23 Oct Nation’s Oldest Gristmill Receives Award
Built in 1703, the Samuel E. Perry Gristmill has a three-century history of grinding Rhode Island whitecap flint corn, dating back to the farming days of early European settlers and Native Americans. It is listed on the National Historic Register and is the oldest water-powered mill in the state of Rhode Island, as well the oldest mill to remain in continuous operation.
This landmark structure and surrounding property offer a rare example of a mill in continuous use from the early eighteenth century. Serving as a focal point of the agrarian community for hundreds of years, it ekes out enough power from as little as eight feet of hydraulic head to turn half-ton hand-chiseled five-foot-diameter granite millstones. The corn that is used at the mill is as traditional as the mill itself—a closely guarded strain of white flint corn traded down ever since the first decades of contact with indigenous peoples.
Our local South Kingstown Land Trust (SKLT) acquired the historic Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill and its adjoining 3-acre parcel in 2012. The mill was originally built adjacent to its water source, aptly named Mill Pond. It was moved to its present location c.1825 because there was insufficient water pressure to operate the mill from its initial site. The introduction of a longer sluiceway compounded the need for maintenance over time, and by the time the South Kingstown Land Trust (SKLT) took ownership of the property, plant growth and root systems were contributing to significant leakage and the weakening of the weir at the water source.
After a generous donor stepped up to underwrite material costs in 2020, Landscape Creations volunteered labor to help SKLT with the much-needed property restoration. Working within RI DEM guidelines, Landscape Creations began repairs by clearing brush and shaping the sluiceway in areas where brush had been cleared. Next, we built a new stone headwall in the sluiceway, extended the pipe connecting the pond and sluiceway, and installed French drains to prevent water from pooling when the sluice is not in use. To finish, crews added fill and gravel material at the sluice and pond weir, spread topsoil in newly disturbed areas, and applied a specialty hydroseed that grows well on hill areas, perfect for the steep banks of the sluice. Upon completion, the Land Trust can once again funnel water with ample pressure to turn the grinding stone at the mill.
Preserve Rhode distinguished the Mill with its prestigious Community Impact Award during the organization’s annual Rhody Awards for Historic Preservation on October 23, 2022. Judges noted “this rare survivor of a bygone agricultural era attracted supporters from all over the community, who provided labor and contributed materials to restore the mill building and water course, and make the historic gristmill functional again.” We were honored to assist with the property’s restoration so that the mill can again be used as a cultural and historic resource, and to grind native RI flint corn into a Rhode Island Corn meal, which is the basis for a local delicacy called the “johnnycake.” Next time you’re in town, we hope you’ll try one!