The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Jesse Overbay - The Miller

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1990

Issue: March, 1990

Jesse Overbay is 88 years old and lives in Glade Spring, Virginia. He retired around 1960 after working for 40 years at the DeBusk Mill (see BACKROADS, mile 69.6 in this issue).

The way Jesse Overbay became a miller was that his grandfather, Harold Overbay had a mill at Mill Creek, seven miles south of Chilhowie, Virginia. Jesse was born at Mill Creek and grew up there, helping his grandfather. Jesse's father's name was James Walter Overbay.

Jesse Overbay started to work at the DeBusk Mill on the Holston River around 1920. He lived in the big white house across the road from it and his four children were born there. Mr. Overbay is a wealth of information on old time ways of milling.

The DeBusk Mill was built by the DeBusk brothers around the 1880's. When Mr. Overbay worked there, it was owned by John G. DeBusk. It originally had a wooden dam which was replaced sometime between the turn of the century and the 1920's by a concrete dam. The DeBusk Mill ground flour, corn meal and feed meal. It had three turbine wheels in the bottom of the raceway. One turbine generated electricity; one generated the power for the feed mill and the other one generated power for the flour mill. People came from all over to DeBusk Mill. Once, Mr. Overbay remembered, they got a load of wheat from San Francisco to be ground.

This is what Mr. Overbay had to say about how you make flour from wheat:

There are eight different rules you have to follow from start to finish to grind flour. First you have to get the bran or cover off of the wheat grain. We used red winter wheat because it was a soft wheat and made the best flour, better than harder grained wheat. In the winter time, the wheat dried out and we had to soften it with water to get the bran off. There is a "beard" on the blossom end of a grain of wheat that has to come off. If that beard was allowed to remain on it, it left a brown dust and the flour wasn't white and pure looking. First the bran was separated from the heart, then it was sent up the grain elevators upstairs to be purified and went through the scouring machine. They had large fans to blow a tremendous amount of air through the wheat. It went into different spouts and sifters separated it into different grades. There are two or three grades of flour in wheat. There were three sifts for bran and five more to finish the flour. There are two layers of bran on a grain of wheat.

Corn was milled on French Burs (millstones). They were made in France. When you grind corn you have to take the cover off the kernels also before it is ground.

Jesse Overbay said, "You have to understand a grain of wheat. It's so small, but there is a lot to it."