A recent trip to the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains found my wife and I enjoying the fresh air and cool Springtime weather as we explored scenic mountain roads, antique stores, and pottery shops in and around the Alpine Village of Helen, Georgia. One of the highlights of our visit was a stop at a grist mill and country store called the Nora Mill Granary. Nestled right next to the Chattahoochee River, this Mill, first established in 1876, is still producing a variety of corn and wheat based products using the original 1,500 pound French Burr stones. More about that later.
Just as fascinating to me was seeing this area through the eyes of my wife. While she has visited 21 different countries, been around the world three times and lived in such places as Ireland, London, and the Fiji Islands before settling in the United States, she had never been to North Georgia. I, on the other hand, a native Georgian, needed no map, as I pointed out various all-too-familiar sights I had seen countless times before. Seeing Patrice’s reaction made me realize that my been-here-done-that mindset had numbed me to the beauty of this part of my state. Patrice marveled at the dogwoods, redbuds, and azaleas blooming amidst the mountain flora and giggled at the sight of trout fishermen wading out into the gently flowing stream that snaked alongside Highway 17. She was in awe of the mountain laurels, as well as the smoky mist rising to form a canopy amidst the hills of this region.
Each stop at a roadside store reminded me yet again how the two of us approach shopping so differently. I tend to be the one who browses just long enough to find what I am looking for, then make the purchase and move on. Patrice finds pleasure in learning the history of a location and the quaint shops of Northeast Georgia were no exception. I must admit, watching her interact with people can be a captivating experience. Abigail at the Willows Pottery opened up about the artisans whose handiwork we were purchasing. Tommy, the Miller, at the Nora Granary, displayed immense pride as he expounded on the inner workings of a 142-year-old grist mill.
What I thought would be a quick walk-thru of this Granary and Country Store proved to be the most fascinating time of our entire trip. Tommy had worked for four generations of the family who owns Nora Mill. Here was a mountain man in more ways than one. Standing almost 6’5”, and raised in the North Georgia Mountains, Tommy was a walking, talking commentator on the history of not only the Mill, but of Northeast Georgia. Seeing my Georgia Tech hat, Tommy proceeded to go into explicit mechanical detail of how the Mill and the grindstone functioned. He demonstrated how levers and knobs are used to control both the speed of the millstone and the flow of the water siphoned off the Chattahoochee. He chuckled as he recollected the time he had to explain to an MIT engineer how to achieve the perfect water flow to maintain the inerrant turning speed of the grindstone. Seeing our fascination, he invited us below the Mill to further explain how water power turned the gears in multiple power transfers to produce the grinding action necessary to create the flour and cornmeal.
Lifting a wire grate and seeing the just-ground corn flour pouring from beneath the grindstone, Tommy grabbed a handful and smelled it. By sniffing the aroma of the fresh flour, he could tell if the grindstone was working properly. If it smelled like burnt hair, the stones were too close together. Failure to adjust them would result in the stones touching and causing grit to mix in with the flour. While the grit would be so fine no one could tell it, such a deviation violated Nora Mill standards. Tommy’s passionate attention to detail also found that unacceptable. With a knowing smile and a twinkle in his eye, he proclaimed to everyone who had stopped to listen to his tales, “where do you think the term keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone comes from?” Thus concluded a most memorable tour by this Grist Mill Ambassador.
Keeping one’s nose to the grindstone may be necessary for a Miller, but this husband learned a far more valuable lesson — that seeing things through the eyes of his wife can also prove to be insightful, purposeful, and educational. Familiarity may breed blindness to beauty so frequently seen, but natural beauty is still a wonder to behold, even if, on occasion, you have to put your nose to the grindstone.