Rye and Middlings

Flour Chest, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1850-1880

Flour Chest, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1850-1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.471.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Interior of a North Family Wood House, June, 1938.

Interior of a North Family Wood House, June, 1938. Retrieved from: Historic American Buildings Survey, “Shaker. North Family Washhouse (second), Shaker Road, New Lebanon, NY.

This red-painted flour chest in the Shaker Museum collection was acquired from the North Family at Mount Lebanon, a fact that’s backed up by a 1938 photograph of the interior of the North Family’s Wood House. In that photograph the flour chest sits behind, and is nearly obscured by, a table saw and a grindstone. The giveaways that this is the same chest are the four visible hinges on the top of the chest indicating that the lid is split into two sections, and the rather prominent casters used to roll the chest. These features, along with its general dimensions as they appear in the photograph, provide strong evidence that it is the same chest.

Interior of Flour Chest Showing Labels for Bins, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1850-1880

Interior of Flour Chest Showing Labels for Bins, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1850-1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.471.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Interior of Flour Chest Showing Labels for Bins, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1850-1880

Interior of Flour Chest Showing Labels for Bins, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1850-1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.471.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Each of the chest’s lids cover  two partitioned compartments. The undersides of the lids are labeled in hand-painted letters: Rye, Middlings, Course Flour, and Fine Flour. All were used in baking. Rye flour is mixed with wheat flour to make rye bread. Middlings are the parts of the wheat kernel – the bran and sometimes the germ – that are often sifted out of milled wheat flour. Middlings are occasionally added back into bread for additional fiber and protein. Coarse flour usually refers to whole wheat flour – sometimes called Graham flour after Sylvester Graham, a 19th century advocate of vegetarianism, temperance, and eating only whole grain flours. Fine flour is what is left when all of the bran and germ are sifted out of milled wheat.

Elder Frederick W. Evans, North Family Elder for 57 years, is known to have been very particular about bread and how and from what it was made.  In 1877 he wrote a letter to Brother Albert Lomas, editor of the The Shaker, commenting on making bread:

The wheat is the starting point. The wheat must be home ground, or you will not have homemade bread. We might as well go to Moody and Sankey for pure Christianity, as to go to a worldly miller with our wheat to grind; much less to buy the flour to make Shaker whole wheat, or coarse ground, unleavened bread.

He follows this caution with a recipe for Shaker whole wheat bread.

The Church Family built a substantial grist mill in 1824 and for years was able to produce flour for all the Mount Lebanon Shaker families. For a number of years they employed millers from the outside world and often had trouble keeping them. It may have been that by the time Evans wrote his commentary on wheat bread he was concerned that the millers were not supplying the family with proper flour for Shaker bread. Sometime in the early 1880s the North Family created a small grist mill inside their 1854 Wood House. By this time the family had largely switched to coal for heating and some of the Wood House was available for other functions. At the south end of the building the Shakers created a new modern laundry. The new laundry required power for the new machinery they installed. That power came from piping water under considerable pressure from a reservoir they had built in 1875 to supply hydrants to protect the family from fire. This water source was extended into the cellar of the Wood House to operate a ten-horsepower Baccus Water Motor. The Shakers soon found additional uses for the power supplied by the water motor – one of which was to power the equipment necessary to operate the grist mill.

Schematic Illustration of the Grist Mill in the Wood House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Schematic Illustration of the Grist Mill in the Wood House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY. Museum staff.

The grist mill was constructed vertically in small rooms adjacent to the laundry  and directly over the water motor in the cellar. The rooms were also next to an “elevator” that was used to take damp laundry from the wash room in the cellar to the attic when it needed to be dried indoors. While the date the Shaker built their grist mill is not known, it is known that on February 6, 1884, a carpenter “finished the wheat bins in the wood house loft.” The wheat bin is located in the Wood House attic directly over the room on the second floor where the grindstone was located. The bin could be filled from bags or barrels of wheat brought up the elevator and could be released down a wooden chute from the bin directly into the hopper of the grindstone. Flour and its more undesirable by-products traveled from the grindstone through another wooden chute to the room directly below where they were fed into a sifter or bolting machine that separated middlings from fine flour. For coarse flour, the ground wheat was not bolted, leaving all of the bran and germ in the flour – much to Elder Frederick’s liking.  Both the grindstone and bolting machinery were powered by the water motor. The various flours produced in the mill needed to be stored in separate bins – therefore there was need for a large flour bin in the Shakers’ wood house.

It is not known when the milling equipment was removed from the Wood House. It was apparently gone prior to 1940 when A. K. Mosley measured and drew the Wood House floor plan for the Historic American Buildings Survey. There is considerable evidence still intact in the building that supports the description of the grist mill. A tin-lined square funnel in the floor of the wheat bin is open directly to where it appears the grindstone was located. Holes in the floors remain where belts from the water motor traveled to operate both the grindstone and the bolting machinery, and the wooden chute that once brought ground wheat into the bolting machine remains in place. The disposition of the equipment has yet to be discovered.



How condensed milk got its start with the Shakers

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Postcard. Elder Alonzo Giles Hollister Standing Next to the Shakers’ Vacuum Pan, Laboratory, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1910, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2008.21701.1.

In the September 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Carolyn Hughes Crowley presented an article in the “The Object at Hand” column titled, “The Man Who Invented Elsie, the Borden Cow.” The article was sparked by an “oddly shaped copper kettle officially designated as a ‘vacuum pan’” that, at the time, sat in a corner of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The vacuum pan was acquired from the Borden Company. The Borden Company, however, acquired the pan from the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon in 1931 through Sister Emma J. Neale, because it had an association with the company’s founder Gail Borden. 

The story of Gail Borden, briefly told, is one of a man obsessed with developing products that would improve people’s lives. Born in Norwich, New York in 1801, Borden settled in Texas in 1829 where he worked as a land surveyor, newspaper publisher, and passionate inventor. When his 32 year old wife and four year old son died of yellow fever, Borden, observing that the fever subsided during the winter, suggested building refrigerators to keep people in an environment that was too cold for the fever to take hold. In the 1840s he dehydrated beef, mixed it with flour, and formed it into biscuits that provided considerable sustenance packed into an easily portable form that did not spoil on long voyages. He hoped to market them to the Army but soldiers found them less palatable than similar product made by competitors. In 1851, aboard a ship from England, where he had exhibited his meat biscuits at the London Crystal Palace Exposition, Borden witnessed children dying from a lack of milk from shipboard cows. His work with meat biscuits convinced him that any food, milk included, could be condensed and preserved. Others had tried to condense milk by boiling it but it inevitably burned and turned sour over an open fire. Borden, after returning to New York, learned of the Mount Lebanon Shakers’ use of a vacuum pan to condense medicinal fluids. The vacuum allowed the Shakers to boil off liquid at low temperatures, thereby concentrating the fluids without affecting their medicinal potency. In 1853 Borden went to stay with the Shakers at the Center Family and made an arrangement to use their vacuum pan to experiment with condensing milk. His experiments succeeded and in 1856 Borden was granted a patent for his process. Shortly after his patent was granted he opened his first successful milk condensing factory in Wassaic, New York and the Borden Company, including Elsie the Cow, became part of the annals of the consumer world. 

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John Benson to Brother Edward Fowler, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Assignment of Perpetual Right to Use the Vacuum Pan Known As “Benson & Day’s Patented Improved Vacuum Pan,” July 25, 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9564.1.

How the Shakers came upon the idea of using a vacuum pan for reducing medicines is not known, but it is known that in 1850 they obtained the right to the perpetual use of “Benson & Day’s Patented Improved Vacuum Pan.” These rights were assigned to Brother Edward Fowler, trustee of the Church and Center Families at Mount Lebanon. John Benson and James Day of Brooklyn, New York, patented their vacuum pan in 1848 as an improvement for boiling away the liquid from cane molasses to make sugar. 

The story as told makes a clear case for the Borden Company’s interest in the Shakers’ vacuum pan and its subsequent acquisition by the Smithsonian. There is, however, a small twist in this story that has not been told. Buried in a diary kept in the Mount Lebanon Church Family by  Deaconess Anna Dodgson is the following information from February 19, 1880: “The Vacuum Pan failed some weeks since at Laboratory, having stood the test of 30 years usage, A New One arrives to day.” The Shaker vacuum pan acquired by the Borden Company and preserved at the Smithsonian is not the same one that Gail Borden used!

There are two 19th century illustrations of the Shaker vacuum pan. In 1856, three years following Borden’s work with the Shakers, Benson John Lossing, illustrator and author, visited Mount Lebanon and wrote and illustrated an article on the Shakers that was published in the July, 1857 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In this article, Lossing included a drawing of the Shakers’ vacuum pan along with other equipment used in their medicinal manufacturing. The second illustration was done by an unidentified illustrator in 1884 for an almanac titled, Shaker Almanac 1885: The Joys and Sorrows of a Poor Old Man, promoting medicines made by the Shakers for entrepreneur Andrew Judson White. These two illustrations, one of the original 1850 vacuum pan and the other of the 1880 replacement, show enough similarity that it appears that the replacement pan was also purchased from John Benson. 




Popcorn ball press


Fig 1: Popcorn Ball Press and Accessories, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6589.1 (press) and 1953.6590.1-.3 (cylinders)

Shaping popcorn into balls when it is covered in hot sugar syrup or molasses is hard on the hands, especially in quantity. This popcorn ball press relieved that discomfort and made consistently sized balls.

Using the press was pretty simple – the metal cylinders were filled with sticky popcorn and then placed on the base of the press. The arm was pushed down until the two recesses met, trapping a perfectly round ball between them. The finished popcorn balls were then either served or wrapped in cellophane or waxed paper to be eaten or sold later. Though there’s no documentation of the Shakers selling popcorn balls, the three accompanying metal cylinders suggest a vigorous production.

The Museum’s 1953 accession records for the popcorn ball press provide two significant pieces of information: That the press was made by Canterbury Brother Alexander Cochran (sometimes Cochrane), and that it was used for making “molasses popcorn balls.” Brother Alexander Y. Cochran was born May 14, 1848. Much of Brother Alexander’s life story eludes us, but we know he was the natural brother of Eldress Dorothea T. Cochran at Canterbury. Eldress Dorothea was born in 1844 in Duntalker, Scotland. While the 1860 census gives Alexander’s birthplace as Massachusetts, it is likely his parents came to this country between 1844 and 1848. Brother Alexander was second elder in the Canterbury Church Family and worked closely with Ministry Elder Henry Blinn on managing correspondence and financial matters pertaining to the publication of the Manifesto up until May, 1890, when he decided to leave the Shakers. Little more is known about his post-Shaker life, except that an Alexander Y. Cochrane of Waverly, Massachusetts, was granted patent 584,922 on July 22, 1897 for an improvement in a “yielding wire seat frame” and that he was, in 1920, married to Louise F. Cochrane. Among Eldress Dorothy’s vital statistics it is recorded that she had a brother living in Waverly, Massachusetts, so it’s likely this is the same Alexander Cochran. We don’t know whether the popcorn ball press was a harbinger of Brother Alexander’s inventive nature, but his departure from the Shakers in 1890 does provide a date before which the press was made and used.

There are two scenarios for the Canterbury Shakers popcorn ball adventures  – one, that they made traditional blackstrap molasses popcorn balls and the second, that molasses, in this case, refers to maple molasses. Any readers with special knowledge of the history of popcorn balls in New England are encouraged to weigh in.

Maple Molasses: About two miles from the Shaker Village at Canterbury, the Shakers had an 800-tree sugar bush that they tapped for over a half a century. The trees produced over 50 barrels of sap per day during sugaring season and the sugar house workers could turn that into 50 gallons of syrup or 350 pounds of maple sugar. The Canterbury sisters made a variety of maple candies to sell from the sugar and it is reasonable to think that maple molasses popcorn balls may have been among their offerings for sale. A simple recipe for maple molasses popcorn balls can be found at here.

Blackstrap Molasses: In the 1880s the cane sugar and molasses jockeyed for position as the more expensive sweetener. Cane sugar had historically been the more expensive of the two, but as improvements in processing sugar cane were made it eventually became quite inexpensive and a premium emerged for those who preferred the taste of blackstrap molasses. If you have not tasted molasses popcorn, think Cracker Jacks, America’s first “The More You Eat the More You Want” junk food. Its flavor is an acquired taste (and today’s corn syrup Cracker Jacks do not do the original justice), but apparently once a devotee, it was greatly preferred by some in some foods – popcorn balls being one of them. There are a number of recipes available for making molasses popcorn balls. One five-star recipe for “bare-bones popcorn balls” that uses just popped corn, molasses, and refined sugar can be found here. The final step in this recipe is to “eat whatever sticks to your fingers.”  Bon appetit!



Molasses Popcorn Balls from Tori Avey: Tori’s Kitchen website.