Agri-Lane: Best Agri Tourism on the Planet

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hopper for the mill at Nora Mill with title "True Grits From Nors Mill" on it

miller truns on power to the trubines in Nora Mill in Sautee-Nacoochee, Georgia
Tommy Martin turns the switch that controls the turbines
Article and photos by Kathleen Walls

Many places in the Mountains of Appalachia have their own special magic. A visit there is like stepping back to a more peaceful time. Most places you visit and leave all their magic, except the memories and maybe a few pictures, behind when you return to the modern world.

Nora Mill on the outskirts of Helen, Georgia in the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley is one of those enchanted places where you can retain a bit of their special magic after the visit. In fact, every time you cook up  a pot of their "Dixie Ice Cream" more prosaically known as grits, you are enjoying something that flowed directly from the heart of the mill.

Packaged in simple cloth bags, grits from Nora Mill is not a product of our fast-paced mechanized world. It was created in the ways of a much simpler time.

The story began when Daniel Brown build the original building in  1824.  John Martin bought it in 1876. He was a gold miner who had struck it rich in Georgia's gold rush and wanted to build his empire with a mill in Sautee-Nacoochee Valley. He decided on water turbines from Rome, Georgia instead of a paddlewheel. He bought the best granite burr stones he could get from Marne Valley in northern France. 137 later they are still working fine.

Dam behind the mill on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia
Dam behind the mill on the Chattahoochee River
In 1902 Lamartine G. Hardman, Later governor of Georgia, bought the mill and named it Nora Mill for his little sister who had passed away.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ron Fain purchased the mill in 1981. The mill is still owed by the third generation of the Fain family who are active in the operation.

Tommy Martin, the present miller, can explains the workings of the mill so well you will feel transported back in time. He will bring you out back to the Chattahoochee River and show you the power source. 

Milled grain falls throught the chute into collection bin at Nora Mill
Milled grain falls throught the chute into collection bin
The dam was built in 1824 and as such it grandfathered in and they can rebuild without any permits. The newest was built in 1996. That mill pond powers the turbines. The water runs down the 100 foot millrace The maintenance is non-ending. There is a shaft running under the building.

"This was 'going green' before 'going green' was cool," Tommy said.

Water turbines were a very important part of history. This was the same technology used in hydraulic dams. It was much more effective than the paddlewheel. Turbines allowed control from within whereas the old paddlewheels were at the mercy of the water speed and current.

miller shows machiinery at Nora Mill
Tommy Martin showing some of the mill machinery
Tommy demonstrated how the span style="mso-spacerun: yes"> kernels of corn are hand poured into the mill. Wheels, gears and pulleys turn the main drive belt and eventually turns one of the 1,500 pound stne stone. He explained "There is a bedstone and runnerstone.  The bedstone never moves. The runnerstone turns and crushes the kernels. There are grooves in the stones that do the actual grinding. When it turn it pushes the grain out of the grooves. You position the stones closer for fine ground and farther for coarser. The stones themselves should never touch."

 An old saying that you probably heard as a child grew out of milling. "You never want to smell the grindstone. If  yyou do it means you are wearing your groves down," Tommy explained "That is why I keep my nose to the grindstone"

Nora Mill  is your chance to watch (and purchase) corn ground as it was a century ago, either grits or corn meal. Prior to opening his mill,  John Martin  traveled to New York. Visiting a restaurant, he ordered  grits, a southern staple then as well as today. The waiter laughed at him and said, "We don't sell Dixie Ice Cream here."

----------So when he opened Nora Mill in Sautee-Nacoochee Valley,  he decided to call his grits Dixie Ice Cream. It retains that name to this day at Nora Mill.

"The difference between the product made with the old stone mills and the new high powered mills of today is that the new machines are running so fast and so hot it would cook the germ of the corn. That would gum up the machinery. So they take it out  rremoving 97% of the nutrition and vitamins. Then they put a little bit of the nutrition back in and call it 'enriched.'"

old fashioned Kitchen in "Nora Mill Next Door"
Kitchen in "Nora Mill Next Door"
At Nora Mill you get the real thing. You can taste the difference. And you can feel a little bit of the magic in every bite. It's one visit where you can bring a little bit home and enjoy it later. o:p>

After you tour the mill, step over next door and visit their old-fashioned country store  and  gift shop called  "Nora Mill Next Door," filled with lots of items you will want to take away with you. It even has a large kitchen where someone will be cooking up some  samples of the mill products. It was delicious corn bread the day we viited.

A visit to Nora Mill is a form of  time travel. I warn you however, store bought grits will never taste the same again. And if you think you don't like grits, give the "Dixie Ice Cream" from Nora Mill a try. cook it up using a little cream and butter in the water. It's True Grits.

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