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Grist for the Mill

Stony Brook and the herring run in Brewster serve not only as the conduit for the alewife, but as the connecting thread between the natural history museum and the Stony Brook Grist Mill and Museum. Yet another connection between humans and the natural world is both the herring run and the mill have served the food needs of the community of Brewster for hundreds of years. Even before the man-made concrete steps of the herring run were put in place, the alewife made their way up the brook, and the Wampanoag people caught them in the spring for eating and to use as fertilizer. Early English settlers learned from the Native Americans, and the effectiveness of the fish in growing corn is well documented. It’s somewhat poetic that the same brook that draws the alewife home year after year, century after century, turns the mill wheel that grinds the corn from those fish-fed fields. It’s surely appropriate that the current director of the Stony Brook Grist Mill and Museum, Doug Erickson, is both the miller and one of two herring wardens for the Town of Brewster. 

Throughout most of the years since Thomas Prence purchased the land in 1661 from the Wampanoags, water-powered mills have operated on or around the site of the current structure. To the early colonists, says Doug Erickson, “Corn was the staff of life. Cornmeal doesn’t keep very well, but dried corn does. People would eat cornmeal three times a day, and they would bring their corn to the mill as necessary.” For many years, the discarded cobs would be burned to smoke the alewife. The mill evolved over the years and took different forms. In 1665, it was a fulling mill. “Settlers would bring their preshrunk woolens there to be cleaned, to remove lanolin, and they’d hang them out on tenter hooks,” explains Erickson. In the 19th century, mills for weaving, woolens, paper, and a tannery all took root in the area. A few of the mills burned, and in 1871, Erickson says, “A roaring fire burned both the gristmill and tannery to the ground. It started because the miller was smoking herring and had gone into town.”

The area around Stony Brook eventually developed into a factory village, one of the first industrial sites in New England. Among other things, the factories produced ice cream, but eventually industry moved out. Private owners held the property through the 1930’s, but in 1940, the town voted to buy the land and mill sites. “The town raised $1,000 and donations from local citizens raised $1,200 for the purchase,” says Erickson. They rebuilt the water wheel and converted the building’s second floor into a museum. “People cleaned out their attics and basements to help out,” Erickson explains.  

Today, the Stony Brook Grist Mill and Museum, the Herring Run, and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History serve the community and its visitors in keeping with their individual and connected histories. Though the stocks of alewife have been in decline due to the combination of climate change and overfishing, hundreds of thousands of fish still fight their way upstream every spring, wriggling through a gauntlet of seabirds, through the Museum of Natural History’s property, up the ladder, and past the mill to the ponds above. Among local herring runs, Brewster’s is well worth a visit. On the first Saturday in May, as part of the Brewster in Bloom festival, the Stony Brook Grist Mill will begin its seasonal routine of grinding corn. Erickson says, “We usually grind and sell about a ton of corn each year.” Even if you’re unable to see the herring, the fresh ground cornmeal will be available on Saturdays throughout the summer. 

Of course, the interconnectedness of nature from Cape Cod Bay up to the mill is accessible to everyone year round. John Hay would surely take pride in knowing that his vision persists, and visitors to Brewster are most welcome to the gifts of his legacy. 

For more information, visit the Mill online here or make sure to stop by in person at 380 Stony Brook Road, Brewster!

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