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Flour Making Procedure at Abbott’s Mill

Now that you have an understanding of how cornmeal was produced at Abbott’s Mill, you can forget all that because white flour is made in an entirely different manner.

But first, here’s an interesting, short piece on the history of white flour:

White flour – then vs. now

Until about 1870, “white” flour was created using [the] sifting method. While the bulky parts of the bran and germ were removed physically, the flour still contained wheat germ oil, which passed on some of the nutrients from the wheat germ.

However, between 1870 and 1890, the modern practice of milling flour using steel rollers became extremely popular. This commercial process not only milled flour at a high speed, but also enabled millers to separate the different parts of the wheat kernel. Thus, flour could be produced much more quickly, and millers could cut out the bran and germ and use only the soft endosperm.

The result? Completely automated production of very fine white flour that the common household could more easily afford. In addition, this flour didn’t include any wheat germ oil, making it far more shelf-stable, as well as more attractive (a purer white vs. the grayish-white of hand-sifted white flour or stoneground flour).

Within about 10 years of the introduction of commercial steel roller mills, many stone-grinding mills across Europe and North America went out of business—they couldn’t compete with the efficiency of modern mills or the public desire for white flour. Everyone wanted a little bit of “royalty” in their home.

Delicious, but not so nutritious

While mass production of white flour was extremely popular (as well as lucrative for the milling industry), some unexpected and very big problems came with its rollout.

Previously, common households used traditional stoneground flour varieties, which included all the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals from the bran and germ of the wheat kernel. Steel roller mills, however, discarded the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm—a soft but nutritionally useless part of the wheat grain. Without these nutritious parts of the grain or even the oils from them, white flour produced with steel roller mills had virtually no nutritional value.

This was problematic especially for the poorest households, for which wheat flour products had previously provided a significant portion of their daily nutrition (a reality that holds true even today). Studies estimate that by the 1930s, the average American was only getting one-third of the amount of thiamin as compared to when stoneground flour was the only variety available.

As the preference for and consumption of white flour grew, deficiency-related illnesses started popping up—like beriberi (thiamin deficiency), pellagra (niacin/tryptophan deficiency), and anemia (iron deficiency).

In the 1920s, Benjamin R. Jacobs began to document how modern milling practices resulted in the loss of vital nutrients. Recognizing that the milling industry was not simply going to revert to stoneground practices, he also began advocating for the addition of some of the lost nutrients—a practice we know today as enrichment. (Side note: while enrichment adds back nutrients that were naturally occurring in a product, fortification adds nutrients that weren’t there before)

The first tests of flour enrichment began in the 1930s. In 1941, the U.S. began mandating the enrichment of white flour-based food with iron, niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin (folic acid was added to this list in the 1990s). While this practice did not make white flour as nutritious as stoneground flours, it did almost immediately eradicate the deficiency-based illnesses that had been observed.

Source: Thanks to Little Rae’s Bakery, 309 S. Cloverdale St.– #D47 Seattle, WA 98108 USA


Grain, be it wheat, barley, oats or buckwheat, were all processed into flour in pretty much the same manner, as near as I can determine. As with corn, bags of grain were brought to the mill and were weighed and then were dumped into a Receiving Hopper in the floor.

Receiving Grain Hopper - The High-Capacity elevator is just behind and to the right.

A high-capacity elevator (bigger buckets) picked up the grain in the basement and carried it up all four stories to the Sprout Waldron Receiving Separator in the south-facing dormer in the attic.

The tight space makes it difficult to photograph.

Sprout Waldron Receiving Separator

Here, chaff, dirt and weed seeds were separated from the grain. Loose debris was blown outside through a large duct and the rest of the separated material poured down a chute and was collected at the loading dock, to be weighed and deducted from the initial weight. The cleaned grain was directed to one of many temporary storage bins. (Please understand that Ainsworth Abbott’s mill was a one-man operation and Mr. Abbott didn’t usually do more than one process at a time. In this case, he cleaned the grain and stored it.)

One of the storage bins was for Mr. Abbott’s ‘toll’, and that grain was later made into flour that he sold to stores all over southern Delaware. It appears that another bin was designated for ‘cleaned seed grain’, that is, grain that would be used to grow the crops next spring.

When he was ready to actually grind the grain, Mr. Abbott would open a chute from the appropriate bin and allow the grain to flow down to the S. Howes “Eureka” Wheat Scourer and Polisher, which contains spinning arms inside a stationary drum to beat the grain berries around.

S. Howes “Eureka” Wheat Scourer and Polisher

Impurities, such as dust on the surface of wheat, cracked epidermis and wheat germ, as well as bran, fine dust and bacteria on the wheat skin (smut), were removed by scouring and knocking, and blown outside via a large duct.. The scouring process was referred to as ‘polishing the wheat berry.’

As I describe this process, part of it will always be the same, no matter which machine; When the wheat or flour leaves a machine it always flowed down through the floor to the foot of a different elevator in the basement, and was then carried back up to a higher level.

Bottom "Foot" of the Elevators

Top "Head" of the Elevators

From the scourer, the grain made its way up to a bin just above the roller mills. From there it fell down a chute to the first of three Wolf Company Roller Mills.

Wolf Co. Roller Mills

On the way, the grain passed by 5 horseshoe magnets that could trap any small bits of metal that might have made its way this far. It didn’t matter where the metal might have come from, Mr. Abbott didn’t want it passing through his expensive-to-repair roller mills.

Horseshoe Magnets in Grain Chute

So, let me further set the stage for this process. At Abbott’s Mill there are three roller mills. Each mill is essentially two attached, but separate mills, each containing one pair of rollers, one of which turns faster than the other. The roller mills are not designed to crush the grain, but rather, they slowly tear the grain into smaller and smaller particles in a process known as ‘gradual reduction.' The grain is slowly reduced in size, while the unwanted, non-white parts are sifted out in between each pass through the rollers.

One pair of the six pairs of Rollers

After the grain passes each set of rollers, it falls through the floor to the foot of a different elevator.

This carries it to the attic level and it drops down to the Wolf Co. "Gyrator" Flour Bolter.

Wolf Co. "Gyrator" Flour Sifter

Inside the gyrator are twenty large, horizonal screens of different mesh sizes. In operation, the Gyrator moves around in a circle on a horizonal plane, reminding me of someone spinning a Hula Hoop.

From the gyrator the grain falls to the next set of rollers and continues getting ‘gradually reduced’ in size. The end product, of course, is pure, white flour. Never mind that it has absolutely no nutritional value, it’s white and that’s what people had been convinced that they wanted.

After passing through the complicated roller-milling process the flour could be directed two different ways. This was done with a simple wooden diverter that had cords attached to the arms.

These two stacked diverters could send flour to one of three different directions. Right now it's set to send it to the left chute.

The cords lead down to the ground floor where they were attached to a couple of wooden handles. Pulling one would direct the flour one way, pulling the other would direct it the other way. You can see the handles hanging in front of the elevator, between the packer and the flour bin, in the picture below. Diverters were used to control the downward flow of grain or flour all over the second and third level of the mill and the evidence is the many handles hanging by cords on the ground level.

Wolf Co. "Pearl" Flour Packer on left - Flour Bin on right

The first direction flour was directed was to the Wolf Company ‘Pearl’ Flour Packer. Inside an 8” vertical pipe is an auger that packed the flour firmly down into a bag to be returned to the farmer, or into a 195 lb. barrel to be sold commercially.

Or the flour could be directed to the wooden bin next to the flour packer, to be sold on the spot to anyone that might come by the mill needing flour.

But, that’s still not quite all of the process. The left-over material that had been removed by the Gyrator was automatically sent to the Griscom & Co. & McFeely Flour Dresser in the attic. Inside the dresser the material was directed into the upper end of a gently sloped, slowly rotating drum lined with bolting cloth, a transparent fabric that was fine, stiff and typically made of silk.

Griscom & Co. & McFeely Flour Dresser

As the left-overs made their way down through the rotating drum, any remaining flour would fall through the bolting cloth and was directed down into the selected flour bin on the second floor. What remained fell out the far end of the drum and went down to another bin on the ground floor to be added to animal feed.


Next week we'll review the details of Oliver Evan's patent to see how much it improved the handling of grain and flour in a grist mill.

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