What Life Was Like in the Mills of Czechia
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
THE rhythmic tapping of cogged millwork wheels could be heard all over Czechia a hundred years ago. Rather than disturbing the peace, the sound seemed to enhance the idyllic Czech countryside. The mill was a central feature of the community.
In those days, it was customary for the miller’s wife to bake fresh, sweet-smelling bread as soon as the flour had been milled. We can picture the miller’s wife placing her freshly baked bread on a massive table. What a lovely aroma! And now, here comes the miller. White all over with flour, he is an impressive figure! He calls his household together to share in some refreshment.
Mills Down Through History
The miller’s trade is nearly as old as agriculture itself. In ancient Israel, milling flour was a normal domestic task. For the most part, women ground the grain, using hand mills and often working in pairs. The Bible also mentions large millstones that were turned by animals.—Mark 9:42.
When you hear the word “mill,” you may imagine a windmill. In the Czech countryside, however, water mills were more popular. Why? Evidently the Czechs felt that running water was the most economical and reliable source of power for operating a mill.
In Czechia, as elsewhere in Central Europe, large systems of ponds, channels, and floodgates were constructed to regulate the flow of water to the mills. Millponds collected the water, channels carried it to the mills, and floodgates controlled its flow. Some channels were less than 60 feet [20 m] long, but others extended nearly a mile [more than a kilometer] and powered several mills stationed along the channel.
The Miller and His Helpers
In Czechia a hundred years ago, the miller and his entire household lived at the mill. The miller’s living quarters and the room where the grain was milled shared the same roof and sturdy stone walls. The townspeople customarily called him “Master Father.” He was easy to identify in his typical white trousers rolled up at the cuff, his low cap trimmed with sheepskin, and his slippers.
To do his work, the miller had to be physically strong—think of all the sacks of flour that he would lift and carry in a lifetime! The miller’s trade was a respected profession, usually passed from father to son. The son learned his trade at home with his father, but he might also work for a time with other master millers to broaden his experience.
Work in the mill kept the whole family busy. Often, the family’s help was not enough, so the miller expanded the household, either with permanent employees or with seasonal workers called journeymen. These journeymen were experienced millers who, at the busiest times of the year, helped out at various mills in return for room and board.
A chief miller—a highly esteemed and expert worker—often ran the mill. Assisting him was a young man called the hand, who was schooled in the miller’s trade and was entrusted with operating the milling machinery. The quality of the flour that was produced was considered to be a measure of the knowledge and ability of this hand. Additionally, there would be an apprentice—a bright boy who never let the experienced older millers out of his sight. Nothing was allowed to distract the apprentice from learning his trade.
The Bible book of Job mentions “a lower millstone.” (Job 41:24) This ancient reference suggests how millstones functioned. There had to be two—an upper stone, now called the runner, and a lower stone, called the bedder. The lower stone was fixed in place, while the upper stone was rotated to grind the grain as it passed between the two.
Originally, the millstones were made of hard rock. Later, artificial millstones were produced, consisting of crushed rock cemented together with magnesium chloride. The cogwheels were made from very hard wood by an experienced specialist. Making the cogwheels was a demanding task, not only because complicated shapes were involved but also because the gears had to mesh properly. The cogwheel arrangement increased the rotational speed of the rest of the milling machinery. The clatter of these cogwheels gave the mills their characteristic sound.
Millers in Czech Folklore
While some millers were honest and upright, others were greedy and domineering or swindled their customers. Thus, in some folk songs, millers and their families were teased, while in others they were praised and their helpers were pronounced to be desirable as husbands! Still other songs recall inundating floods—the most frequent threat to a miller and his mill, besides fire.
The stories varied somewhat according to the region and the time they were composed. Otherwise, their subject matter was similar all over Czechia. It was the wandering journeyman millers who propagated and, of course, embellished these tales. So, to this day there is a Czech saying: “Tales are told and water runs,” implying suspicion that some story or report has been exaggerated.
Mills in the Present
With the passage of time, the miller’s trade gradually became obsolete. Mills were modernized and water-driven milling mechanisms gave way to electric motors. A few millers tried to keep their traditional way of life at all costs, and some water mills continued in operation in Czechia until after World War II. But the year 1948 spelled the end for even the most persevering miller. In that year the mills became national property, and most mills stopped running and began to deteriorate.
The industrial mills of today do not share the romance of the past. Milling is done by modern machines, often controlled by computers. Steel rollers have replaced most millstones. Still, the rustic character of the remaining old-time mills continues to attract those who love quiet, poetic settings, as well as tourists seeking out culture and history.
Today quite a few mills have been turned into recreation centers because of their charm. Many visitors to Prague visit the mill wheel at C̆ertovka, or “Devil’s Race,” a branch of the Vltava River. The mill there ceased operation in 1938 after it burned down. But its nearly 22-foot [7 m] waterwheel, dating back more than 600 years, was restored in 1995 as a cultural monument. Down to the present, the wheel continues to turn.
Standing in a restored mill today, we can imagine the miller doing his work a century ago. We can hear the water splash as the mill wheel turns. As we walk away, the mill recedes into the distance. But the clapping of the cogs lingers in our ears—a pleasant sound that will stay with us for a long time.
[Picture on page 22]
[Pictures on page 22, 23]
1. An old hand-powered grain cleaner
2. One of the milling stations
3. The main shaft transfers power from the waterwheel to the milling stations
4. The nearly 22-foot [7 m] waterwheel at C̆ertovka that once powered the mill
[Picture on page 24]
The mill wheel at C̆ertovka