The daily grind

Forget about booting up the computer this weekend — instead, strap on a pair of real dust kickers and take a spin on a Jersey ox, during the Western North Carolina Nature Center’s fifth annual Farm Fun Day.

An ox, you say? Yep — who knew that early Appalachian homesteaders often rode oxen? You’ll learn this, plus much more, at the upcoming event, which features an entire cast of authentic farm folk, from Shetland sheep and Scotch Highland cattle to quickstepping cloggers and gifted crafters.

Big Dan, an enormous (but very gentle) Belgian draft horse, will also be providing rides. And a host of other visiting farm animals will also be on hand, including llamas and buffalo. As Weston Utter, the Center’s animal curator observes, everyday contact with animals is missing from the lives of more and more people.

Although Farm Fun Day boasts loads of games — including a real, old-fashioned cake walk and a watermelon-rolling contest — Utter (the event’s founder) hopes it also helps reconnect young and old with animals and the earth.

“We really are in kind of a rural area, but when you stop and think about it, most people have very little contact with animals, wild or domestic,” he says.

That loss, argues Utter, is more profound than you might think: “This country was settled … by people having close contact with the land and the animals and the trees. We’re getting away from that — so, as a result, we don’t realize the damage we’re causing by building roads and building houses and bulldozing the land all up,” he declares.

On that note, Farm Fun Day will offer a splendid array of activities to honor, if not help restore, some of that vanished ethic. Witness sheep-shearing, blacksmithing and horseshoeing, then visit the log cabin, where you can eat your fill of blackberry cobbler — and discover where grits come from.

What was that last part — about the grits? Well, according to Jack Brock, a sixth-generation miller from Greenville, S.C., the source of grits remains a mystery to many (yes, even in the South). But Jack and his wife, Betty — owners of the 1938 Meadows grist mill that has fascinated Farm Fun Day-goers for the past two years — won’t let you leave this all-day event in the dark about that key point. The Brocks have traveled across the whole Southeast toting their authentic stone mill to shows and festivals, often grinding up to 20 bushels of corn and two to three bushels of wheat and rye a day, for visitors to carry home.

“I can sell all the yellow grits we can grind,” proclaims Jack Brock — adding, with a touch of pride and wonder: “Them yellow grits are beautiful. They do something when you put ’em on a plate — they don’t just lay there.”

But it’s not just for the love of grits that the couple caravans around the region with their mill and its companion, a 1906 International Harvester engine (one of three in a collection of antique engines deemed a “family hobby”).

“We love doing it because of the kids,” Brock declares, happily recounting the many small fingers that delight in turning the handles of his hand-cranked grinders at shows and feeding the meal to roving sheep and chickens. “I love kids and I love to watch them play with those things.”

“I enjoy just listening to the stories people tell about their memories of taking corn to the mill to be ground, walking beside the horse or the mule that carried it,” adds Betty, proving that there are at least few folks left who know a gristmill when they see one.

How does one come to own a stone mill — much less know how to use it — at the end of the 20th century? The Brocks bought theirs from Jack’s father, Marion Brock, several years ago. Jack learned the trade from his dad, who had learned the art of sharpening millstones and grinding meal from his father. Marion didn’t put his early training to frequent use until years later, after retiring from Greyhound in 1976. He bought the 1938 Meadows mill from bootleggers in Tennessee, or so the family story goes; the 1906 International engine came from a family in Kentucky. While Jack and Betty Brock still work full-time, they enjoy milling on the weekends, introducing people to a sight most have never seen.

Inevitably, modern technology replaced the stone blades of the traditional gristmill with steel rollers, making the Brocks’ old-time specimen one a member of “a dying breed,” the younger Brock laments.

In fact, stone grist mills are now disappearing so quickly that Brock and his father number among just a handful of individuals left who know how to sharpen millstones.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it — it’s one of those things,” Jack insists, noting that people call him from all over the country for advice on sharpening millstones. “It’s just being careful, and it’s an art, like everything else … there’s not many people that can do it, and do it right.” (In fact, Brock videotaped the last session he and his father spent sharpening the blue-granite millstones of the Meadows mill in 1996, to record the details of the process.)

“Our way of sharpening millstones is a family tradition, and we didn’t pass that on to anyone else when we were coming up,” Marion reveals, recalling the days when his father operated mills in Westminister and Crossroads, S.C., and competition was stiff. “People passed up other mills to get us to grind for them.”

A sharp millstone, as it turns out, is essential to producing good-tasting meal. “The secret of grinding is keeping your meal cool. A lot of people heat their meal up, and it tastes funny, tastes cankered,” Brock explains. Translation: If the millstones aren’t sharp, the meal starts cooking before it makes it through the mill.

“That’s why we like to keep ours real sharp, and we keep a check on it. I take it out between shows and clean it out good. I don’t sell anything we don’t eat ourselves,” he notes.

Of course, now that his family no longer relies on the milling trade for a living (and, thus, trade secrets aren’t going for a premium), Marion is eager to share the family techniques. He has even considered posting the Brock techniques on the Internet, so anyone can access them.

“You never know with this country — something may happen, and people will need to know how to do this stuff again.”

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