Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Bread is my favorite food group. My palette would be happy with a grains only diet. So what better park to visit on Thanksgiving weekend celebrating food, harvest and abundance, than Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park.

When the mill was first built by Dr. Edward Bale in 1844, grist mills were a cornerstone of American sustenance, both social and nutritional. Bale Grist Mill was for more than grind and storage. News, gossip, dances and other social events were integral parts of "hanging around the mill."

Thomas Jefferson once said, "There is no neighborhood in any part of the United States without a water grist mill for grinding the corn." The 1840 census showed 23,661 grist mills serving the USA population of 17 million. Prior to the construction of Bale's mill, the locals of what is now Sonoma County had to make a three-day journey to turn their wheat to flour. Bale's grist mill - and originally sawmill as well - were a welcome addition to this new community of pioneers.

Bale Grist Mill is right on Highway 29, halfway between the hot springs of Calistoga and the wineries of St. Helena. It is a compact but pleasant park, with a picnic area. After walking across the mill-creek, pumpkins, scarecrows and other harvest decor welcome you to the Visitor's Center and Museum.

A $3.00 entry fee entitles you to view the museum and to a 45-minute tour of the mill. The museum is filled with day-to-day items used back in the day. A dozen or so 4x8 foot flats tell the mill's story. As with many early pioneers, the history is colorful and not without it's ambiguities.

An English surgeon, Dr. Edward Bale attended several British medical schools, always leaving on the lam when he fell behind on his school fees. With debtors prison at his heels, he bailed on the British Isles and joined the whaling ship "Harriet" as its surgeon.

No one knows for certain if he jumped ship, or if the ship went down, but Dr. Bale appeared alone on the shores of Monterey (the capitol of then Mexican California), near death from hypothermia and claiming to be the sole survivor of a sinking ship.

At that time Mexico was awarding generous land grants in order to populate it's California territory and protect it from other nation invaders from the sea, and from pioneers now arriving from the eastern United States. Dr. Bale was hopeful of receiving a land grant, and set about meeting the three criteria Mexico required. First, through interviews, it was determined he was not a criminal. Second, he converted to Catholicism. And finally, he became a Mexican citizen by serving one year as a surgeon in the Mexican army. He and his new wife Maria - niece of General Vallejo - were awarded 18,000 acres in the area that now encompasses the towns of Calistoga to Rutherford.

The mill wheel we see today is not the original. The first was only a twenty foot wheel, using the often too soft granite rock for the stones, and as mills go was mediocre in its production. The current mill was redesigned by Maria, has a thirty-six foot wheel, and replaces the granite with the harder quarzite.

Today, many folks consider this "Maria's Mill" rather than Dr. Bale's. After bearing six children in six years, Maria got a break from both childbirth and from Dr. Bale's rascally behavior when he left for the gold fields in 1848. Gun fights and illegal sales of alcohol landed him in jail on more than one occasion. As with most, his dream of making a fortune in gold was never realized. He returned home, but become ill and died at the age of 38. Likely speculations as to the the cause of death include stomach cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.

Maria, now left with all of her husband's debt, rebuilt the mill to a higher standard with a 36 foot over-shot water wheel, and made her children's education a priority, sending them to the finest schools in Santa Clara, Boston and England. Eventually through hard work and creative financing, she paid off her debt, and willed the mill to her oldest daughter Isadora.

Over the next few decades the mill changed hands several times, with constant improvements, until in 1885 the last miller was let go. The growing California population now needed mills that produced a higher volume than the modest Bale Grist Mill. In 1905 the mill was closed for good.

Between 1988 and 2000 assorted repairs and restorations were made, and the mill is once again a functioning mill during the week, with tours on the weekend.

Our tour guide Scott showed us how the mill could be run by one individual, a competent miller, with the occasional assistance of apprentices known as "dusties." He adjusted gears, stripped ears of corn, and explained the origin of several phrases in the English language.

"Run of the mill" and "fair to midland" both originated in the milling environment referring to everyday grains and flours. The miller had to "keep his nose to the grindstone" to make certain the two large grindstones never touched, running only thousandths of an inch apart. The two wheels needed to balance perfectly, with the top wheel and it's "cock" sitting perfectly on the lower wheel's "eye." Thus, at one time, "cockeyed" meant perfectly balanced, quite the opposite of today.

The teeth of the gears are made of wood to prevent sparking. Flour dust is highly flammable and in the days before electric light, only natural light was allowed - no candles or gaslights - so as to prevent explosions.

Finally, the flour is produced, bagged and sold. Well, it used to be sold. Now it is available for a donation. As of 2011 the mill no longer meets state health requirements, so the bags of flour are marked "Not for Human Consumption." The problem? Not the milling process, but rather building code issues. Pristine, nonpourous floors and stainless steel appliances are not a part of this historic mill. So the flour can no longer be officially "sold." I gave a donation for a stoneground bag of spelt and one of polenta. This particular human fully intends to happily consume this "unsterile" product.

Although I lingered at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park for nearly three hours, it can be fully seen in 60-90 minutes. It's an easy visit for anyone wine-tasting or mud-bathing in Calistoga. And the good news! The parks proposal for a partnership with a supporting non-profit organization has been accepted in Sacramento, and the chances are very good that this delightful park will remain open.

Now! Pass me a big old honkin' chunk of butter.

See you at the parks.



  1. Especially loved reading about this park. Too bad it is not named Maria Bale State Historic park though... she sounded like a great lady. So interesting to read about the phrases... I never knew any of that before but have heard all those terms my whole life. My grandfather had a corn mill behind his house and used to grind corn into corn meal for people way back in the day. It wasn't the type with the water wheel though so not sure how it was done. Or perhaps there was a wheel as they did live on the river bank. It was all before my time but the mill house is still there to this day and I remember well as a child the smell of it although it had been years and years since it was used it still had that smell of ground corn. There are lots of these grist mills still around and I always love going to them and looking around. Such history!

  2. Oh, and I wanted to add that you have some very nice photos here. :)

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