Straid Corn Mill: a family and community hub

My name is Bridget Molloy and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.

During my placement, I have been looking through the museum’s archives to build up a picture of what life was like for those who used to run and work in Straid Corn Mill, which was relocated to the museum in the 1980s.

Image: Straid Corn Mill at the Ulster Folk Museum.
Straid Corn Mill at the Ulster Folk Museum.

The Weir family

Straid Corn Mill was once a loud and hot place to work, busy with the comings and goings of local farmers and workers. From 1857 until 1915 it was run by Alexander Weir, who had taken it over from his father Robert. Later, it passed to Alexander’s sons, Alec in the first instance, and latterly Robert and John.

Jim Johnston, who started working in the mill as a young man in 1929, spoke highly of Robert and John when interviewed by the museum in 1986, explaining how the workers were encouraged to call them by their first names, “No Mister - nothing stuck up about them, John and Robbie. That’s what they called Robert. He was a bit deaf; you had to shout at him.” Whether this was due to old age or perhaps the cacophony of noise that assaulted those working inside the mill we do not know, but we do know that work and life in the mill could be a dangerous affair.

Working in the mill

Jim recalled the heat of the kiln room used to dry the corn that was ground there. The safety regulations we have nowadays did not exist then and accidents and illness were common. He only worked in the kiln for one season, as people he knew who had worked there before such as his grandfather, got quincy (a complication of tonsillitis) and he refused to work there after. This may have been down to the coke fumes coming off the fire. Work in the kiln was hard; the corn was set on top of a griddle by a fire which had to be turned by hand. Often you couldn’t see across the room for the steam.

Robert Sloan, who worked as a miller, recalled when interviewed by the museum in 1983 that the floor itself was hot and could burn your feet and the men had to wear old thick slippers to protect themselves. This was skilled work, the corn had to be dried correctly and a skilled worker knew when it was ready from the feel and weight as you shoveled.

Image: Robert Sloan (right), courtesy of Alan Calderwood.
Robert Sloan (right), courtesy of Alan Calderwood.

Jim recalled how dangerous the mill was, “You ran about ¾ of an inch of getting smashed all the time. You were not looking half the time; you could do it in the dark for that matter.” There were incidents of people losing fingers or breaking their hands in the scutch mill, part of the wider mill complex at Straid, where they processed the flax. Both men and women worked there but the men had the more dangerous job, holding the flax above the moving parts to feed it through. Jim even remembered a young worker being killed in the scutch mill while trying to clear waste seeds away.

Much of the repairs and building work on the farm was completed by the mill workers along with members of the Weir family. Jim remembered his grandfather Jimmy and his great-uncle Andrew building the stonework for the mill when it was rebuilt in the 1850s. Robert Sloan also recalled replacing the wooden arms of the water turbines which were tarred to keep them waterproof. Each action and task on the land was truly a community affair.

Mill workers

There were two small cottages attached to the mills that were rented by the mill workers and their families. Jim lived there for a time with his mother Martha and the other cottage was rented by the Connor family all the way up to the 1980s. Although the houses were very small, families of up to eleven were known to have lived there. The next time you visit the Folk Museum, take some time to stand outside the cottages and imagine a family of eleven going about their busy lives.

Image: Martha Johnston, courtesy of Millicent McClelland.
Martha Johnston, courtesy of Millicent McClelland.

Washing was usually done on a Monday and for a long time it was all done by hand with water heated on the open fire. A little crane inside the cottage was used to bring pots to the boil, as well as making bread, scones, soda bread and cakes. A sweet treat like a small plain cake or a scone was usually had on a Sunday and a Saturday night fry was a traditional meal. Spices and seasonings weren’t available then so food was often plain and you couldn’t buy meat cheaply in the supermarket like we can today.

The heart of the mill

The water wheel on the site was enough to power a carpenters shop, blacksmith’s smithy and two turbines for the mills. It was also used to power a potato washer, laths, circular saw and straw cutters kept on the farm – by today’s standards this would be very eco-friendly! It was the hub of the area, where trade and milling occurred.

Image: Water wheel at Straid Corn Mill.
Water wheel at Straid Corn Mill.

A social centre

The mill played an important role in the local community, providing jobs, trade opportunities and encouraged vital social connections. Farmers would often come to have their corn and flax ground and many also came to weigh their products for selling. People who traveled from afar were given a friendly welcome and brought up to the farm house for a cup of tea while their horses were given something to eat. Robert Sloan recalled farmers paying in cash to have their grains milled but often they would pay in mutter. Mutter was the term used for paying with a small portion of product in return for a service. The flax or corn would be milled and the miller working or sometimes one of the Weirs would come down and take 1/20th of the finished product to keep as payment. Odd jobs were always available for hard working young people. Robert Sloan remembered Alexander Weir paying him a penny a cart to transport peat for him. Alexander would sit on a summer chair by the gable wall of the house and mark a nick in a board for every cart he saw being brought in.

Decline of the mill

Over time larger mills began to take business from the Weir’s mill. The power from the river was not sufficient to mill the same quantities that bigger mills in nearby Ballymena were producing and it slowly fell out of use. People also found easier, more efficient ways to mash corn for feed and this was done in a smaller building near the mill. Eventually this too drove production away from the mill. Production increased during World War II to assist in the war effort but after that, production at the mill ceased entirely and the buildings fell out of use.

Changing times

The mill and land eventually passed to John Weir’s son Desmond, who sold it to Robert Crawford in the 1960s, and it became a dairy farm. The buildings were found not to be conductive to farm work, hence they were left derelict, which was a blessing in disguise. When the museum became interested in removing them they were much like they would have been when the grindstones stopped for the last time back in the 1940s.

Image: Numbered stones, to facilitate rebuilding at Cultra.
Numbered stones, to facilitate rebuilding at Cultra.

Robert Crawford’s son John continued his father’s business of milking cows and still lives there today with his family. He remembers seeing the mill deconstructed stone by stone to be rebuilt in Cultra. Many of the mill workers who lived by the mill continued to do so after the Crawford family moved in, such as Jim Johnston’s mother Martha who was known to John Crawford until her death.

The Straid Mill was not just a centre of agriculture and production; it was a family and community hub, which provided housing and livelihood for several generations. The Weir family were a well-respected integral part of the local community, providing jobs and houses for the local workers. The accompanying cottages saw many families pass through them, witnessing births, deaths and marriages and were noisy, busy, family hubs. I'm sure if the walls of Straid Corn Mill could talk they would bring forth hundreds of stories, both happy and sad, about the hardworking people that passed through its doors.