When “Grist for the Mill” Wasn’t Just An Expression

“The New Mill at Pala,” was the subject of an extensive article in the San Diego Sun on December 28, 1881.

“This mill, erected last March by the proprietors, Messrs. M. M. and W. A. Sickler, at considerable expense, is two stories high and a basement; is fifty-five miles from San Diego, and within reach of Poway, Bernardo, Bear valley, San Pasqual, Julian, San Luis Rey, Fallbrook and Temecula, all of which are the best wheat-producing sections in this county.”

Gristmills, or flour mills, were places where farmers brought their crops of wheat, corn or barley to be ground into flour. They were an essential part of the agricultural economy in San Diego County at that time. The Sickler Brothers Mill was the first in the county.

“The advantages of a mill of this kind to the community is very great,” stated the Sun article, “ the farmers being able to procure flour at fully one-third less than formerly….” Up to then San Bernardino was the closest milling location for local farmers. Otherwise, customers seeking flour had to rely on imports “from San Francisco at high charges for freight.”

The Sickler brothers knew their business. Two large grinding stones, built in France, were shipped from Missouri—where the Sickler family had formally lived and operated a mill—to Oceanside and then hauled to Pala by wagon.

The brothers built a flume to divert water from the San Luis Rey River, carrying it down a twenty foot drop to the mill. There the force of the water drove a cast iron wheel, just under 6 feet in diameter, its surface studded with large buckets or paddles.

The milling process was time-consuming. Since it was the only mill in the area and the only way to bring crops there was by horse-drawn wagon, it often took several days to get to and from the mill, and once there “people had to wait from several days to several weeks to get their crop processed,” according to a 2005 report published by the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation.

The mill became a community gathering place, with farmers and their families camping out for two weeks or more, “sharing stories and recipes, and trading goods,” the report stated. The Sicklers even set up a makeshift school for farm children.

The mill operated successfully for about a decade. Then as railroad service in the county became more developed, it became easier and cheaper for farmers to transport their crops for processing in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Today the mill site is part of the Wilderness Gardens Preserve, maintained by the Parks and Recreation Department and open to the public. The tall wooden mill structure is gone, but its stone foundation remains, along with the cast iron water wheel which sits alongside it. For further information, visit http://www.sandiegocounty.gov/parks/openspace/wildernessgardens.html .

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers and the archives of the San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department, with special thanks for the work of Lynne Newell Christenson, former San Diego County Historian, Ellen Sweet, Volunteer Researcher at the Parks Department’s History Office, and Department District Manager Jake Enriquez.

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