This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 20, 2016.
A gristmill was important to Englishmen. Their basic diet was bread, ale, cabbage, peas and a bit of meat. The native population made cornmeal cakes, grinding the corn into meal using a mortar and pestle. But the new settlers found this method to be cumbersome. Olive Tardiff, in her book Exeter Squamscott: River of Many Uses, explains the rush to build a gristmill: “Grinding by hand was much too time-consuming for the hewers of logs and builders of homes. A gristmill could free busy hands for more important work.”
Most likely, the early Exeter gristmills were primarily grinding corn, although it can be difficult to tell from the records. Englishmen used the word ‘corn’ to mean any type of grain, but maize or Indian corn was locally the most successful crop. Within a few years of settlement, they would branch out to grow rye, wheat and barley. Barley was needed for the production of ale and beer. Rye flour was used with cornmeal to create the most common bread, usually called ‘rye ‘n’ injun,’ which was eaten all across New England. If we traveled back in time to the 18th century we’d discover the bread to be darker, heavier and chewier than any we’re used to today. On the whole, it was quite healthy.
The Phineas Merrill map of 1802 – our earliest accurate map of the town – shows four gristmills clustered around the falls in the center of town. Their location at the falls indicates that all are using water power. Even the gristmill mentioned by Charles Bell in 1888 is on the river. But sometime before Bell wrote his history, Exeter had its first steam powered gristmill.
First appearing on the 1874 map on Arbor Street, the steam gristmill doesn’t list an owner. Placed by the B&M depot, the business was well-placed for modern transportation of both raw material and finished product. But somehow, it didn’t prosper. In 1889, the Exeter News-Letter remarked that, “the project is discussed of organizing a company with almost $1200 of capital for the purchase and operation of a long disused steam grist mill. Well managed, the business would pay good return.” Within three months they could announce, “The entire plant was purchased by Francis Hilliard Esq. of Kensington. He has associated himself with Mr. C.S. Button, senior member of Button Brothers who will run the mill.” The Button Brothers bakery was a thriving business on Union Street. It was no wonder one of the brothers would be interested in milling flour. Improvements were made and the mill reported a year later that, “business is steadily increasing, a new roller mill now being introduced will greatly cheapen the cost of production and enable the firm to do wholesale business to better advantage.” Christian Button would remain the mill manager until it was sold to William Jenkins in 1897.
Images: C.S. Button’s steam gristmill – taken from the 1896 Birdseye Map of Exeter (an illustration) and Jenkin’s steam gristmill – from a 1907 Business Guide to Exeter (a photo, admittedly quite fuzzy and dotty). It should be noted that these are the same gristmill on Arbor Street. Only the owners changed.