Bale Grist Mill: Northern California’s Own Local and Organic Polenta in Napa Valley.
OFF MENU IS SPONSORED BY EMPEROR NORTON’S BOOZELAND THE TENDERLOIN’S NEWEST HISTORIC DIVE. HAPPY HOUR NOON – 7PM
The Bale Grist Mill might seem like something you’d pass up on, but if you’re a history buff, into food, into mechanics…this is for you. Summer is almost over and that means the days are getting shorter. Hopefully, you have some free time and it’s time to get out and explore the mill on the weekends.
The process of growing, drying, and grinding your own corn seems like a arduous task none of us are up to. But, the consumption and baking with ancient grains are currently trending. The Lee Brothers have their old timey boiled peanut catalog where you can order heirloom Southern seeds and products. And Anson Mills is shipping out its Anetbellum Coarse Grits to those of us not lucky enough to have access to Southern freshly milled products. What if us Northern Californians had a mill in our own backyard? One that was recently restored, currently active and grinding its own grains? Turns out, we do.
The Bale Grist Mill (and its nearly 40’ waterwheel) sits alongside highway 29 in St. Helena, just passed the Culinary Institute of American at Greystone. As you walk from the parking lot, you descend down into the woods, over a wooden bridge and over a babbling brook. Just when you think you’re lost, the mill peaks through grand oaks. Its coastal redwood exterior radiates mahogany during the golden hour. Just around the time that mills were grinding corn to feed the plantation slaves, the Grist mill was grinding flours to feed the population boom of St. Helena.
I was lucky in that tour guide Steve Harle decided to give an impromptu tour after the official last tour of the day. The long day was clearly visible upon Steve’s ginger-bearded face and his voice, and I felt grateful and guilty for his dedication for spreading the word on the mill. At the end of the tour I asked him if he ever used the grain from the mill to bake and he replied in his Aussie accent, “All the time.” And when I said he looked like he might be a baker, he responded, “I’m just a miller that happens to bake.” Obviously, he’s more than that. He’s a historian. He’s learned more about the history of Napa Valley than some of us who have lived in Northern California all our lives. He definitely retained a lot of information about the grist mill’s original owner, Edward Turner Bale.
Bale was a trickster. He lived and practiced as a doctor in England without the actual credentials (although he did go to medical school), he left England and joined a whaling ship on its way to Monterey, CA. Bale then jumps ship and somehow becomes homies with General Mariano Vallejo (yeah, the dude who the town is named after), who makes him his Surgeon-in-Chief. Before you know it, Bale and Vallejo were paling around and two-years later, Bale ends up marrying Vallejo’s niece, Maria Soberanes. After disappearing into the mountains for a year, supposedly seeking gold to pay off his debts, Edward Bale returns sick with fever and apparently died a few days after he showed up. He leaves behind his 26-year-old wife, Maria, a widow with six children. She ends up selling parcels of land to pay Bale’s debt, renovates the mill and adds some contemporary necessities. The Gold Rush booms and Maria finds herself out of debt and the third richest person in Napa Valley. Eventually, she passes the mill down with her daughter Lolita’s dowry. Lolita and her husband run it for a while. Lolita eventually gives the mill, and some land, to her little sister Carolina. Carolina ends up marrying a Swiss-speaking German by the name of Charles Krug. Ring a bell? Krug opens one the first wineries in the Napa Valley in 1861, which is still in St. Helena.
The Mill was in terrible condition until it was restored throughout the 1960s and 70s. But, in 2011 it faced closure along with many other parks due to budget cuts. But, the Napa Valley State Park Association stepped in as a non-profit and saved it. Today the mill produces cornmeal, spelt, buckwheat, rye, whole wheat bread flour and polenta And although there’s a label on the bag that says, “not for human consumption,” each person in the historic granary gift shop purchasing a bag (or several) said they intended on using it for personal consumption. I know I did.
(also, this is my first ever uploaded video in the history of ever. Yay me!)
Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park
3369 Saint Helena Hwy N
St. Helena, CA 94574