By ROSE MARQUES/ecoRI News contributor
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Green businesses sound like a trendy new concept … until you visit the Carpenter’s Grist Mill, living about as lightly on the land today as it did when it was built in 1703.
Nestled in the village of Perryville, the mill continues to use the ancient Mexican technology of grinding corn between two stone wheels — one below stationary and one above turning — as the local stream flows through the historic building. As the current owners Bob and Diane Smith will tell you, they are just borrowing the water for a little while before they send it clean and unaltered out to the ocean. In the process, a special Rhode Island corn kernel is slowly ground into a fine white powder, and that flour is fried up on site as jonnycakes, a local tradition and delicacy.
The original owners, the Perry family, situated their new grist mill — complete with water wheel — on the edge of what is known today as Perry’s Mill Pond. The family’s goal in setting up shop was to offer local farmers a place to grind their corn for their families and for market. To accommodate the mill’s purpose and operation, the pond was actually hand dug in 1703. However, this water power eventually wasn’t enough to be as productive as necessary. So, in 1825, the owners at that time (the Watsons) moved the mill 500 feet to its present location, 364 Moonstone Beach Road, and dug a sluiceway that drops a total of 2 feet and allows the water to gather speed and power from the pond to the mill. Somewhere between 1850 and 1860, the newest technology — a turbine — took the place of the water wheel.
Then as now, the long grinding process begins at the pond, where a small gate is lifted to allow water to flow down the sluiceway toward the mill. As it approaches, the dirtiest water is diverted. Thereafter, twigs and other debris are trapped by a set of two grates, or hand-raked from the surface. The water then drops 12 feet into the “pit” to turn the turbine beneath the building. Inside the mill above, the corn slides slowly from the historic hopper to the grinding stones — at least one of which is believed to be original — that turn and churn to grind it to a fine, white flour. Slowly, the flour spurts and slides into a waiting bucket. It takes about two hours to grind 100 pounds of corn.
The corn itself is one of the unique aspects of the mill, for Rhode Island whitecap flint corn is still ground here for the state’s famous jonnycakes. Growing the corn is as much a labor of love as running the historic mill. The flint corn is no longer readily grown; the yield per stalk is so low it isn’t economical for most farmers. But, for this grist mill, local farmer Stuart Sherman devotes a portion of his Matunuck fields to the crop, incorporating it within his crop rotation each year. Thus, the special corn continues to grow in Rhode Island soil, much as the Native Americans were growing it when Roger Williams arrived in 1636.
While the mill does its job of grinding the corn, the owners and volunteers package the resulting flour called Carpenter’s Rhode Island Jonnycake Meal for purchase, $5 for a 16-ounce bag. But the mill also produces two other products: Carpenter’s Rhode Island Yellow Corn Meal and Carpenter’s Rhode Island Clam Cake and Fritter Mix. All are gluten free and made with no grinding stone contamination. The products are sold in specialty stores and at various locations in southern Rhode Island, but mostly via mail order. Bob Smith estimated that between 75 percent and 80 percent of the business is mail order — from people as far away as Alaska.
The mill, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1990, has been in continuous operation since it was built. The Smiths have owned the 3.5 acres for about 25 years and will soon deed the property to the South Kingstown Land Trust. The couple will continue to lease — for perhaps $1 a year — and operate the mill. The Smiths plan to establish a fund to help run the mill under the land trust, while trust officials hope to someday have walking trails to connect its lands — 1.5 miles north — to the mill.
Presently, the Smiths train enthusiastic volunteers to run the mill in the future, ensuring the continuing life and history of the mill.
The Smiths grind corn every few weeks and welcome the public to visit on those Sundays. Call ahead (401-783-5483) to learn when the mill will be operating. The meal is sold on site, and, during grinding, Diane Smith and other volunteer chefs cook up perfect jonnycake samples – “crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.”
Every time … just like it’s always been.