And when Anglos introduced roasted coffee beans, they milled those, too.
During the first half of the 20th century, milling changed and declined. Tolls disappeared as circulation of money increased. An Embudo miller, for instance, charged 35 cents for grinding 125 pounds of wheat.
Old-style milling, however, was doomed. In the 1960s, the custom faded away. And another fragment of our regional culture passed away into history.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.