Wind grist mills were important to Portsmouth farmers during the 19th century. In 1942 the Fall River Herald ran an essay by Benjamin Boyd whose family ran the Boyd’s Mill. Boyd wrote about “Wind Grist Mills of Rhode Island.”  He provides a first hand account of the history of his family’s mill, the Sherman Mill and the vital role the mills played for local agriculture.

“For some reason,” Boyd wrote, “Rhode Island seems to have been the only place where these wind mills were used to any extent.” When Boyd was a boy he remembered 10 mills in Portsmouth.  In 1942 there were three mills left in Portsmouth.  Almy’s Mill (later called Thurston’s Mill) was on East Main Road.  The Sherman Mill was built in Warren to grind grain for whiskey production.  It was moved to Fall River and then to LeHigh Hill on West Main Road.  Boyd’s Mill was the third.  The first mill the Boyd family ran stood by Bristol Ferry.  The Great Gale of 1815 destroyed that one.  The family bought the Peterson Mill.  It was located by Mill Lane near West Main Road.  This mill was built in 1810 to grind grain to feed livestock.  Boyd said that in 1901 he converted the Boyd Mill into a eight vaned windmill.

Boyd wrote that cheap grain and meat from the western US made these old methods of farming unprofitable for Rhode Island farmers so they went more into truck farming.

Sherman Mill – Now at Prescott Farm

“But there were many people who appreciated the fact that Rhode Island corn, which is of a different shape and color from any other, possessed merits for making meal for family use superior to any other cornmeal.”  Boyd was referring to the famous Rhode Island Johnny Cake meal.

Boyd commented that all meal up to 1895 was unsifted so that the cook had to sift it.  Boyd invented a “power sifter” run by the mill.

By the end of the 19th century there were 6,000 sheep kept on the island and many hogs.  November was slaughter time for the hogs that had been grown and fattened by the wind mill ground grain.  As the miller, the Boyds received a portion of the ground grain as payment and they fed their hogs with it.   Benjamin Boyd said his father took up to 6,000 pounds of pork to sell in New Bedford.  The gristmill grain and hay fed cows, oxen, sheep, pigs and poultry.

Most Portsmouth farmers had at least a pair of oxen that could be put to work.  Boyd said that local farmers looked to “pay off” their taxes.  “Money was scarce, so the town was divided into seven road districts with a supervisor for each district, and on a certain day after planting, when there was a slack time before cultivating and hoeing, the supervisor warned each taxpayer that he could come out and work out his tax if he so desired, bring oxen and carts, crowbars, shovels, forks, hoes, chains, plows, and as many of his hired help as he desired.”  Boyd states that the seven “road districts” corresponded to the “school districts.”

Boyd remembers “cattle drivers” and “horse traders” who drove their livestock down the main roads to sell their animals to the farmers.  One such driver stopped to talk to a potential buyer but his animals continued down the road and found a poor farmer’s cabbage patch.

For Boyd, windmills were part of his heritage.  He was a descendent of Nicholas Easton who built the first wind grist mill.  “I have farmed all my life and have turned the black dirt of Old Mother Earth into wheat, rye, oats and barley to be ground into feed for livestock, and as I have baked many Johnny Cakes.  I have literally turned the black dirt of Old Mother Earth into one of the finest food products known to man, the Famous Rhode Island Johnny Cake; ground by the power of the free air, which is the only thing that is free today.”

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