Simple paper bag evokes memories

Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, December 17, 2019

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I came across a paper bag a couple of weeks ago while sorting through some things in my office.

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This is not just any bag. It’s made of very heavy, durable brown paper that, had it ever been used — which it had not — would have held corn meal.


It proclaims its contents, had it ever been used, to be five pounds of “Chuckatuck New Water Ground Type White Screen Corn Meal.” The bag went on to identify the miller as “Chuckatuck Enterprises” and further defined the company as “millers of high grade meal since 1820.”


This small memento brought back memories of trips to Chuckatuck when I was quite small, and also preparations for that trip.


My father always planted a small field of white corn. In the, summer, that became the source of our sweet corn. Roasting “ros’n” ears, we called it, though we never roasted one. We boiled the ears just the same as today. And once we had purchased a chest freezer, packages of corn were frozen for use during the winter. Corn and butter beans, corn pudding, corn fritters all were good eating well into the winter months.


The remainder of the white corn was allowed to ripen and was picked and kept separate from the “field” corn that became hog feed. The white corn was stored apart in a small, framed-up corner of the corncrib.


After school or on Saturdays, one of my chores was to shell the white corn with a hand-driven corn sheller. The wooden box that contained the sheller sat atop four sturdy legs. A large flywheel was turned by hand and the corn fed into the top of the contraption. Inside, a large, round disc with small raised nodes turned against the corn ears and removed the kernels. The kernels were dropped out of the bottom into a five-gallon bucket from which they could then be poured into burlap sacks.


The stripped cobs were saved as well. Most were taken to spread onto clay galls in a field with particularly heavy soil. Some were saved to be used as fire starters. Dipped in kerosene, they burned quite hot to get a woodstove fire going.


Shelling corn was one of the most satisfying tasks on the farm. Watching kernels pile up in the bucket as stripped cobs flew out the other end of the sheller was almost fund at a time when a lot of chores weren’t.


Later, we loaded bags of shelled corn into the old Chevrolet pickup truck and hauled them to Chuckatuck. The mill operation was an absolute fascination to a child. Watching the large water wheel turn and corn meal emerge made for about as interesting a few hours as a six-year-old could spend.


I’ve written previously about the mills that dotted Isle of Wight and Surry, and won’t re-plow that ground except to say that gristmills were a vital part of a rural economy up until store-bought flower and corn meal became available.


Transportation drove that change, naturally. As trucks and cars became commonplace (well before my time) and roads were built to accommodate them, factory mills replaced community gristmills and a way of life ended.


The Chuckatuck mill hung on into the 1950s when it was converted into an ice plant that remained in operation for several more decades.