BALE GRIST MILL STATE HISTORIC PARK — Will the Bale Grist Mill, one of the Napa Valley’s oldest landmarks, keep on turning?
When Dr. Edward Turner Bale completed building his mill in 1846, it became a center for social activity in upper valley. Settlers came to the mill to ground wheat and corn, two of the valley’s major crops in those days.
One hundred and sixty-five years later, the water-powered grist mill is still standing — and working — offering visitors an opportunity to experience a piece of early California history.
“The mill is the only grist mill that still operates in the state of California,” said state Park Ranger Sandy Jones.
But this important historical attraction is now in danger of shutting down, threatened by state budget cuts that could also close 77 other state parks, including potentially Bothe-Napa Valley State Park.
Rather than see the grist mill close, the Napa Valley State Park Association is petitioning the state Parks and Recreation Department to let volunteers run it.
“We are hoping to get permission from the department of Parks and Rec to keep and operate the mill,” said Jeanne Marioni, a local volunteer.
If run by a local nonprofit, the Bale Grist Mill could be open more days than just the weekend and for school tours on Tuesdays, Marioni said.
The Bale Grist Mill is an important symbol of how the Napa Valley once was, Marioni said.
“Rural Napa Valley, which had farmers and orchards, is fading. I feel the mill is a part of it. The mill is symbolic of where we came from and our connection with the land,” she said.
Marioni said the Napa Valley State Park Association is optimistic that the state will allow the group to expand its involvement at the Bale mill. Volunteers operate the machinery on weekends, producing flour while visitors watch.
“Because of the long-standing relations we've had with the department, we are comfortable with operating the mill,” Marioni said.
Currently, the mill is open for visitors only on weekends and for school tours on Tuesdays.
“It’s a great educational resource, especially for 4th graders who learn about the history of California. The mill offers an opportunity to see how life was in the 1800s,” said Wendy Cole, the nonprofit association’s president.
Marioni sees another educational opportunity: “The younger scholars can enjoy tours and older scholars in high school can receive community service hours and learn history first-hand.”
Running the mill on its current schedule would cost the association about $100,000 a year, Cole said. The revenue from $3 tickets is between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, according to Cole.
A similar total comes from the sale of merchandise and proceeds from the flour and meal, with the remainder coming from special events, donations and fundraisers.
A major fundraiser, the Bale Grist Mill Harvest Dinner, is Saturday, featuring a meal showcasing locally grown foods, bluegrass music, whiskey and a wine bar. Reservations are no longer being accepted.
“Not only is all the food locally grown and made, but even the beer is brewed with grain that comes from the mill,” Cole said.
Other fundraising events include Old Mill Days on Oct. 15-16 and Pioneer Christmas on Dec. 10. Those events allow visitors to feel as if they have traveled back in time to the 19th century. Local artists, dressed in period clothing, demonstrate traditional crafts such as lace making and cider pressing. Visitors can taste fresh corn bread made with corn flour from the mill.
At Christmas, they can decorate cookies and create decorations. Tickets for these fall and winter events are $5 each, with drinks and snacks costing extra.
“Those events are for the community, and it's important for us to keep them affordable so that people will come and learn about the history of Napa Valley,” Cole said.
In a separate move, the Napa County Parks and Open Space District is offering to take over operation of Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, with the Napa Valley State Parks Association potentially operating the visitor center.