Restoring Historic Mills

It takes passion and a love of tradition to keep the last historic mills producing wholesome stoneground flour sought after by artisan bakers…

Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead

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“You test by rule of thumb,” says Andy Selfe, dipping into the pail of flour collecting under the meal spout, as the heavy old mill stones spurt out another puff of transformed Overberg wheat kernels. He rubs the sample between finger and thumb, demonstrating the origin of the proverb, and pronounces it fine enough to pass muster.

We’re in the historic Compagnes Drift Mill at Beaumont Family Wines in Botrivier. The building hums and creaks in a soothing rhythm as the giant waterwheel turns, its buckets driven by the free power of water running down the launder from the mill pond further up the slope, thanks to gravity.

The Vitruvian mill’s down-to-earth technology dates back to Roman times, and milling wheat goes back even further, to mankind’s early agricultural settlements some 6 000 years ago. “It’s one of the oldest professions,” quips Andy, of milling.

He’s one of a bunch of doen dit self (DIY) blokes who get excited about things pre-digital – even pre-Eskom – and who have restored a number of historic mills. I tracked down a few working examples to create an informal mill route for those interested in heritage-centred trips, and stoneground flour to make artisan bread.

Andy is actually an apple farmer and agricultural mechanic based in Elgin, but vintage machinery is his passion and he has the happy air of a man who has the good fortune to do what he loves. The Compagnes Drift Mill, built around 1800, took Andy four years of Saturday mornings to restore, as the equipment had last been used sometime in the 1950s and much of the wood was rotten. “It’s my golf,” he says with a laugh, pointing out the new cogs on the pit wheel made of apple wood from his farm.

I found him demonstrating the age-old art of milling to visitors with the help of his “appie”, Botrivier retiree Noël Greeff. The occasion was one of the Beaumont Barrel Lunches, or what Kaapenaars consider a very sensible way to pass a winter’s day, with good food, wine, friends and family in a long cellar surrounded by giant barrels of the summer’s vinous harvest.

Jayne Beaumont, the family matriarch, told me over a starter of smoked tuna carpaccio that all the farm buildings were very run down when she and her late husband Raoul bought the farm in 1974, and started fixing it bit by bit.

But the old mill was beyond their level of skill, so when Andy offered to fix it, she was happy to do a ‘wheat for wine’ deal with him.

There aren’t many working traditional mills left in South Africa. The oldest is thought to be the wind-driven Mostert’s Mill, built around 1796 by a free burgher on what was then a farm outside Cape Town, on the perfectly windy slopes of Devil’s Peak. The classic Dutch, truncated tower mill is the only working one of its type in Africa and, when its long lattice arms turn in the prevailing wind on demo days, motorists bale off the busy M3 in Mowbray to check out the action.

I watched John Hammer and Paul Jacques, volunteers from Friends of Mostert’s Mill, set up the operation one Saturday morning. Once the working wooden parts were lubricated with old-fashioned lard, the lattice arms of the windmill had to be turned to face the wind. The whole top of the building, a cap with thatched roof, revolved as Paul cranked it around with chains wound around a capstan. Then John shimmied up each lattice arm, pulling a sail-cloth to attach to it. “I feel like a bride dragging my train up the aisle!” he cried.

Once all was shipshape, the brake was released and the gearing engaged the heavy millstones. We all trooped inside to watch wheat being transformed into the staff of life. Would-be artisan bakers snapped up the stoneground whole flour.

Mostert’s Mill was restored in 1935 with the help of funds from the Dutch government, and a Dutch millwright working with our Department of Public Works. But it fell into disuse and deteriorated and, 60 years later, was restored again with the help of the son of the previous millwright. He taught the Friends of Mostert’s Mill to mill and ensure it stays in good nick.

“This is medieval technology,” says John, who is Cape Town’s chief harbour pilot in everyday life. “Dutch tourists love seeing the mill in operation because it’s so authentic – those in Holland are mostly post-industrial mills.”

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At La Motte wine estate in the tranquil Franschhoek Valley, is a charming little mill, built in the 1700s. It was included in the Rupert family’s restoration of the historic wine estate and stands at the top of the old driveway below the main house. “It’s the only working, historical watermill in the valley,” explains Eliz-Marie Schoonbee, curator of the museum and art gallery at La Motte, on a history tour of the estate that ends with a tasting of fragrant, freshly baked breads outside the farm shop and restaurant, some of the dough made with flour ground in their mill.

During restoration, the mill’s waterwheel and machinery were replaced with those from a farm near Ceres. However, getting it to produce flour again was another story. Senior farm manager Pietie le Roux plunged in with his men and got it going, but was stumped when it clogged up. He called on Andy to help and, after they laboriously dismantled the heavy machinery, found the big millstones were not level and the spindle was out of kilter. Many adjustments later, including hacking out some concrete so that the heavy axletree could be levered outwards, Andy undertook the redressing of the millstones.

“I’m not a millwright,” he says modestly, but admits that, in the absence of one, he’s learnt to do much of the work himself. “I had never worked with a three-pronged rhynd, but it was quite easy to shim the runner from above to make it run true,” he enthuses, millwright terms tripping easily off his tongue.

mwhitehead_bradshaws-3Bradshaw’s Mill, perched on a peaceful hillside in Bathurst on the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast, dates back to the 1820s and was the birthplace of the wool industry in South Africa. It was originally built by British settlers, weavers Samuel and Richard Bradshaw, to produce Kersey cloth, a ribbed fabric used for men’s clothing. It’s been through a few incarnations but was recently restored by an enthusiastic group of volunteers led by Dave Hawkins of Port Alfred Rotary Club and the Lower Albany Historical Society.

On a guided tour, Pete Mosley, owner of Bleak House Books and convenor of the Bathurst Book Fair, and one of a group of volunteer curators, lifts the sluice gate to get the big waterwheel on the side of the three-storey building turning. “Samuel Bradshaw, leader of a party of settlers, and his elder brother Richard, ran up massive debts trying to get the mill to profitability,” explains Pete. “In 1829, they even sent the governor a set of blankets woven at the mill.”

After the mill was burnt down in 1835, during the Sixth Frontier War, it was rebuilt and used to grind corn. Pete points out the triangular holes in the millstones, instead of the usual square holes, and the tenter frame on which cloth was stretched between hooks. “Hence the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’,” says Pete with a chuckle.

Now the waterwheel is undergoing maintenance and the group of dedicated volunteers would like to grind corn again, but needs sponsorship to restore the machinery. “We’re determined to keep it going,” says Historic Bathurst chairman, Tom Barrett.

Mills need to be used regularly, so it’s not just a question of restoring them. “You need people willing to mill,” says Andy. “We’re waiting for a new generation of apprentices to come out of the woodwork,” he says, with a miller’s twinkle in his eyes.

Did You Know?
  • Horsepower was used to grind wheat grown by Dutch settlers in Jan van Riebeeck’s time.
  • The first windmill was built at Oude Molen on the outskirts of Cape Town, but was blown down in a fierce southeaster.
  • The Dutch East India Company’s monopoly on milling was lifted only after the British occupied the Cape in 1795.
  • Beaumont’s annual Field to Loaf Festival, when visitors can watch wheat being harvested, milled and baked in an old Dutch oven, then taste warm bread, is on 3 December 2016.
More Restorations
  • The new owners of La Cotte Inn outside Franschhoek are keen to restore the farm buildings, including the old mill. It’s a daunting task: just the shell of the building is left, a few millstones and the big, old waterwheel, which is tenoned to the shaft and burnt off inside. It’s going to need a special team to restore it. “We’re just waiting for heritage approval,” says architect Dominic Touwen.
  • An enthusiastic group of volunteers is busy restoring the Reichenau Mission mill near Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal. Built in the 1880s, the hydro-electric mill was an important part of the Trappist monk’s ethos of self-sufficiency.
  • Work has started to get the watermill at Swellendam Drostdy Museum going again. It is part of the ambagswerf or trade yard, where skills necessary for self-sufficient living on the land are exhibited.
Handy Contacts
  • Beaumont > 028 284 9194, www.beaumont.co.za
  • Le Motte > 021 876 8850, [email protected], www.la-motte.com
  • Bradshaw’s Mill > 076 294 6516
  • Swellendam Drostdy Museum > 028 514 1138 www.drostdy.com
  • Reichenau work party Peter Frow > 084 401 2674
  • Andy Selfe’s blog > compagnesdriftmill.blogspot.co.za
  • The definitive book, Water-mills, Windmills and Horse Mills of South Africa, by Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa founder James Walton, is available from Friends of Mostert’s Mill. > [email protected], www.mostertsmill.co.za
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