The Buckwheat Stops Here
For a few brief moments on a perfect October day in 2012, it was as if John G. Evans was once again a lad looking out the window of his grandfather’s Preston County grist mill.
Sitting at the desk of Hazelton Milling Company in Hazelton, John could see customers lined up to purchase buckwheat flour, hulls, and bran. The recent spurt of business reminds him of those halcyon October days of long ago, when his grandfather was the miller and his father the apprentice to a thriving business that has all but disappeared from West Virginia.
“There used to be one of these on every stream,” John says, naming Muddy Creek, Clifton, and Bruceton mills as examples of communities built around the local gristmill. “Back then, the farmer didn’t travel very far with his horse to go to the mill. The farmers used to bring their grain here in wagons. I’d see them lined up and down the road, waiting their turn. There would 10, 12, 15 of them waiting to get in.”
After more than seven decades of living and working around the family mill, John knows when the cacophony of slapping, whirling, grinding, and chugging indicates a healthy state of things just beyond the door of his office. The sounds of the machinery, belts, stones, blowers, and gears laboring against the buckwheat are as familiar to his ears as the voice of his wife, who according to John, makes his buckwheat cakes just the way he likes them: thin and brown.
Do not err by calling those thin, light, earthly flavored creations “pancakes.”
“Pancakes - that a bad word,” John says, his reprimand tempered with a smile.
While its name suggests that it is a grain akin to wheat or rye, the botanical fact of the matter is that buckwheat is a fruit whose family members include sorrels and rhubarb. Technically, buckwheat is therefore a cereal impostor. Encased in a hard hull, the buckwheat germ, or groat, is triangular shaped, like a beech nut, which is the source of buckwheat’s original name, “beech wheat.”
Although buckwheat is rich in amino acids and other essential nutrients, its popularity is much greater in China and Russia than in the United States. That is changing, however, thanks to the gluten-free nature of the product, which fits well into the diet of those with celiac disease or those who follow a variety of current gluten-free dietary regimens.
Buckwheat was first planted on Preston County’s hillsides and valleys in the summer of 1859, the year an early June frost wiped out the traditional grain crops. Preston County farmers responded by planting the hardy buckwheat, which can be planted as late as July for an October harvest.
John says buckwheat plantings are relatively rare in Preston County these days. In 2012 only 200 acres or so were grown by farmers in the mill’s neighborhood, which includes Western Maryland. Nevertheless, servings of buckwheat cakes are as plentiful as curvy roads in this region. On select Saturday mornings year-round, the thin, crisp staples are mated with butter, syrup, and sausage patties at fire halls, churches, and farm houses. Buckwheat breakfasts are a popular fund-raiser here, usually sponsored by civic groups such volunteer fire departments.
And since 1938, Kingwood has hosted the annual Preston County Buckwheat Festival that elevates the fruit to staff-of-life status. [See “Preston County Buckwheat Festival,” by Peggy Ross; Fall 1997.] The buckwheat that goes into the thousands of cakes that are served at the festival is ground at the Hazelton mill.
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