In his book “Kulturgeschichte des Mühlsteins“ (Cultural History of the Millstone), former CEO Harald Marschner tells of the thick round stones, how they came out of the quarries and how the millers knew how to work with them

Millwoman sharpening a millstone, around 1950.

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Did you know, dear readers, that the heavy millstones required sharpening regularly? And: have you ever seen circular holes in rocky terrain that look as if someone had hewn a large stone pot out of the ground? In his book “Kulturgeschichte des Mühlsteins“ (Cultural History of the Millstone), Harald Marscher provides answers even to peripheral questions such as these.

The former head of the traditional Austrian company Fries, Burgholzer & Co has dealt with many aspects of that once important tool of mankind. The company was one of Europe’s most important millstone producers, because at its site in Perg, not far from Linz, quartz sandstone was readily available, the ideal material for the round and thick discs.

In short: millstones always come as twinsets, consisting of the bed stone at the bottom and the runner stone rotating above it. Grain is fed in from above through the “eye“ in the center of the runner stone, and this grinds into flour in the narrow gap to the bed stone.

This sounds easier than it is, because:
* the gap is only a few millimeters wide and must be precisely adjusted according to the desired result;
* moreover, the whole construction must be precisely balanced, because at more than 100 r.p.m., the runner stone can quickly strike its partner below, causing a spark, which, in turn, may result in an explosion of flour dust.

It is up to the miller to meticulously adjust and monitor all factors, in the context of 24/7 operation.

During sharpening, the furrows in the 2 stones are traced. They have key functions: first, their edges crack the grain kernels to separate the husk. This is why hard quartz sandstones are so suitable for millstones: the quartz crystals act as gentle crushers in the rapid rotation without immediately crushing the grain, and they virtually re-sharpen themselves.

Secondly, these furrows also serve to transport the shells and more to the edge of the stone double whopper. This is done by centrifugal force.

Thirdly, they create ventilation in the gap and also dissipate the frictional heat to the outside. This is because if the flour gets too warm, valuable ingredients from the geared grain can be lost, namely vitamins and flavorings.

Modern contemporaries again rely on stone grain mills (and just as olive mills) can lecture on this.

The process of grinding between the stones is followed by various stages in the classic mill where sifting is done.

As a rule, the miller was only the tenant of the plant. For the construction of a mill required considerable investment: in addition to the highly complex inner workings with gears and many axles, ditches or ponds often had to be built for the supply of drive water or the complicated wind blades had to be installed.

Beyond wood and millstones, the once very expensive wrought iron was needed at many points in the mechanics.

The millers lived outside the community, where the energy supply was guaranteed. Quarrels with the farmers, who liked to feel cheated, were frequent. The waiting times were long at harvest times, and at some point, the carters lost patience and vented their anger with their fists.

Since people had become sedentary, grain and bread had become their most important source of sustenance. In the beginning, flour was prepared in graters – from ancient Egypt we know depictions of women kneeling and moving one stone over another in front of them.

The spice mortar is a derived version of that way of preparing food.

Place where a millstone was extracted.

The invention of the mill with the stones brought an enormous improvement.

The Romans organized their variant for manual operation in a professional way: in their troops the legionaries were gathered in small groups of 6-8 persons, who carried their equipment on a mule. This included a hand mill and grain – ready-made flour would have been too complicated to transport.

On the other hand, there were also large bakeries in the Roman Empire for the production of ship’s rusks, among other things. A famous site is the double mill road on a slope in Barbegal, not far from Marseilles, where the driving energy of the water was used to the full.

Millstones were 2 m in diameter in extreme cases for special applications. Even standard sizes weighed several 100 kg.

The extraction of the stones was backbreaking work, but was also well paid, as Harald Marschner writes. Often the pieces were only semi-finished products – in the end, the miller himself took up hammer and chisel and gave his stone the finishing touches. Because, as already mentioned, the quality of the flour and thus the earnings depended on the run of the stones.

Marschner lists centers of millstone extraction in many countries – for example from basalt in the Eifel mountains in Germany or from Norway, to name only two.

Famous was the production in La-Ferté-sous-Jouarrein France east of Paris. There were particularly suitable quartz sandstones and the waterway of the Marne for transport. A real industry was born.

One of its peculiarities was composite millstones held together by 2 outer rings of iron.

With the advent of rolling mills from 1830 onwards, demand quickly declined. In this new technology, two rollers run side by side and grind the grain between them. Classical mills seem like dinosaurs compared to such equipment.

Of course, Marschner also recounts curious episodes, 2 of which we reproduce:
* if the mill was not properly adjusted, stone crumbs could get into the bread – some people literally gritted their teeth on them and were unable to chew solid food for the rest of their lives;
* Titus Maccius Plautus (around 254-184 B.C.) from today’s Sarsina in Emilia Romagna had speculated his money away and hired himself out to a baker to turn the millstone. During the monotonous process he came up with many funny stories, wrote them down and became famous and rich as a comic poet.

Under Marschner, the company Fries, Burgholzer & Co changed to a product no longer made of quartz stone, but now quartz sand: under the company name Capatect now produces Pergit, which are precious plasters for the thermal insulation of facades.

Harald Marschner: Die Kulturgeschichte des Mühlsteins, self-published, ISBN 978-3-200-08660-9, 256 pages with numerous illustrations, 29 € (plus shipping in the European area 5 €), can be ordered at Mail.
Harald Marschner, Herrenstraße 4, A 4320 Perg, Tel: +43 7262 58311 0, Cel: +43 664 1803253,

Photos: Archiv Marschner

(23.05.2023, USA: 05.23.2023)