Mention Napa Valley and most people think of world class wines, rows and rows of manicured vines, and hot air balloon rides in the mist of the early morning.
Not many think of heading to Napa to have their corn and wheat ground into flour or of the Bear Flag Revolt. In fact, most people probably don’t even know about either one of those.
While the rest of the state was knee deep in gold mining, prospectors in Napa Country mined for silver and quicksilver. Farmers raised cattle, wheat, and corn. Not a grape vine in site.
Mexico owned the state we know as California. An early settler, Edward Turner Bale, became a citizen of Mexico at the time and was granted Rancho Carne Humana in the northern end of the valley. Bale, came here from England as a physician and surgeon to start a new life, and was one of the few survivors of the wreck of the Harriett off the coast of Monterey. Moving from San Francisco, Bale saw a need for and built the Bale Grist Mill a few miles north of St. Helena in 1846. Settlers from the valley gathered to have their wheat and corn ground into flour or meal.
Wheat and corn farmers brought grain to the mill where it was placed into the boot of an elevator to be mechanically transported upstairs where it was cleaned. The slow turning of the old grind stones and the dampness of the mill’s site gave the meal a special quality for making cornbread, yellowbread, shortening bread, and spoonbread.
Using local materials, Douglas fir and coast redwoods for the mill, and native stone for the foundation, the mill was powered by a waterwheel. Water was diverted from Mill Creek nearby. However, during the dry summers there was not enough water to power the mill. It needed to be replaced by a much larger one, similar to the one that works and stands today.
With a 36 feet high waterwheel and wooden flume system, this one appears much like the original would have looked.
According to history, the Bale Grist Mill was quite the center of attention in the upper Napa Valley in the mid-1800s. To begin with, it was spectacular in size. Then there was the noise it made. More importantly, the valley was an increasing source of wheat production. Flour milling would have been significant here during that time period. And, it was a site of social activity set amidst wheat and corn fields. Hard to imagine this valley without grape vines.
Instrumental in another piece of California state history , the Bale Grist Mill may have been the meeting place prior to the capture of Sonoma from the Mexican government in 1846. This Bear Flag Revolt, lasting 31 days, happened when Sonoma and what we know as California were taken from the Mexican government. California became a state in 1850, without going back to Mexican rule.
Today, the park is the site of a working water-powered grist mill built in 1846. Small amounts of corn and wheat are turned into flour and cornmeal and sold. Tours explain the whole process, with millers showing how it would have worked in the 1800s.
Hiking trails surround the mill and provide for a change of pace from the rest of the valley. Most hikes are not strenuous, although the one connecting Boothe State Park with the Bale Grist Mill and the historic Pioneer Cemetery can give you a nice workout.
If you go: The Bale Grist Mill is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with milling done on those days.
Call for appointments for larger groups at 707-942-4575.