Past Grain

Discovering the the historic flour mills of Sonora and the Southwest.

March 7, 2015

Issue 11: March/April 2015Sabores de Sonora

At the end of the 19th century, there were close to 60 flour mills operating in the state of Sonora, Mexico. As far as I know, most of these were constructed in the late 1800s. Originally they were hydropowered, but as water sources became scarce and undependable due to the construction of dams and the overdraft of groundwater, all were converted to alternative forms of power.

The craft and technology utilized by these old mills has long been forgotten and mostly lost. In the mid-1960s, CONASUPO (La Compañía Nacional de Subsistencias Populares), Mexico’s now defunct federal food agency, instituted aggressive regulatory practices that, in a short period of time, contributed directly to the closing of the Sonoran mills. Exceptions to this were the mill in Ures, Sonora, which closed during the late 1990s and Tempe’s Hayden Flour Mills, which closed in 1998. Despite their closure, these abandoned flour mills remain vividly alive in the memories of many Sonorans. In her writings about White Sonora wheat, anthropologist Maribel Alvarez references Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Nuñez Noriega, who commented that the mills “are the equivalents for Sonorans of the pyramids in Central Mexico.”

Little is known about the history of each individual mill. There were no written records; any information that I have discovered has been the result of happenstance. Most of the people who had knowledge of those mills or worked there have long since passed on. Only once did I come across an older man in the town of Banamichi who had worked in the local mill as a young man; the only information I got from him was that the mill in Banamichi was the most complex of those located along the upper Rio Sonora valley and produced three grades of flour.

A reader once commented on my blog to share his memories of the mills: “My father was born in Oquitoa and he would always talk about the “molino” (mill). My grandfather, Antonio Olguin, was the one who delivered the water wheel to Oquitoa from Tucson on a horse-pulled wagon.”

Additional information about these old mills will most likely come in the same way, by chance. For the moment, apart from the history of each individual mill, our best source of knowledge comes from other small-scale modern millers. All over North America, small-scale stone mills and local grain economies are popping up as alternative sources of grain flour. This small group of millers and grain farmers—including Emma and Jeff Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mills—are slowly recovering pieces of the craft. On a visit to the Rio Sonora mills, Jeff Zimmerman artfully deciphered much of the remaining equipment and how it was used.

The photographs in this collection were mostly taken between 2008 and 2012. The first mill I discovered was in the town of Banamichi. I had passed the building many times before; when I finally did enter, it was a great surprise to discover that it had once been a mill. The mill in Huepac was the next I stumbled upon, but it wasn’t until my friend and agricultural ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan inspired me to search out more mills and expand the collection of photos that I found the others. Although we wanted to capture images of flour mills across the Rio Sonora river valley, we decided to concentrate our efforts in the area around Magdalena, further west to the mill at Oquitoa, and north to Hayden Flour Mills, which was once located on the banks of the Salt River.

The idea behind these photographs is to educate people that in the very recent past, the production and processing of regionally adapted heritage grains was an integral part of vibrant local economies; that businesses and individuals could go directly to the mills and purchase fresh flour for their use instead of months old or years old bagged flour, most likely from areas other than where they live. Perhaps, not far in the distant future, those practices may once again become commonplace. ✜

Bill Steen and his wife, Athena, are founders of The Canelo Project, a nonprofit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to “connecting people, culture, and nature.”

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