In 2012 Matthew Warschaw, executive chef for The Hyatt Dulles’ Elements restaurant, learned about corn grits and wheat flour that were both being ground locally at Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls.
“I was at the 4-H Festival at Frying Pan Farm Park and there was an exhibit there,” he said. “I like to source fresh ingredients as much as possible from local and regional areas, so I began buying stone-ground white grits, yellow grits and some assorted flours from Colvin Run Mill for use in my restaurant.”
Warschaw said he uses the locally ground grits for restaurant customer favorites such as shrimp and grits, caramelized onion grits, and cheddar cheese grits. “They are the real thing,” he said. “They take at least 45 minutes to cook and require constant attention, but in the end the taste is well worth it.”
The water-wheel grist mill, a Fairfax County Park Authority historic site, is currently undergoing a $375,000 restoration that Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry hopes will allow it to attract more commercial buyers.
“We think the ‘farm-to-table’ commercial market is there, and we buy most of our corn and grain locally from Louisa County, Virginia.” he said. “With county budget cuts being what they are, we are trying to supplement our income and ease the burden on county taxpayers by selling to local restaurants. We also sell to anyone. You don’t have to be a commercial chef.”
Henry said only one of the mill’s three grinding stations has been in working order for the last 42 years, when an original restoration of the mill in 1972 was partially halted, also due to budget cuts.
“We were recently able to get a $75,000 grant from a partnership between American Express and the National Trust,” he said. “There was also about $300,000 available in county bond money to complete the restorations and allow us to become more commercially viable. After the renovations are complete, we plan to have two working grinding stations and one that will be used educationally, to show how they all work.”
The mill’s origin goes back to the 18th century when George Washington owned the land, said Gene Bacher, who volunteers as a tour guide at the mill. “Washington built a mill foundation but wound up selling the land before the mill was built.” Bacher said that the circa 1811 Colvin Run Mill then changed hands a couple times until 1883, when it was sold to a man named Addison Millard who moved his wife Emma and some of their 20 children to the mill to operate it. “When Addison Millard died, the family stayed and operated the mill until 1934,” Bacher said.
Henry said the mill then sat empty for more than three decades until the Fairfax County Park Authority acquired the property in 1966. “We are currently in the process of restoring it to its original, circa-1811 glory,” he said.
“The majority of the restoration lies in replacing a warped shaft that will allow two grinding stations to run at once, powered by the 20-foot-diameter white oak water-wheel,” said Mason Maddox, who has been a miller at the site for 15 years. “Each grinding station utilizes two two-ton grinding stones with hand-chiseled grooves that allow for grinding of corn and wheat. Gravity runs the water down onto the wheel, where the weight of the water— and not the force of the water—fill up the wheel’s buckets on one side, and make it go around.”
Maddox said the waterwheel was built of oak in 1970 and it reproduces as faithfully as possible the original waterwheel that powered the machinery in the c. 1811 mill. The axle, made from a single white oak log, transmits power from the turning waterwheel into the mill. The greater face gear attached to the axle in the mill basement turns the wood gears that operate three sets of grinding stones, grain elevators and sifting machinery.
“On the first and third Sundays, spring through fall, you can watch the miller grind wheat into flour or corn into meal. Call ahead to confirm that conditions permit grinding,” said Henry.
“Although we are hoping to sell more product, our first and foremost goal remains the educational aspects of the mill.”
For more information about the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site, call (703) 759-2771.