The Sartorial Garden

A Buhr-rief History of Millstones

Antique Millstones: Adding Heft and Beauty to Gardens

Millstones have been around for thousands of years. They’re mentioned in the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (“Better to have a millstone around your neck”) and they’re the crux of grain grinding back to primitive times. Millstones survive long after they’re used for milling because they are such massive pieces of stone. Common uses for them in current times include paving stones, building material, water features, stepping stones, retaining walls, and front stoops. Their heft and beauty makes them a garden centerpiece, a symbol of both harvest and hospitality.

 

Fethard Corn Mill, Ireland. A Pair of fine segmented French Buhr Millstones

Millstones look like giant rounded bobbins; as massive as they are, they’re collector’s items that have steadily increased in value, as their interesting patterns and worn sculptural history have great ornamental appeal. In a bit of entertainment trivia, even Star Trek’s William Shatner recently added a beautiful antique granite millstone to his new home working with the salvagers from the show American Pickers.

At one point, water-powered mills were a common part of the landscape. Every village had its mill, and there were few more important cogs in American business as the miller and his mill. The best stones in the mill were typically a siliceous rock called a burrstone (or buhrstone), that has multiple cavities housing fossilized shells which makes an interesting and beautiful stone. These stones were typically imported from France; it was believed that these French buhr millstones made a superior wheat product because of the stone’s hardness and its ability to grind much whiter flour.

As an aside, Science News reports that one geologist studied fossils to confirm that 19th century Ohio millstones originated in France, made of rock dating from the latter part of the Paleozoic era, about 300 million years ago. Now that is very cool provenance!

 

French buhrstone was quarried in La Ferte-sous-Fauarre, France, in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. When the quarry became depleted, chunks of the stone were banded together to make a millstone. An industry grew up around hewing and shaping the valuable broken stones, cementing them together with plaster, reinforcing the whole with an iron band. The making of this kind of millstone became a specialized job, and several firms developed to undertake it, including W.R. Dell & Son in London. It is this maker’s name which is clearly marked on nameplate on a millstone that was just added to our inventory. W.R. Dell & Son was a small firm but had worldwide respect and reputation, making millstones and other machinery in the 1800s. 

W.R. Dell & Son Advertisement

Our millstone with the W.R. Dell insignia has the typical cycle pattern with grooves and flat areas to move the grain from the center to the perimeter. If you look closely, you can see hatching, a fine crosshatch chiseled into the stone, increasing the capacity of the flour grinding. Some milling authorities believed that a set of French Buhr stones – which are nearly pure quartz with exceedingly small crystals – were almost a lifetime investment.

The curious among us might wonder how a 3,000 pound (or so) millstone could end up at New England Garden Ornaments. Needless to say, it’s not something we can pack away in a suitcase or roll onto an aircraft. In England, salvage dealers carefully pile up stones as far as the eye can see, carefully collecting these pieces of industrial landscape. These are not junk yards but reclamation fields, full of treasured mementos from the past. Millstones, in fact, were so prevalent at the time that tolls were levied on the roads over which millstones were carried.

But we digress. Our millstones come to us on cargo ships, sealed in 40-foot containers that cross the Atlantic to dock in Boston. When we crack open one of these sealed containers, there’s always a feeling of mystery and wonder. If they could talk, what stories would these hard-working millstones say?

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