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Plimoth Plantation to run mill

The reproduction of the 17th-century Jenney Grist Mill in Plymouth shows how corn was ground into flour.

Plimoth Plantation

The reproduction of the 17th-century Jenney Grist Mill in Plymouth shows how corn was ground into flour.

Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum of the Pilgrims, is taking over operation of the Jenney Grist Mill, a reproduction of the 17th-century mill that once ground corn into flour for the Pilgrims.

The reproduction mill was built on the Jenney mill’s original site on Plymouth’s Town Brook as a tourist attraction in 1970. The flowing water in the brook turns a pair of 2,500-pound stone wheels to grind the corn between them.

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Plantation officials say they plan to run the mill as part of their historically accurate exhibits, including the 17th-century Pilgrim Village, the Native American Wampanoag Homesite, and the Mayflower II, a replica of the ship that carried the Pilgrims to America in 1620. Under plantation management, the Jenney Grist Mill will open with the other attractions in March. 

The first of its kind in the English colonies, the 1636 mill was a significant improvement to the Plymouth colony because corn was the major crop for the early settlers but had to be ground into flour for baking.

Visitors can see the water turn the wheel, then watch the miller grinding grain inside the mill. They can take some of the product home as well: The museum will sell bags of organic cornmeal ground on site.

The original mill was built by John Jenney, part of a second wave of Pilgrims who came to the Plymouth colony from Leiden, Holland, in 1623 on the ship called Little James. He ran the mill until he died in 1644, and his wife, Sarah, and son Samuel continued to operate it after his death.

The mill greatly improved the daily lives of the Pilgrims, historians say.

“One of the things we talk about in the village is grinding grain with mortar and pestle,” said Richard Pickering, the plantation’s director for program innovation. Pounding corn into meal with stone implements is a loud process.

“Imagine the sound in the houses,” Pickering said. “Someone in the village is pounding corn at all times.”

A water-powered mill “is a great thing for a community,” added historian Ann Berry, executive director of Pilgrim Hall, the Plymouth museum that houses Pilgrim artifacts in its collection and archives. Meal and flour are important food commodities, she said, and the mill made acquiring them much easier.

The Pilgrims were taught how to grow corn by the indigenous Wampanoag people, and it helped them survive in a new environment. But for baking, you had to grind the corn into flour.

The Pilgrims were familiar with mills in England, but grist mills require grinding stones and someone to build and operate them, Berry said. In short, they needed a miller.

The old mill endured for two centuries until it burned down in 1837. 

It was rebuilt on its original Plymouth Center site off Summer Street as part of a controversial urban redevelopment project that tore down old houses in the Summer and High streets neighborhood and created Jenney Pond Park, as town leaders sought to spruce up the town’s image and expand tourism.

While the image of a period-style mill on a pretty brookside setting provided a high-profile tourist attraction, last summer the site was closed because the operator, the Jenney House Museum Inc., lacked the funds.

The property’s owner, Tom Whyte, aid he was “excited” about leasing the mill to the plantation. “I can’t think of a better partner for this working mill.”

The plantation’s executive director, Ellie Donovan, said the Jenney Grist Mill will add to the “encounters with history” offered visitors by the 65-year-old museum and become part of the museum’s educational mission.

While the museum runs its Pilgrim village site as a “living history museum” in which costumed staff stay “in character” speaking and behaving as the Pilgrims they represent would, the museum is planning to adopt a “21st century” approach for the grist mill. Staff will demonstrate the mill and discuss its history for its visitors, Pickering said.

“We’ve been looking at the mill as a chance to explore the science and technology of the period. It’s such a perfect place for water power,” he said.

You can trace the history of the technology because the dressed and grooved mill stones that grind the grain had to be imported from England. While water mills were part of Old World technology for 1,000 years, the New World did not yet have the ability to make their own, he said.

European governments regarded the meeting house and the grist mill as the two essential pieces of new settlements, Pickering said.

“Mills were wonderful places for social exchanges,” he said. “Financiers and bankers met there.”

Visitors will be able to choose to pay a separate admission charge to the Jenney mill or a package deal that includes admission to the museum’s other sites, Pickering said.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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