The old mill wheel is silent and has fallen down
The old oak tree has withered and lies there on the ground
– lyrics from “Down By The Old Mill Stream” by Tell Taylor
For years I’ve driven past an intriguing stone building located just off I-66 near Haymarket, Virginia. Nope, not just years – decades. Every time I’d drive by I’d think, “Man, that’s an interesting old building. I wonder what it is? Maybe one day I should stop.” And yet I never did. One day I drove past and was astonished to see that the building had been gutted by fire. That time I may have actually pulled over on the shoulder and taken a photo – I have a memory of doing so at one time or another – but I still knew nothing more about the mysterious building.
In February of this year I drove past the ruin again, and this time I thought, “enough of this procrastinating; I’m going to find out about that place.” I was fairly certain what I was seeing was the ruin of a mill, so I Googled “mill ruin I-66” and bingo! I had my answer. What I’d been looking at were the remains of a gristmill, built by the Chapman family in 1742, enlarged in 1758, enlarged again a century later, burned during the Civil War, restored in 1876 by the Beverley (or Beverly) family, closed in 1951 and burned again in an arson fire in 1998. At eighty-three feet (seven stories), it’s believed to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States.
(Most of my information about the site comes from the Turn The Mill Around Campaign’s website. The non-profit, which now owns the site, is raising funds to preserve and restore the mill.)
This Labor Day weekend, John was less inclined than I to get out and about, so I decided to make a solo jaunt out to the country to see the mill at last. Although the mill is clearly visible from the highway, you have to know where you’re heading to actually get there – fortunately, I was running a GPS program and found the place without a problem. I was surprised to find that it’s cheek by jowl with the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, which has a number of nice hikes in the area – as evidenced by the numbers of runners, dog-walkers and day hikers parked in the area. Most of them were headed onto the trails, but I parked right by the mill gates, grabbed my camera and walked about a quarter mile to the ruins.
I was a bit surprised that everything was wide open and unattended (although I did see a police cruiser come through at one point). I was able to stroll around the entire site – nothing was gated off or locked, although there were a few warning signs. I stuck my head into the Stone Mill Store, which was empty but for a couple of busy wasp nests, so I didn’t linger there.
When you step into the ruins, you immediately see two things: a lot of very interesting gears, and overhead, an internal reinforcing framework. The juxtaposition of the steel beams against the stacked stone is surprisingly pretty – almost like modern sculpture – and the rusting gears and other mechanical detritus add interesting textures. Up close the mill doesn’t seem quite so imposing as it does when you pass by on the interstate, but it’s still impressive. I was pleased to see that it hadn’t been trashed or graffiti’d or otherwise defaced. The weeds growing out of cracks in the walls and the vines winding in through windows made an even more picturesque site. Normally ruins like this make me feel a bit melancholy, but the beauty of the day – sunny, with fluffy white clouds – combined with the obvious care that’s going into the restoration, made me happy.
I wasn’t dressed to climb up on things and probably wouldn’t have, anyway – it seemed disrespectful, somehow – but I did poke my camera here and there to get photos. Broad Run, the stream that runs past the mill, seemed very low and muddy, so I didn’t feel the urge to plunge down the embankment and have a look at it (normally I can’t resist running water – I always want to go paddle in it). The oddest part about taking these photos in this rustic setting was hearing the traffic roaring past on the interstate.
There was a lot more gearage and bits of mechanism scattered all around the site. Not far away from the mill ruin was a large, overgrown area where I found a cache of rusted parts that were clearly some of the interior workings of the mill, and there were foundations here and there of what must have been outbuildings. You can’t really get around the back of the mill; it’s fenced off and there’s a railroad track, still in use, that goes right past it, which must have been handy back in the mill’s working days but seems uncomfortably close now.
I headed back out to my car, but the sight of people heading off to hike was enticing. I wasn’t dressed for hiking (jeans and sneakers), but a look at a map at the trailhead kiosk showed me that there was a trail that ran right behind the ruins. I figured I’d get some good views of the mill from behind, so I entered the Conservancy, crossed the railroad tracks and bore west along the Fern Hollow Trail. The trail had a gentle rise, and before long I found myself looking down at the mill again.The ruins looked even smaller from above and had more of a ghostly air. I thought about making my way down closer, but without proper footgear I was afraid I’d fall (the wife of a friend recently took a tumble down a much smaller embankment, resulting in a hospital stay and months of therapy ahead, which made me even more cautious).
I encountered only a few other hikers on Fern Hollow Trail, which surprised me, as there are even more ruins to be seen as you travel this route:
Once the ruins were behind me, the beauty of Fern Hollow Trail kept me moving forward. The trail turned and headed in a more northerly direction and I followed. Before long all the traffic noise had faded away and I was surrounded by woods. I felt like I had the place all to myself; the few hikers I had encountered along the way had either headed back to the trailhead or gotten off the beaten track entirely. I kept on walking but started to get winded. I had grabbed a map from the trailhead kiosk before I’d started my walk, and when I consulted it I realized I’d been walking for nearly a mile on a steady uphill grade. But it was sure pretty:
I thought I might continue north to a scenic overlook, but at the intersection of Fern Hollow Trail and Chestnut Ridge Trail I encountered a couple on their way down. They told me that although the view was pretty, it was a pretty steep hike, so I decided to head back to the car. I took a little different route down, one more populated by hikers, dog-walkers and runners. I was sorry I hadn’t brought a bottle of water with me, and was glad I had left the remains of a fountain drink in my car – it was watery from the melted ice, but still refreshing.
I’d like to make a return trip to the mill ruins in the fall, before my theatrical season gets going and I have no time at all. I bet it’ll be pretty with all the autumn colors, and a lot cooler for an uphill trek. If I wear proper hiking clothes, who knows? maybe next time I’ll make it up to the scenic view!
There is usually at least one week in the tomato-growing season in which reticent plants, chock full of hard green fruit, will suddenly decide that they’ve dallied long enough. When that happens, you’re overwhelmed – nay, inundated – with ripe fruit, and you’d better decide what to do with it quick.
What you see on the left is what happened when my nine tomato plants pulled this trick on me. I have four Roma plants and one each of Lemon Boy, Beefsteak, Brandywine, Old German and Sweet 100s Cherry. The cherry tomatoes aren’t represented in the photo, as I usually devour them as an amuse-bouche while I’m working in the garden.
Now, I don’t like to refrigerate my tomatoes, and I didn’t have room in the chiller for all this bounty, anyway. So I decided to devote a Sunday afternoon and evening to converting the raw tomatoes into delicious home-grown, home-cooked comestibles.
I decided to start with tomato sauce. I make fresh tomato sauce a lot; there’s really nothing to it. You wash the tomatoes, pick off any visible stems, throw them in a big stockpot with some peeled garlic cloves, fresh herbs (I grow my own basil, oregano and parsley) and some olive oil, cover the pot and let them stew down. Give them the occasional stir and poke, to break up any stubborn fruit. Nope, I don’t seed or core them; the next step takes care of that. And no, I don’t add peppers or onions or any of that. I wait to salt until I’ve reduced the sauce – the last step in the cooking process.
While the sauce tomatoes were stewing down, I got out my food mill. It is, shall we say, primitive, but it does the job and it has no moving parts to break. Its legs straddle my big high-sided mixing bowl nicely, and there’s something contemplative about rolling the wooden pestle around the strainer, sieving the hot cooked tomato mix into the bowl. It doesn’t take any great strength or agility to use – you just roll the pestle around and around. The tough tomato skins, leafy greens and all but the tiniest seeds are trapped in the mill, while all the flavored tomato juices and pulpy goodness go into your bowl. And cleaning everything is a snap – nothing to disassemble, no tricky areas to wash. I oil the pestle once in a while, but that’s about as complex as it gets.
I let the tomato mix bubble away, occasionally fishing out a piece of garlic to press against the pot side with the back of a spoon. (I don’t mill the mix until the garlic has gone mushy.) Meanwhile, I contemplated the Lemon Boy tomatoes. For a single plant, the Lemon Boy has been extraordinarily productive, but I didn’t really want to its yellow fruit into my tomato sauce – I figured they’d make the sauce lighter in color than I like. Instead, I decided to use it in two new recipes: tomato chutney and tomato jam.
The tomato chutney recipe I used is from a BBC website, which entailed a certain amount of converting British measures to American, but that’s what the interwebs are for, right? Here’s my translation, along with my tweaks:
HOMEMADE TOMATO CHUTNEY
2 cups red onions, finely sliced (I just used regular ol’ cooking onions)
2.5 pounds of tomatoes (I used Lemon Boys)
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 red chili, peeled and chopped – optional (I like hot chutney so I used half of one of my Hot Sweet peppers – you can see it lurking in the lower right corner of the first photo in the blog. I did not peel it; I seeded it and cut it into small narrow strips)
1.5 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
2 cups brown sugar (I used light brown)
5 oz red wine vinegar (because I was using yellow tomatoes, I substituted champagne vinegar)
5 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp paprika
Tip all ingredients into a large heavy-based pan and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently. Simmer for one hour, then bring to a gentle boil so that the mixture turns dark, jammy and shiny. Place into sterilized jars and allow to cool before covering. Will keep for six weeks.
The chutney had a strong vinegar smell as it cooked down, but eventually that backed off and it mostly smelled like onions cooking – not unpleasant at all. While it cooked, I milled my first batch of tomato sauce and set it aside to cool for a bit, then got ready for the second batch of sauce. I washed the mill, the stockpot, my big chef’s knife and my cutting board, ran out into a light rain to pick my fresh herbs (which made me feel like a romance heroine, for some reason), peeled another round of garlic and got the big stockpot going again. Then I eyeballed my recipe for tomato jam, which came from noshmyway.com. Since the tomatoes had to be peeled, I got out my second-biggest stockpot, filled it halfway with water and while that came to a boil, I cut a shallow X into the stem-end of each tomato. A 30-second plunge in the boiling water made the skins come away nice and easy.
GOLDEN YELLOW TOMATO JAM
1 pound golden yellow tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup turbinado sugar (once again, I used light brown)
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/2 tbsp. candied ginger, minced
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. sweet paprika
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Watch carefully so the jam doesn’t burn. Remove from heat, cool and refrigerate. Will keep for two weeks. Makes approximately one cup of jam.
I got the jam going, rinsed out the second-biggest stockpot and started reducing the first batch of sauce in that. It’s rare that I have all four burners of my elderly Tappan stove going at once, but this was one of those times:
Everything smelled yummy and I realized that I had worked through the dinner hour, so I made myself a snack with a little reserved Beefsteak tomato. Martin’s potato roll, a slather of low-fat mayo, a little Penzey’s sandwich sprinkle, and I was good to go.
The chutney was just about finished so I had a little taste of it. It was flavorful, but a little lacking in punch, so I added a pinch of red pepper flakes during the final reducing boil. I let it cool a bit, tasted again and added a touch more red pepper. It’s pretty good; next time I would definitely increase the raw pepper and maybe include some of the seeds, and I might also add some golden raisins, just for the look of it and some additional depth of flavor. The recipe says nothing about fishing the cardamom pods out when the cooking is done, but I did. I got about a cup and a half of chutney out of the recipe.
I milled the second batch of tomato sauce, combined it with the first batch in the big stockpot to continue the reducing process and started to clean up the kitchen. By the time I was finished, the jam was just about done. I gave it a taste and danced around the kitchen making yummy sounds – it was that good. I had enough Lemon Boys left to make a second batch, so I got that going and then hovered over the sauce as it reduced. I tasted and tested, gradually adding salt. When it was flavored and thick enough for my liking, I pronounced it done and put it aside to cool. The finished chutney went into the refrigerator in a chubby mason jar. I got about a gallon of tomato sauce from my efforts, and that was decanted into three different containers and went into the freezer. The jam was separated into two containers: one for the freezer, one for the refrigerator. I bet that jam will be nice with Brie, or maybe cream cheese and crackers.
So that was my big tomato day. I don’t know if that’s going to be the Big Harvest for the season; it’s early yet, and lord knows what the late summer will bring. But it felt good to get so much cooked and stowed away for later eating.
I’m not a summertime person. I don’t like hot; I don’t like humid. I don’t even like summer clothes. When summer is fresh and new in June, it’s tolerable, but I hate it when you get into September and it’s still sticky and miserable out and every day feels like a leftover.
I haven’t done a great deal this summer except write, read and send out a few more query letters. I did a little bit of traveling in August: made a quick jaunt down to Raleigh to visit my sister Margaret and audition for the North Carolina Theatre, and a week or so later drove to Kentucky with John and one of his buddies. I hadn’t been in Kentucky for years, and our route took us through a particularly beautiful part of West Virginia as well. To the right is the New River Gorge, where we stopped on a whim on our journey, and I’m so glad that we did. It was breathtaking.
I left John and his pal in KY to do things that manly men do, rented a car and drove on into Tennessee for a quick visit with my mom. Normally I drive the interstate route from Virginia to Tennessee, and while it may be quicker (nearly 12 hours instead of 13-ish), the Kentucky route has it all over the interstate for beautiful countryside. Next trip I make to Mom’s, I’ll be going that way.
Meanwhile it’s been writey-write-write as I carry on querying agents with Book 1 and try to complete Book 2 of my fantasy trilogy Once again my beta-readers have been invaluable with their insights, comments and encouragement.
I took a little time out from the writing to appear in a racy revue called “The Summer Hummer,” which was for the benefit of Taking Care Of Our Own, an initiative sponsored by theatreWashington (the folks who bring you the Helen Hayes Awards every year). Taking Care Of Our Own assists currently active Washington area theatre professionals and artists in personal emergency situations, and it’s a project I believe in and support wholeheartedly, having seen far too many of my theatrical comrades-in-arms devastated by personal illness, injury or other disasters. The George Clooneys and Meryl Streeps and Kristan Stewarts of this world aside, those of us in the acting biz don’t usually make a lot of money, and when something unforeseen happens, it can hit us hard. It’s good to know that the TCOOO initiative will be there in an emergency. For a good cause, I’m willing to put on a skimpy costume and sing a naughty song, and that’s what I’m doing over there on the left. If you’d like to know more about TCOOO and maybe even make a donation, follow the link above.
For those of you eager to know my next stage gig, I’ll be appearing as a bad-ass Wicked Stepmother in the Olney Theatre Center’s holiday production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It’s directed by my good pal Bobby Smith and I can’t wait to start work on it in October.
First, however, I gotta get through these last few weeks of summer.