One of my favorite aspects of Dollywood is watching the artisans. There is much to see and learn, and a majority of artists are located in an area of the park called Craftsman’s Valley. Here you can meet tradespeople working with a variety of materials, and care is given to preserving the regional heritage of the Smoky Mountain descendants- or as Dolly calls them- “My People.”
If you’ve ever walked by the Grist Mill you may have been lured in by the heavenly aroma of the famous cinnamon bread. You may have even noticed the water wheel on the building. But did you know this building is home to a working Grist Mill? I spent time learning about the mill and process from Dollywood Host Jerry Burkholder, who has worked in the Dollywood Grist Mill for 18 seasons.
If you’re not familiar with a grist mill, allow me to provide a brief introduction. A grist mill is an ancient yet efficient way to grind grains into flour. Water powered mills such as this one date back to about 85 B.C., and the process is largely the same now as it was then. Water running against large paddles produce a force that turns a large millstone, or “runner stone” against a stationary stone. Dried grains are shaken between the two stones from a receptacle called a “hopper” and crushed into smaller particles. The grain’s end coarseness can be altered by adjusting the distance between the two stones, and it’s a simple yet marvelous engineering process that used belts and pulleys.
Dollywood’s Grist Mill was built in 1982, making it the first fully operating grist mill built in Tennessee in more than 100 years! Great care was taken to build the mill in a manner that would honor tradition and utilize Dollywood’s craftspeople. Lumber was sawed in the park’s steam powers sawmill, logs and shingles were split by hand, blacksmiths forged the hardware, and glass blowers made the windows. Later an electric grist mill was added, and either or both mills might be working when you visit.
Dollywood’s mills are used primarily for three types of corn: yellow, white and popcorn. Each corn has a different taste and a distinct coarseness. Milled popcorn is slightly sweet and makes delicious corn bread, while white cornmeal is an excellent breading for fish. The yellow is probably best for the New England-style Johnny Cakes I’m fond of and hushpuppies served throughout the south. Jerry and other hosts will be happy to help you select the right product for your needs.
Over the course of a season, the Dollywood Grist Mill might ground 10,000 lbs. of corn alongside some buckwheat, and you can purchase some freshly milled and hand-bagged in cotton sacks to take home. Plan to poke around and check out the mill from two floors, and if Jerry is around he can tell you a bit about the mill. This is the best part of the artisan community at Dollywood. They are a pleasure to chat with, and the day I met with him, a Season Passholder stopped in looking specifically for Jerry. He wanted to share some recent photos of his own grist mill he started as a side business and talk about its progress. That three-way conversation summed up Craftsman’s Valley perfectly- an expert and guest sharing a meaningful exchange, while a novice learned something new!
The Dollywood Grist Mill is best known for the bread, enormous cookies and other baked goods, but also sells a variety of cooking tools including cast iron cookware of all shapes and sizes, gourmet mixes, jams and cookbooks. Be sure to stop in on your next visit to Dollywood!
TIP: Fresh cornmeal is best kept in your refrigerator and has a remarkably long shelf life. Try replacing half the flour with cornmeal in your favorite pancake recipe.
And, for fun—here’s Dolly Parton’s recipe for Skillet Cornbread:
- Prep time: 10 minutes
- Cook time: 25 minutes
- Ingredients (in baking order):
- 2 tbsp. bacon drippings (extra needed for skillet)
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1-1 ½ cups buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Grab a skillet and cover with bacon drippings.
- Mix together the cornmeal, salt and additional bacon drippings in a big bowl.
- Add the buttermilk a little at a time and continue to stir until mixture rests into a thick yet smooth consistency.
- Pour the batter into the skillet and cook for 25 minutes or until the entire cornbread is set with no wet batter left.
- Take it out of the oven and eat while it’s hot!