The Polish Miller
by Sophie Knab
1998 Polish American Journal
Bringing in the sheaves
The miller was one of the most important figures in a Polish country village.This was another occupation
that played a vital role in the overall day-to-day life of the inhabitants of the village. To understand it well, it begins with the basic items that made the miller so important - the grains of wheat, rye,
oats, millet and barley.
Most Polish peasant farmers grew their own grain. Planted in the early Spring and harvested throughout the summer months, the grains eventually became the flour which was made
into bread to feed and nourish a family. At harvest time, men, women and older children would cut the fields of grain with hand tools, bind the cut wheat into sheaves, stack them in shocks and later thresh and
winnow the grain.
Many barns in Poland had a threshing floor called a boisko - a large wooden deck with carefully fitted boards so that there were no cracks for grains of wheat, oats or barley to fall through. The sheaves of wheat were spread on the floor and the threshers would "flail" them until the grain was loosened from the heads. The most common design for the flail, one in use since the early days of the Christian era, was simply two pieces of wood as thick as a shovel handle, six feet long, the other 18 inches long, loosely attached to one another, end to end, with a leather thong. The short piece of wood, called the swingle would generally be made of hardwood.
The sheaves were unbound and placed in the middle of the threshing floor. The handle of the flail was raised until the swingle was shoulder high and then brought down firmly so
that it struck full length against the straw until it shook off the grains from the head. When all the grain had been shook off the heads, the straw was removed and saved for mulching, composting, weaving into
rope or for thatching. The remaining grain, generally consisting of chaff and small bits of straw were ready for winnowing. In a steady wind, the grain was poured from one container to another. The loose grain
could be stored in sacks or barrels.
At this point it’s important to remember that most grains are encased in a hard outer shell or husk and are essentially inedible at this point. The husks need to be softened
or cracked in order to be eaten. The most primitive form of grinding grain in most countries throughout the world was simply a hollowed out stone. With the use of another stone, an individual crushed the grains
until they were of a consistency that could be cooked and eaten. This was a very difficult and labor-intensive task and yielded a coarsely ground grain.
A mortar and pestle were one of the earliest types of crushing devices for crushing grains in Polish peasant cottages. This mortar and pestle device was a step up in the evolution
of grinding grain in that it could be accomplished standing up but it, too, yielded a coarsely ground grain.
Another one of the early methods of grinding grain and cereals was by crushing them between two stones. In English, the implement is called a quern. In Polish, it is called a arna.
It remained in use in Poland for a very long time. The quern was a hand powered mill consisting of two circular stones, the top stone turned by hand against a stationary bottom one. The upper stone rested on a
spindle extending through the bottom so that there was about a sixteenth of an inch space between the abrasive surfaces. As the top stone, or runner stone, turned against the nonmoving stone, the grain was
broken down and milled. One end of a long stick or lever was fastened to one side of the runner stone and the other end to a wall, so the individual milling could turn the wheel easily. This method provided
enough flour for baking a batch of bread but its use also demanded a fair amount of time. Large amounts of grain were taken to the miller to be ground into flour and then stored away for use throughout the
following months. There was, of course, a fee involved in using the services of the miller, one that many could not afford.
Water driven mills for grinding grain first made their appearance in Poland in the 12th century. Their
appearance and growth over the centuries throughout the Polish countryside did not eliminate the primitive methods of grinding grain through the mortar and pestle method or the use of a quern. There were many
reasons why both primitive methods continued way into the 20th century.
First of all, not every village could boast a windmill or watermill. In Greater Poland, there were windmills for grinding grain in practically every village from the time of the
17th c. This, however, was not true throughout all of Poland. In many situations, the mill was often located some distance away and required traveling time. Once arrived at the mill, the gospodarz could be greeted by the site of a dozen other farmers queued up in line for the same purpose. The gospodarz either had to wait his turn or dropped off his grain and retrieved it at a later time. The entire activity could consume the better part of a work day or even a few mornings. Many felt this was a great waste of time and subsequently preferred to grind their grain on an as-needed basis at home.
Another deterrent to taking your grain to the miller was that you had to pay a certain amount for the service. This was done either in a coin or a return on goods. The most
accepted manner of payment was giving the miller a certain portion of the ground flour. Up until the last quarter of the 19th century, flour was not weighed but measured in special containers and receptacles.
This often gave rise to anger and disputes. Was the receptacle to be filled level to the rim or with a nice mound rising in the middle? Many gospodarzy felt the millers took gross advantage of the situation and declined the use of the miller in favor of grinding their grain at home.
It is estimated by Polish historians that in the 15th and 16th centuries, close to 60%of all grains designated for human consumption in Poland were ground at home with mortar and
pestle or quern. When water mills became more widespread, 30% of all the grains were ground with mortar and pestle or a quern. The massive destruction that occurred in Poland in the second half of the 17th
century because of numerous wars led to the return of grinding grain at home. By the 19th century there is another decrease in home milling but the period of World War I brought on an unexpected rise in the use
of the quern. The war once again caused the destruction of mills. The millers, their sons and helpers were called up to serve in the military leaving people to once again fend for themselves. Food articles from
flour became extremely scarce and the Poles brought out their home querns in an effort to avoid starvation. In the regions of Poland under German rule the use of the home quern was forbidden. Even though the
punishment for grinding your own flour was extremely severe, the Poles continued to use their querns under great secrecy. They hid their querns in specially dug pits or in the brush and undergrowth of dense
forests. In 1918 in Pultusk (outside of Warsaw), when the German administration combed the woods and fields to uncover hidden querns, they confiscated more than 300 home querns but their owners remained
History repeated itself again during World War II and more than one family avoided starvation by grinding their own grains at home on the simple quern or, if even that was lost in
the war, through the use of a hand turned coffee grinder.
Miller Class Distinctions
In the 17th and 18th century the Polish village was witness to numerous class distinctions and
struggles. An individual’s standing often depended on their heritage, the level of their wealth and/or education. The miller was one individual who was generally differentiated from the rest of the village
population by virtue of having all three of these characteristics. There did exist, however, a hierarchy among the millers themselves. For instance, a miller’s property could consist of a water or wind
mill along with hundreds of acres of property. There were those millers who owned a water-powered flour mill that also had the capabilities of fulling wool and pressing oil. They also owned an enormous pond
filled with fish and had numerous fields under cultivation. Some millers had smaller land holdings amounting to 16 or 32 acres. Others had land no bigger than a postage stamp next to their home and some, much
lower on the pecking order, did not own their own mill but rented it from someone else.
The profession was often passed down from father to son or son-in-law. There existed in Poland some outstanding milling dynasties. These were families who had received permission
to establish a mill hundreds of years ago on permission of a king. In such cases the miller was understandably proud of his heritage and tended to lord it over the rest of the community. This holier-than-thou
attitude did not win him too many friends. Add to that the general belief that the miller short changed people when they weren’t looking and literally took the bread from the mouths of children and you had
a situation that was full of conflict.
Many legends and stories began to circulate of the miller who did penance in the after-life for cheating people, of millstones turning at night by themselves, of the miller being
in league with the devil, the water spirits in the pond or the demons in the wind. The miller is portrayed as a leacher with all kinds of carrying on at the mill at night.
The miller’s wife did not escape from the village wrath either. Because many of the millers were better off, their wives ate better and dressed better than the rest of the
women in the community. Many proverbs focused on the miller’s wife, i.e., tlusta jak mlynarka (fat as a miller’s wife) or "wystroila si jak mlynarka," (dressed up like a miller’s wife).
The miller’s son or daughter (who stood to inherit) were considered a good marriage catch but it didn’t protect them from st being laughed at. There is the tale of
three young swains who sought the hand of a lovely local girl. Late one night the blacksmith’s son knocked on her window. On seeing a blackened face, the young girl made the sign of the cross, thinking he
was the devil. When the miller’s son, all covered in white from flour came knocking on her window, she almost fainted thinking it was a ghost. When a peasant’s son knocked on the window, she opened
it wide and let him in.
The Miller’s Wife
The miller may have been suspected of thievery and his wife may have been the subject of jokes and fun
but the fact remained that in Polish village life the miller was an important authority figure.
The miller was often one of the most well-to-do individuals in the community and was also one of the brightest. Becoming a miller required a fair amount of knowledge and
experience. Learning the in’s and out’s of the job demanded quite a few years of apprenticeship. Very often, trade secrets were passed down from father to son or son-in-law with marriages arranged
within their own professional circle so that daughters of millers married the son of another miller, etc. Many would-be millers spent years with a master as apprentices but also invested in a great deal of time
at other mills, learning as many things as possible.
In those days, a good miller had to be proficient at quite a number of skills besides milling grain. He had to be able to read and write and do simple mathematics such as adding
and subtracting. The miller frequently subscribed to newspapers and bought books and was subsequently at the center of information about politics and the world at large. The villagers, hungry for any news
outside the village, stopped by to see the miller for news. Because he could read and write they often sought his assistance in solving problems and legal difficulties. Besides the parish priest, the church
organist there were few individuals to whom the villagers could turn to for reading letters or interpreting some complicated matter. In some villages, the miller was often the elected mayor with the overall
responsibility of overseeing the good of the village.
The miller had to have a good working knowledge of carpentry for erecting a mill house as well as repairing fairly complicated parts and structures of the grinding gears and
machinery which, in the early years, were constructed chiefly of wood. The illustration is an example of a wooden water mill from Zolyni Dolnej in the Rzeszow region of Poland. It was built in 1897 of thick logs
joined at the corners in dovetail fashion. The roof is constructed of small, overlapping wooden shingles.
Types of water wheels
The most important part of a water-driven mill was the water wheel. Two of the most well known water wheel
designs were called the overshot water wheel and the undershot water wheel. While there were other types, these two particular types of water wheels were built in thousands of different sizes and variations
throughout Poland. The type built was dependent on the location of the mill and the type of water flow that was available.
Polish historians agree that the first type of water wheel to appear in Poland was the undershot water wheel. In Polish it was called a kolo podsiebiernym or walnym.
The undershot wheel was seen most often near fast running streams or waterfalls. This was a wheel that was constructed over the surface of the water, the paddles on the wheel moved by the force of the quickly
moving river or sream. It did not require any extra special structures or work such as daming water to create more force and pressure to move the wheel. These skills were still not available arouond the time of
the earliest water wheels.
Supposedly, somewhere around the 12th c.in the Pomorze and Slask region of Poland, the first primitive methods of redirecting water and harnessing its force began to take place.
By the 13th c. Watermills began to reflect a working knowledge of the ability to build dams and dikes, establish ponds and to redirect water through the use of ditches, canals and wooden sluices or troughs. The
best type of water wheel to appear on the Polish landscape was the overshot wheel, called kolo nadsiebiernym.
The overshot wheel was generally found downstream from slower waterways and utilized a dam with a raised wooden sluiceway to carry water to the wheel. The sluiceway that led the
water from the stream was usually a boxlike and wooden. It could stretch from a hundred to up to a thousand feet. The steady rush of water spilling over the top of the wheel which was sometimes forty feet high
made it the most powerful and efficient type of water wheel.
Inner Workings of Mill
The large outer water wheel of a mill was connected to the inner gears through what is called the kingpin.
It acted like a giant arm that turned the inner gears. At one end the kingpin was joined to the water wheel and was constantly exposed to water and moisture. At the other end it was connected to a set of gears
that turned the grinding stones.
In previous centuries the water wheel, kingpin and the inner working gear of old mills was usually made of wood. Iron reinforcements on the wood to prevent wear and tear was very
rare since iron was a very expensive commodity. The existing wooden parts had to withstand heavy usage over the years. If wood is continuously in water, it survives reasonably well but alternating wetting and
drying destroys it. Inside the mill the wood did not have to stand up to alternate wet and dry conditions, though it had to be well seasoned before building or subsequent shrinking would loosen the fit. Various
parts of the inner workings of the mill broke down at different rates and subsequently had to be replaced. Goose fat or some other animal fat was used for lubrication to help the inner gears move smoothly.
The grinding stones were another special concern of the mill since the texture of the flour depended on their excellence. The inner surface of the millstone was cut into different
patterns. The different cuts made various consistencies of flour or ground different types of grain. They were also adjusted for speed depending on what the various grains required. The experienced miller could
automatically estimate the moisture content of the grain and its age.
The grinding stones were made by specialized individuals and generally made from sandstone. Most millstones in Poland were produced in the Opczno and Slask region. Obtaining
appropriate millstones was often a problematic and expensive venture for a miller. Transporting the heavy objects by wagon over long distances was difficult since the roads were generally bad and the weight
added considerable stress on a wooden wagon not to mention the horses or oxen pulling it. Very often they were transpsorted to different parts of Poland by water or by sleigh in the wintertime when the snow made
transport easier. When sandstone was unavailable, the craftsman resorted to using field boulders to cut the grinding stones but these were never seen as good as the ones made from sandstone.
The Miller in Literature and Fine Arts
Besides playing a useful role in grinding grain for the villagers, the miller often acted
as advisor to the local folk and sometimes was actually elected the town major. The role was so important that it became the subject of numerous, proverbs, folk songs and folk legends. The movement of the large
water wheel, the rapid rush of the water as it ran doun the sluiceway and over the wheel, the turn of the massive stones, and even the sight of a lone windmill on the horizon inspired serious writers and
painters to capture the esseence of the mills in their writing and artistry. The mill, the miller and village life was portrayed in poetry, novels, short stories, plays and paintings. It is impossible to list
all the individuals who were moved or inspired by a mill but the following are amongst the most important works:
Wladyslaw Reymont in his Nobel prize-winning book The Peasants (Chlopi) gives a thorough portrayal of Polish village life in his native Lowicz region. This book can
still be found at larger public libraries throughout the U.S. Made it into a movie in Poland, this Polish classic is available on video with English subtitles;
In the same tradition but written at a later time, Julian Galaj wrote of a typical village life during the period between the two world wars including the mill and miller in his
book Mystkowice, a small village (Mystkowice, wioska mala);
In the late 1800’s, writer and dramatist Lucjan Rydel wrote a dramatic play called The Enchanted Wheel (Zaczarowane Kolo) which takes place at a mill;
Eustachy Czekalski wrote an entire novel called The Silent Mills (Milczace Mlyny);
Franciszek Iwanowski wrote a dramatic work under the title The Old Mill (Stay Mlyn);
Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz’s novel The Charlatan (Znachor) takes place at a water mill. The novel was adapted into a movie and filmed at the site of an old water mill
Three short stories written by Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz are called The Mill at Utrata (Mlyn nad Utrata), The Mill at Lutynia (Mlyn nad Lutynia) and The Mill at Kamienna (Mlyn nad Kamienna).
Windmills and watermills also figured heavily in the fine arts especially in the paintings of Jan Stanislawski. Stanislawski predominantly painted landscapes. A field of cabbages,
a moonlit night, a slim, graceful poplar reflected in river water—these were the main themes of his paintings. Among his most famous and most easily recognized works were his landscapes with windmills.
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