Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Quern Stones

On October 11, 2017 I posted a story about Big Ike O'Neal (1865-1954). Reminiscing about island wind mills, he commented, "We had two wind mills on the island that ground corn. When there was no wind the mills didn't turn. I remember we once had a calm for twenty one days. But most families had their hand stones to fall back on at such times. It took a half hour to grind enough corn for breakfast with those old hand stones."

I had never seen any island hand grinding stones, nor had I ever heard anyone mention them. I wondered what they looked like and how they were used. No islanders I talked with remembered hand stones. An internet search yielded mostly information about neolithic and Native American grinding stones. Finally I discovered the term quern stones.

A quern is defined as a simple hand mill for grinding grain. It typically consists of two circular stones, the upper of which is rotated or rubbed to and fro on the lower one. Quern-stones were often made of igneous rocks such as basalt.

According to Wikipedia, varieties of hand grinding stones consisted of saddle, rotary, beehive, and disc querns. The Wikipedia article includes this quotation from T. Gannet describing his 1800 tour of Scotland:

"The quern consists of two circular pieces of stone, generally grit or granite, about twenty inches in diameter. In the lower stone is a wooden peg, rounded at the top; on this the upper stone is nicely balanced, so as just to touch the lower one, by means of a piece of wood fixed in a large hole in this upper piece, but which does not fill the hole, room for feeding the mill being left on each side: it is so nicely balanced, that though there is some friction from the contact of the two stones, yet a very small momentum will make it revolve several times, when it has no corn in it. The corn being dried, two women sit down on the ground, having the quern between them; the one feeds it, while the other turns it round, relieving each other occasionally, and singing some Celtic songs all the time."

Woodcut from Thomas Pennant's 1772 book A Tour in Scotland.

I am guessing Ocracoke islanders used disc querns similar to the ones described by Gannet, above. Perhaps I will discover one on the island some day. If I do, I will be sure to take a photo to share with our readers. 

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is my analysis of a sentence penned by surveyor Jonathan Price in 1795. The sentence reads, "Occacock was heretofore, and still retains the name of, an island. It is now a peninsula; a heap of sand having gradually filled up the space which divided it from the bank."  You can read my analysis here:

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:08 AM

    This begs the question how did OI residents grind their coffee beans? They did drink coffee, serve coffee brew coffee? Could the coffee grinder have ground corn for the Thoughtful OI resident. Is ground corn still consumed in such quantities that is is difficult to have enough stockpiled for those windless days? I can see the task of grinding corn with a quern as an opportunity to chat with the querning partner, thus catching up on Island gossip and plans for the purchase of a more efficient quern stone.