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Nose to the grindstone for over 100 years
Historic Kenyon Grist Mill, Rhode Island
by Paul Pence ~ Rhode Island Roads Magazine

(Usquepaugh, Rhode Island)

If you're lucky, taking a drive in the country, along the winding maze of backroads of Rhode Island's South County, you might find a barn-red building that every Rhode Islander knows about, but few have actually found. To Rhode Islanders, the old mill is part of legend -- grinding flint corn meal, a robust white corn meal that makes the unique Rhode Island jonny cakes. Not pancakes, hotcakes, or buckwheat cakes common in other parts of the country, but griddle-cooked cornmeal cakes, commonly eaten at Rhode Island's May Breakfasts and served in almost every Rhode Island diner.

Rhode Island wouldn't be the same place without jonny cakes and real jonny cakes couldn't be made without the flint cornmeal ground at the Kenyon Grist Mill in Usquepaugh village, RI.

The old 1886 mill isn't the oldest in the country, that honor belongs to Wrenn's Mill in Smithville, Virginia with its huge overshot waterwheel powering its grinding since 1646. The Kenyon business actually dates back to 17ll, but the original building has long ago been washed away by the flooding waters of the Queens River.

The Kenyon Mill once channeled water from the Glen Rock Reservoir through its turbine, which, through pulleys and belts and gears, had turned a 5000 pound runner stone, grinding the corn meal between it and the underlying bedstone. Both of the huge granite stones, still in use even after the advent of rural electrification, were quarried in Westerly, Rhode Island.

Paul Drumm can speak endlessly about the grinding process in arcane terms known only to millers. "Damsel", "Shoe", "Boot", "Vat", "Eye", "Sweeper", and "Mace Head" all mean something special to him and his family, who have maintained the family-run mill tradition since the 1970's. He describes a process of feeding the corn or other grains into the grinder, carefully adjusting the distance between the two stones according to the grain, and making sure that the stones aren't rubbing by "keeping his nose to the grindstone" to detect the smell of granite dust.

The Drumm family grinds up more than jonny cake flint cornmeal, they make rye meal, yellow corn meal, buckwheat flour, scotch oat flour, miller's bran, and many others.

Across the road from the mill is their closet-sized red store where they sell the jellies and honeys and flours and mixes that they and the neighboring area produces. Pine scented soap, sweet and addicting coffee syrup, cooking implements, mulling spices, and cookbooks share the shelves with bread mixes and packages of their flours and meals.

Stock up while you can, but make sure that you get a copy of their catalog, because you'll want more of their great meals and flours when you get home. Or you might want to visit Kenyon's website at www.kenyonsgristmill.com

How do you find the Kenyon Grist mill, if you're not willing to just stumble across it? Take 138 west from the University of Rhode Island campus, pass the renovated historic Kingston train station, then two miles past the 138/route 2 junction, you'll pass the Queens River (or Usequepaugh River) right at the South Kingston - Richmond border. Turn north on Old Usequpaugh Road and look for the red mill building.

And after your adventure, you might enjoy visiting the various pick-your-own farms nearby, the Great Swamp Wildlife Reservation, or maybe the Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame on the URI campus. Or maybe you'll be happier finding one of Rhode Island's classic diners and having them cook up for you a plate of real jonny cakes, made with pretty much the same recipe taught to the pilgrims by the Putexet Indian Squanto, in 1620.

Article submitted by:
Rhode Island Roads Magazine
2 Barber Avenue
Warwick, Rhode Island  02886
401-480-9355 | riroads.com



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