I’ve always imagined the hardships our earliest settler families might list would include isolation, lack of survival skills, or illness. Upon arriving in Upper Canada, Loyalist settlers were promised a three-year supply of food by the government. One of their greatest challenges was getting their grain allotment ground into flour.

Some counties distributed portable hand-operated grinders that used rotating steel desks similar to the type used in coffee- and pepper grinders. Difficulty of operation made them unpopular. Modelled after a First Nation people’s strategy for grinding corn meal, the inside of a hardwood stump was hollowed out (using fire or red-hot iron) and used as a pestle. A mortar was formed from a 6–8-foot hardwood pole, 8 inches in diameter at the bottom and narrow enough to hold at the top. A ‘plumping mill’ as it was known could hold as little as a few quarts or as much as a bushel of grain. The end product was a coarse brown flour.

Eventual improvements were made as explained in writings of Captain James Ditto. “The mills of crude workmanship were thinly scattered about the country, so that we had to content ourselves with a hollow stump to pound our grain in, which was done with a cannon-ball fastened to a cord or bark of a tree, and affixed to a long pole which served as a lever. The bread or cakes thus were not particularly white, but were eaten with a good appetite and proved wholesome.”

Many settlers carried grain sacks great distances on their backs–or by hand-sleigh in winter and in summer, by canoe or raft—to reach a grist mill. For example, the government commissioned a mill to be built in 1782-3 near Kingston. The location was considered central to people coming from the east and the west along the St. Lawrence River. Once arrived, some settlers waited days for their turn.

The earliest grist mills were operated by the government free of charge to settlers. When private mills began to surface, so did shady business practices. To protect settlers, a law was passed that prohibited millers from taking more than 1/12 of the grain as payment for grinding and bolting (sifting) the flour.

NB: The photograph is of the Backus Mill Heritage and Conservation Centre. The mill was originally built 1798 and is one of the few mills that escaped burning during the War of 1812

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