The first time I heard the rhythmic, low-pitched rumble of millstones was in 1982 when I interviewed Charlie Wade, owner and operator of Wade’s Mill in Raphine. That sound has remained in my memory as one pleasant to the ear as the two stones rumbled together, grinding grain into meal. The ancient craft of grinding grain was addressed even as in Biblical times; Jeremiah 25:10, Deuteronomy 24:6, Isaiah 47:2, and Revelation 18:22 all refer to the sound of millstones grinding.
Forty years after I interviewed the senior Wade, I found myself interviewing his son, Charlie, as he continues the longtime family trade along with three other men who make up Deep Roots Milling, operating out of Woodson’s Mill in Lowesville in Nelson County.
Woodson’s Mill, originally called the Piney River Mill, was constructed in 1794 by Guiliford Campbell and, although not in continuous operation throughout its 228-year history, the old mill has served the surrounding community for many of those years. Woodson’s is also the only commercial water-driven mill left in the state of Virginia.
Young Charlie Wade is a sixth-generation miller and started operating Deep Roots Milling in 2016 out of his garage with a small eight-inch mill. The business grew and he upgraded to a 16-inch mill, taking on a larger customer base. He is now 38 years old, married with two children, still living in Roanoke and commuting to the mill on weekends and when they grind, bag, and deliver. He had been working for a year with the mill’s owner, Will Brockenbrough, who made provisions for leasing the mill to the men of Deep Roots before selling Woodson’s in 2020 to Bill and Cookie Chinworth of Norfolk.
Wade knew he would need some additional help and reached out to Aaron Grigsby, who for five years owned Tabula Rasa, a “table-on-farm” restaurant in Blacksburg. The name is Latin for “blank slate,” and all of the meat and vegetables came from the farm adjoining the restaurant, shaping the menu depending on the season. As it also featured 100% regional grains and flour, Aaron was a former customer of Deep Roots, and Charlie asked if he would be interested in joining the business. Aaron became excited at the prospect of a new career and, in turn, approached Ian Gamble, a potter/sculptor by trade who worked with him making wood-fired masonry ovens. To round out the three men’s partnership, David Woodson, the grandson of Dr. Julian Woodson, who owned the mill from 1900 until his death in 1963, offered his expertise on the ins-and-outs of how the mill operated. David spent summers at his grandfather’s farm and grew up around the milling industry. He moved to Amherst in 2003 and became a vital part of the mill’s operation when it was reopened in 2012. Together, with their combined skills, the four men have worked to bring new life and productivity to a centuries-old mill and make Deep Roots Milling a growing and vibrant business that has a relevant future in today’s world.
David said the business has quadrupled since first starting in 2020, even with the negative effects of Covid. “These young men started out slow, milling about 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of product monthly and this year they have done as much as 8,000 in a month. No one told them they couldn’t do it, so they just do it!” The men add, “We didn’t take out any loans at the beginning and just have our time invested and we have been profitable right from the start.” In addition to the four millers, several volunteers come and help with the bagging process each month. Craig McClung and George Walker, among others, are an important part of Deep Roots Milling.
Customers pre-order about ninety percent of the milled grain, making the freshest product available to them. There are many mid-scale bakeries that place orders, including Little Hat Creek Farm and Bakery ten minutes down the road in Roseland and Great Day Gardens in Forest, which purchase their flour primarily from Deep Roots. The rest is sold at various locations including Saunders Brothers and Dickie Brothers in Piney River, Greenwood Gourmet, Stock Provisions and Foods of All Nations in Charlottesville, various farmers markets and Woodson’s monthly millrace market where people can come take a tour of the mill, learn its early history and buy healthy fresh-ground grains such as flour, grits, cornmeal, and mixes, all without any additives or preservatives. This fall’s Sunday market dates are September 4, October 2, November 6, and December 4 from noon until 4 p.m. A list of businesses that sell their products can also be viewed on their website at www.deeprootsmilling.com.
They recently received a reimbursable grant from the state of Virginia that will be used to upgrade the sifting equipment located on the second floor and move it up to the third floor and also build a dedicated sifting room to contain flour dust.
David, senior of the group at 83, explained, “Deep Roots grinds wheat, buckwheat, rye, spelt, and corn. Oats are not ground but pressed between two steel rollers which flatten it.” Charlie, 38, added, “We do a regional focus which defines our grainshed in the mid-Atlantic area. We pull as much as we can from Virginia and local growers, but we also get grain from Pennsylvania.”
Aaron, also 38, said Charlie called him one day and said, “I got an idea. I had been a customer of Charlie’s, but at that point hadn’t been at the restaurant for about a year. Ian and I had already started an oven business, and after I decided to join Charlie it quickly became evident that we needed an engineer because already in just a few months some of the equipment was breaking and needing repair. We found that all three of us have complimentary skills, and although we don’t necessarily excel in the same things, we fill in all the gaps with what interests we do have.” David calls Aaron the “Grain Guru” because of his vast knowledge of different grains. Aaron started working with foodstuffs on small vegetable farms in Southwest Virginia and graduated to the vineyards of Tuscany and Sri Lankan communes. As a baker in Floyd, he developed an affinity for small grains, thus earning David’s moniker.
Ian Gamble, the youngest at 37, said, “I got pulled into the Deep Roots family by the ‘Grain Guru,’ and never once thought of working in a mill, much less becoming a miller.” Ian lives in Bethany, North Carolina, and like Aaron, commutes to Lowesville when they grind, sell, and deliver their product. Both men are single and stay at the mill on the days they are working there. When he goes home, he continues making pottery. Ian went to college to study sculpture and ceramics and has also worked in construction and tile. “In 2020 I was still making pizza ovens with Aaron when he called and told me about the mill, and I thought it sounded like a great idea. I came up here to check it out, lend a hand, and kept coming back. I enjoy it because it has a lot of qualities that satisfy me.”
The men of Deep Roots Milling are founding members of the Common Grain Alliance, an organization which was started about four years ago. Its mission is to rebuild the regional grainshed by introducing farmers to potential customers such as other farmers, millers, restaurants and bakers. Aaron says, “This whole grain renaissance started in the northeast and northwest and has trickled down to our location. It is a very important part of what we do and we are a very important part of what the Common Grain Alliance does. Every one of these types of organizations has a regional mill as a focal point, and we are that regional mill here in Virginia.”
After interviewing the men of Deep Roots, it is reassuring to know that younger people are taking an active interest in the ancient trade of gristmilling because, as David pointed out, the older generation who operated the earlier mills is dying off. Aaron and Ian finished by saying, “We feel really blessed to have been here at the right moment in time when the mill was revived, at the right age, with the right interests, with the right organizations to support us.”
For much of America’s history, mills like Woodson’s dotted the landscape and served vital community roles, but with ongoing modernization, the mills slowly died and were abandoned. The men of Deep Roots Milling have given new life to an old vocation that will allow them to grow, thrive, and leave a lasting legacy of the milling industry for future generations.
Note: Special thanks to both Chris Anderson and the late Gill Brockenbrough, Jr. for information about Woodson’s Mill in the spring 1987 edition of Old Mill News.
Deep Roots Milling products are available at Greenwood Gourmet Grocery.