"Grist for the mill," "nose to the grindstone" -- these expressions have very practical beginnings as part of the vernacular of grist mills. Centuries ago, residents would take corn, wheat, barley, oats and other grains to the mills to be ground into flour, meal and animal feed.
"The mill was the center of the community," says Marianne Lenzner, a master miller who plies her trade at the still-functioning Stony Brook Grist Mill. "The town was built up around it." Since most grist mills were powered by water, it's no surprise that Long Island had as many as 240 working mills at one time, Lenzner says. Today, at least eight mills still stand across Nassau and Suffolk counties, although in various stages of use or renovation.
The Stony Brook Grist Mill offers tours of its three-story structure on weekends. Visitors to Connetquot River State Park Preserve's mill can see its internal workings while it is being reframed and restored. Meanwhile, in Water Mill, visitors not only see the mill in action, but also admire exhibits by local artists.
A WALK THROUGH HISTORY
Step through the door into the Stony Brook mill, and you'll see hand-hewn wooden beams overhead, massive gears at work -- and you can actually feel the power of the machinery. Never mind that it's more than 250 years old.
"It just fascinates me that this technology is still used today, that these principles still serve us," says Joe Napoli, 40, of Syosset, who was recently making his first visit there with his wife and three young sons. As his boys tried to figure out how to use the mill's oversized scale, Napoli was admiring the beams held together with wooden pegs.
WHERE THE WHEELS TURN
Water Mill's historic structure is picturesque outside and in. Its two floors house artifacts and exhibits depicting the history of the grist mill as well as the ice-harvesting industry, agriculture and original post office in the area.
"When you walk in the building, you're just transported back in time," says Ann Lombardo, a member of the Water Mill Museum board of directors.
Michael Walsh, 53, of Water Mill is a regular who visits so often with his family, he says, that one of his daughters just rolls her eyes the minute he mentions the mill. "To be able to see the mechanisms and how everything works together gives you an appreciation for what our ancestors did."
Besides the level of functionality, Long Island's remaining mills differ in construction and power source, so visiting each is a distinct experience. Patrons take a short boat ride out into Huntington Bay before disembarking to explore the Van Wyck-Lefferts Tide Mill, which, indeed, relied on the ocean's tides to move its wheel.
At Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale, the wheel lies horizontal instead of the more common vertical placement. Visitors to Stony Brook's Grist Mill can leave with a 2-pound bag of cracked corn milled on-site for $1.50.
"It is amazing that this is the natural history of our ancestors," says Abdul Haleem, 48, of Stony Brook. "There is an art to this that you can appreciate."
VISITING GRIST MILLS
Haviland-Davison Grist Mill
WHEN | WHERE 1-5 p.m. weekends, June 7 through Labor Day, Memorial Park, Wood and Atlantic avenues, East Rockaway
INFO 516-887-6300, villageofeastrockaway.org
Nicoll Grist Mill
WHEN | WHERE 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays at Connetquot River State Park Preserve, Sunrise Highway, Oakdale
INFO 631-581-1005, friendsofconnetquot.org
ADMISSION $8 parking
Stony Brook Grist Mill
WHEN | WHERE Noon-4:30 p.m. weekends through October, 100 Harbor Rd., Stony Brook, across from Avalon Park
ADMISSION $2 ($1 ages 12 and younger)
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m. May 26 and June 11, 10:15 a.m. June 25, 1 p.m. July 14, 12:30 p.m. July 28, 11:45 a.m. Aug. 11, 1:45 p.m. Aug. 22 and 10:30 a.m. Sept. 8. Boat leaves from dock at Gold Star Battalion Beach, Browns Road, Huntington. Open to ages 12 and older. Reservations recommended.
INFO 631-427-7045, ext. 401, huntingtonhistoricalsociety.org
Water Mill Museum
WHEN | WHERE Reopens Thursday, with hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Tuesdays) through Oct. 13, 41 Old Mill Rd., Water Mill
INFO 631-726-4625, watermillmuseum.org