A Woodworker’s Dream | Visiting the Saint Gabriel Flour Mill
Contemplating current trends in gluten-free bread, flour-less cakes and slow food, it was thought provoking to step back to post-war France and learn about technology and engineering during the industrial revolution. This opportunity arose during a weekend visit to the town of Saint Gabriel de Brécy, Normandy.
The Saint Gabriel Flour Mill, now inscribed into the Industrial Patrimony of the Calvados region, is a magnificent example of a once-working flour mill that is being carefully restored by its owners. Closed permanently in 1975, the mill was purchased in 2012 by Isabelle Laïlle and Benoît Lechevallier (carpenter/cabinet maker). Isabelle and Benoît have rallied local inhabitants, many of whose family members once worked at the mill, to revive the memory of this working environment and an association has been created for this purpose. The diverse professions of this group have enabled the successful restoration to impeccable working condition of a hydraulic turbine engine fabricated by Ruston & Hornsby (UK), of which only two remain in the world, regulated by a Watt Ball Regulator.
It is interesting to read in Flour Milling, A Theoretical and Practical Handbook of Flour Manufacture by Peter Kozmin (1917) that although flour milling in France during the eighteenth century was superior to other countries, milling techniques and industrial life in France following the French revolution and continental wars were stagnant compared to America and England. When French industry revived, newer types of Anglo-American flour mills were adopted, many of which were built by English firms.
Kozmin goes on to say that the innovative Frenchman, however, had much to do about the industrial conception and design of their mills: “But the vivacious and creative mind of the French was not satisfied in the further development of mill building with imitating the English and Americans. French engineers have introduced many original inventions, chiefly in the sphere of transportation, cleaning of grain, and dressing of the product. In building their mills, they excelled in the beauty of architecture and proportionality of sizes. One of the greatest inventions of the French of that time is the cleaner and separator, the most indispensable machine of the grain cleaning department. Doubtless the development of milling techniques pushed the question of perfecting the water wheel, adapted then almost exclusively in mills, to the front and it was Fourneyrond who produced the first turbine. This was of no less importance to the development of milling in France than was Watt’s steam engine in England.”
After a private tour of all five floors of the Saint Gabriel Flour Mill it is evident that ingenuity, longevity, performance and design were all of part of the package in those days. From the crushing equipment built with hearty pitch pine and cast iron in the workshops of H. & G. Rose brothers of Poissy, to the wooden plansifters, to the slanted flour shafts running five flours downwards at odd angles and mill machinery, the quality of fabrication “build to last” has insured the future of this mill as an example of industrial patrimony.
For a woodworker, the restoration of machinery made of noble materials to a workable state must be a real pleasure, not to mention the rhythmic sound of the turbine engine which currently provides full hydroelectric power to his home and to the mill’s secondary activity, a charming bed and breakfast.
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