Whether privately owned, or cooperatively operated by a community, gristmills were crucial to survival in the old west. (Grist=a quantity of winnowed grains to be ground). The stones were large and heavy, their circular shape made them difficult to handle without specialized tools, and they frequently had to be taken apart and re-carved, or “dressed,” by experienced artisans as the furrows and ridges wore down from constant use. Gristmills, and their grinding stones, were so important that colorful metaphors, arising from men’s experiences and practices while grinding grains into flours, entered our language. Many of these phrases are still in use today:
“It’s all grist for the mill” – everything can be made useful.
“Run of the mill” – ordinary, average, undistinguished, as in ordinary flour produced.
“(Put) Through the mill” – like grain being pulverized, this saying means to be exposed to hardship or rough treatment.
“To have a millstone around one’s neck” – to be burdened with a heavy weight of work or anxiety.