January 20, 2013

Vintage C.S. Bell Company #2 Hand Grist Mill

I've recently been thinking about a home grist mill solution. Becky's mistaken purchase of whole einkorn made me think of it first, and baking cornbread made me think of it again. I read online (and everything you read on the internet is true right?) that freshly ground corn has a much stronger flavor than the dessicated and lifeless cornmeal purchased from the grocery store. Long ago I had bought the book Flour Power, by Marleeta Basey , which deals with the benefits and mechanics of home grain milling. The highly rated mills were expensive though, and so it fell away from my thoughts and the book went on the shelf.

Years ago I bought a C.S. Bell Company #2 grinder, originally with the plan of using it to mill nixtamalized corn for tamales. This mill is representative of state of the art cast iron technology for small farmstead use circa a century ago. The burrs are cast iron and not at all precision or particularly sharp, and the fixturing and adjustment system is very basic. The C.S. Bell Company has been around since 1858, and in fact still makes a new #2 grist mill which looks nearly identical to the antique one I have.

The mill was a complete fail on grinding wet corn, but it was great for another application I had at the time which was lightly milling roasted malt for all grain brewing. It churned its way through roughly 50kg of malt for quite a few batches of beer, then went to the basement and fell into disuse when my first daughter arrived and I couldn't find the time for beer brewing.

I recalled the C.S. Bell #2 in the basement though and thought I would give it a try on corn for cornbread. I've been enjoying cornbread with a range of particle sizes in the corn meal, by using half coarse ground and half medium ground corn. My experience of the #2 was that is was not effective at making flour suitable for baking what we think of as normal bread, but it was great at producing output with a wide distribution of particle sizes. So I ordered a 2.2kg sack of corn from Wild Hive Farm in upstate NY, dragged the grinder up from the basement, and the girls and I set to work waking it from its slumber and getting into shape to work once more.

It was very dusty and full of cobwebs when I extracted it from the cellar.

Well, at least no rodents living in it.

First, we took it apart and the girls started scrubbing with a sponge, brass bristle brush, and hot water with a little Simple Green.

Cinderellas! Clean the grist mill!

They were very eager to do this, and were pretending they were Cinderellas doing their arduous chores.

Under the inner burr there was a sizable deposit of old malt grains from its previous service in brewing. Some insects (probably those annoying dry moths!) had clearly gotten to this food source and caused a some pitting in the housing of the mill. Nothing serious though, and it was soon cleaned out.

After the pieces had thoroughly dried out, I wire wheeled the burrs, the shaft, and the fasteners on the grinder in the basement. Then the burrs got a coat of shortening and went into the oven to bake it in to the porous cast iron.

We put a coat of furniture paste wax on the other surfaces. The girls eventually had to bail out on this step because it was too stinky. They did enjoy the final buffing.

We tried grinding some rice to test things out and flush out any remaining dirt and oil. This went fairly well.


Upon disassembly, it was clear that it was going to need to be taken apart after every use since like 30g of material were left inside in assorted nooks and crannies.

I washed it up and after a few hours drying, Buster and I put it back together. First, the fixed end plate is installed.

Next, the female burr is put in. Nothing seems to hold it in at this stage.

The cross pin is installed in the main shaft, which is threaded through the male burr.

 The spring and washer are threaded on the shaft and the assembly is seated into the female burr and back plate.

There is a chunk of steel to serve as a thrust bearing between the gap setting screw in the front cover plate and the main shaft. This is positioned in the shaft recess in the front cover, and the cover is installed.

Finally the handle/flywheel is put on the shaft, which is now protruding from the rear cover. The set screw is tightened onto the flat on the shaft, and it is ready for action.

Speaking strictly from experience with my particular mill, I think it is well suited to making cornmeal for cornbread (which we did in this post), and for crushing grains for home brewing or livestock feed. Probably would do ok on coffee if you needed to grind a lot of coffee. Not the right machine for making flour. All the same, it is charming and makes a nice addition around the house as an element of functional interior decorating.


Kathleen Scott said...

Just wondering if you are still using the grinder and happy with it. I have been searching for one for awhile now. Doing my research before I make my purchase.

Holly Gates said...

I am indeed still using it. It is usually decorating my foyer on a small table, but I lug it up to the kitchen when we need a new batch of cornmeal.

I would buy it again if I wanted to do cornmeal or brewing grains, but not if I wanted to do flour. I've been thinking about a flour capable mill, but the ones I'm interested in are very expensive. So the CS Bell #2 is a cheaper options that looks cool, though has less capability. Its also possible a new one would work better than my old one.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know where you would find the parts for this mill. I have one very close if not identical. The one I have is missing the wheel handle and the outer grinder cylinder is chipped and cracked. Any help would be greatly appreciated on finding parts. Thank you.

Holly Gates said...

Well, C.S. Bell makes a new one that looks nearly identical. However I called them and they were not optimistic about replacement parts actually fitting my old one. The wheel should probably work to replace, though there is a chance you might have to bore it out or make a bushing to fit it to the old shaft. The actual burrs seem less likely to fit as replacements, which is a shame since they would be difficult to make.