A Nose for the Job
Story and photography by Connie Pearson
When the damsel is in distress, miller Tommy Martin knows just what to do at one of the South’s oldest grist mills.
Tommy Martin, miller at Nora Mill Granary in White County, Ga., has the knack, the knowledge, and the nose for milling exceptional grains. He’s been at his job since 1989, when he was hired by the Fain family. Martin is quick to point out Joe, the young man at the counter, and says, “He’s the grandson of Ron Fain who bought this mill in 1976. Joe’s great-grandfather, George Fain, Sr., supervised from a rocking chair when I started working here.”
After Ron passed away in 2001, his daughter – Joe’s mother – took the reins, making four generations that Martin has worked with. In addition to overseeing the operation of the gristmill, Martin shares the work and history of Nora Mill with visitors who stop in to buy grits, cornmeal, porridge or other products and want to take a closer look.
John Martin, no known kinship to Martin the present-day miller, built the mill in 1876, shipping the pink granite grindstones in from the Marne River Valley in France. Each one weighs 1,500 pounds and is 48 inches in diameter. The bottom, or bedstone, doesn’t move, but the runnerstone rotates above it. Each is cut with a pattern of grooves, and the top stone is raised or lowered to make the grain courser or finer.
“I come by here 25-to-30 times a day, smelling the stream of cornmeal coming out of the grinding chute. I’m smelling for the grindstone,” says Martin. “If I smell anything that smells like burnt hair, I don’t have enough corn going between them or someone has adjusted my stone. I never want the stones to touch or else they will prematurely wear my grooves out.
“You never want to smell the grindstone. If I smell it, I make a quick adjustment. The only way to make the stones last is by keeping your nose to the grindstone. Stay focused and everything will be all right, but you’ve got to keep your nose to the grindstone,” he explains.
It was an “aha” moment for those who were enjoying the tour. Martin declares that the familiar phrase in our vernacular refers to the milling process but admits that it also refers to a form of cruel punishment in the late 1400s when a person was sentenced to having his nose rubbed off with a grindstone. The milling reference is much more palatable.
Martin’s love for history as well as for his work are woven throughout his tours at Nora Mill. He points out the grain elevator in use and mentions that George Washington signed the patent for it.
As visitors continue to watch the grinding stones work, Martin says, “Do you hear that rhythm? George Fain, Sr. would sit in his rocking chair at 90 years of age and say, ‘Boy, your corn is getting low.’ He could tell from the rhythm. This was called the ‘chattering damsel’ by the Greeks and Romans. No matter where I am in this mill, I listen to my damsel. If I’m standing over there in the corner and the rhythm changes, I come running. My damsel’s in distress.
“This world would be a lot better place if every man listened to their damsel like I listen to mine,” he continues with a chuckle. “I go to bed with that rhythm in my head.”
Martin reminds buyers that Nora Mill offers a whole grain product, and the mill was producing it several years before California started its whole grain movement. He is also proud of the growing number of customers from all over the country. According to Martin, he shipped 4,000 pounds of grits to the Bronx in New York recently. Maryland gets 5,000 pounds a month. Las Vegas gets a ton a month, and basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal just opened a new restaurant in Los Angeles and insisted on Nora Mill grits. The popularity of shrimp and grits is a primary reason that the company’s products are found from New York to Florida and are now heading to the West Coast.
In addition to the grinding process, Martin wants visitors to see the power source. A dam made entirely of logs corrals the water of the Chattahoochee River which goes into a cast iron water turbine. When it was installed in 1876, it was considered to be the most state-of-the-art piece of equipment in the world.
When asked his official title, Martin shrugs and says “the sweeper, the cleaner, the miller.” In reality, he does whatever needs to be done to keep everything operating smoothly. About one day a week, all he does is clean the equipment because he feels that keeps the integrity of their product at its highest level. “I’m not that smart, but I read a lot. Ron Fain was an antique dealer, and he would give me books. I’m reading one now that was written in the 1700s.”
After a visit to Nora Mill Granary in Helen, Ga., you’re sure to leave with a sack full of special products and a head full of new knowledge, thanks to the skill and curiosity of Tommy Martin.