Part of Plimoth Plantation since 2013, the Plimoth Grist Mill in Plymouth, MA, offers yet another look at 17th century life in New England.
By Aimee Tucker
Oct 06 2018
Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, has long served as the local authority on all things 17th century New England, but in 2013, the living history museum added a new location — the Plimoth Grist Mill.
Located a short walk from the Plymouth waterfront (and one of the living history museum’s other sites, Mayflower II), the mill represents the first grist mill built by the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims in 1636. After more than a decade of grinding corn by hand, the colony authorized the construction of a water-powered mill on Town Brook, to be run by colonist John Jenney. The mill made an enormous difference in the lives of the early settlers, who were no-doubt ready by that point to graduate from the technique they had learned from the native Wampanoag — the repetitive “thump thump” of wooden mortars and pestles.
The original Jenney mill burned down in 1837, but a reproduction, built on the same site, was completed in 1970. Made in part from a salvaged early 1800s Pennsylvania mill, it served as a tourist attraction separate from Plimoth Plantation until late 2012, when Plimoth was offered the chance to take over the operation. It proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.
With the mill now part of the Plimoth Plantation experience, yet another side to “the Pilgrim story” — one centered around technological progress — is being told (and shown) with the help of 21st century expertise and perspective.
I visited the mill earlier this fall, after a visit to the Wampanoag Homesite and 17th Century English Village at Plimoth Plantation (see Plimoth Plantation | New England Living History Museum) and was charmed by what I saw.
Inside the mill (tours packed with info are offered daily), a pair of enormous, 2,500-pound stone wheels work together to grind the corn into two kinds of organic cornmeal, which are then available for purchase to take home. Each measuring 54 inches, the bed (bottom) and runner (top) wheels are 200-year-old French Buhr millstones.
Even on days when the mill isn’t grinding, you can enjoy watching the 14-foot waterwheel outside and taking a closer look at the millstones and the different kinds of cornmeal they produce inside. A helpful video also shows the mill in action.
In the mill’s lower level, mechanical-minded visitors will love getting a behind (beneath?) the scenes look at the way the mill operates, including a look at the water-powered gears…
…while nearby, there are plenty of hands-on learning opportunities for kids, including exercises like “match the millstones” and a chance to sift the freshly-ground cornmeal.
Finally, a gift shop is stocked with a lively assortment of 17th century-inspired gifts, plus bags of the mill’s bounty to take home. They sell both traditional cornmeal and sampe, which looks a lot like what most Americans think of as grits. Basically, it’s a coarser grind of cornmeal, like the chunky peanut butter to cornmeal’s smooth.
I took home a bag of each, and it wasn’t long before my sampe curiosity got the better of me.
A quick look around the Plimoth Plantation recipes page brought me to a recipe for Nasaump, a traditional Wampanoag dish that is made using sampe, berries, and nuts. Similar to a porridge or oatmeal, the sampe (plus extras) is boiled in water until it thickens. I decided to add strawberries, walnuts, and a drizzle of maple syrup to my Nasaump…
The result? Well…it was a lot different than the homemade bowls of oatmeal I’m used to (which are light, fluffy, and sweetened with milk, lots of maple syrup, and dried cherries) but it was certainly edible, and very hearty.
And the long day of hard work that would have almost certainly followed for 17th century diners? Fortunately, today, that part is optional.
Have you ever visited a grist mill?
Plimoth Grist Mill. 6 Spring Lane, Plymouth, MA. 508-830-1124. plimoth.org
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.