If you are awake before the crack of noon on a Saturday and want to do something really cool, I have a suggestion. Venture out to The Readyville Mill and have breakfast. It is well worth getting up early and making the drive. Readyville (pronounced REED-ee-vul) is a small community about halfway between Murfreesboro and Woodbury. It’s located on the Old Woodbury Highway, which runs off of State Route 70. The Mill is directly behind Russell’s Market, just across the bridge (or just before the bridge if you are coming from Woodbury).
Although Readyville is small community, it plays a big role in the history of Middle Tennessee. Before Rutherford and Cannon County were carved out of the new state of Tennessee, Charles Ready (for whom Readyville is named) was in direct competition with William Lytle to donate the land on which Murfreesboro would eventually be built. Mr. Lytle came out the winner of this contest by being a little better at wining and dining local politicians than Mr. Ready. If Charles Ready had a few more barrels of beer, Murfreesboro might have been in Cannon County.
Charles Ready may not have been able to lure the county seat away from the location it sits on now, but he still left his mark. Most notably, by building the first brick house ever in this area. No small feat when you consider that roads at that time were almost nonexistent. The bricks were floated down Stones River via flat bottom boats from Nashville. He also built the only remaining grist mill left in Middle Tennessee. For those that don’t know, a grist mill is where farmers would take corn and wheat crops and have it ground into corn meal and flour. Mills in those days were powered by water. Readyville Mill is on the banks of Stones River and a large vertical wheel was turned by water current and that energy was used to turn the grinding stones that ground the corn and wheat into meal and flour.
The coolest aspect of this mill is, all that equipment is still there. Although they don’t use river power anymore, they still grind meal there today.
Readyville Mill is no more than a 20-minute drive from anywhere in Murfreesboro and 100-year step back in history. When you enter, you notice all kinds of décor from years gone by. Things like old ice cream coolers, antique steel blade fans, cast iron cooking utensils and old farming implements. The all-wood interior and ancient wood floors really give a feel of the mill’s history. Once seated, the aforementioned steel fan oscillated intermittently across my table to bestow its cool air on me and intensify the smell of good food that filled the place. Everywhere you looked, there were jars of homemade jams and jellies, bags of fresh ground whole wheat flour, corn meal, old-timey cookware and art produced by local artists. There was live folk and country music coming from the dining room down the hallway. The pickers all gathered in a semicircle in one of the dining rooms, and the music was played through speakers in all other dining areas. It’s a lot to take in, and the first time, it’s a bit of a sensory overload. But by my second sip of coffee, I had settled in and started listening to the random sounds of conversation going on around me. Not eavesdropping mind you, aware of the surroundings. The overall feeling of the room was as relaxed as a breakfast at your own kitchen table. It’s a very comfortable environment and a real testament to the character of the people who work there.
Okay, enough about the history; let’s talk about the food. To start with, Readyville Mill is not a restaurant, at least not in the sense that we are accustomed to. They only serve food on Saturday mornings, 8 a.m. until noon. Their menu is limited to items that they buy locally, make fresh that day and as often as possible, and it involves products made at the mill. The menu changes with the seasons to reflect what produce is readily available at that time of year. At the time of my visit (mid-July), the menu included tomato pie. Now, that may not sound a bit odd to some, but I tell ya, it was delicious. It had cheese, fresh tomatoes, a whole wheat crust and a secret sauce that the chef would not share with me. It came with fresh strawberries and a side of bacon. Pretty much any time of year, it’s a safe bet that you can find a stack of banana, blueberry or whole wheat pancakes made from wheat flour that was very possibly ground that morning and fussed over in such a way as to make your taste buds recall them for the rest of the day.
The food is served in a manner that is very pleasing to the eye and with obvious pride. The architect of these culinary delights is Chef Margot Riser, and in both manner and product, it is evident that she takes great care in the tasty offerings that reach the table. Margot ventured out of the kitchen and stopped by our table to ask if the meal was satisfactory. After indicating that my now rapidly filling stomach approved of the tomato pie, I asked Margot how she came to be the Readyville Mill chef. She said she has always enjoyed cooking and had long dreamed of being a chef. Since she can cook with the best of them, has the desire to do so and lives in the same community, she was the perfect fit. And fit she did, with a creative flair; Chef Margot and the kitchen staff bring a new feel to a mundane meal that we have every day.
The Readyville Mill is worth the trip just for the breakfast, but for me, the atmosphere, the decor and the all-around community feeling is as big an attraction as the food. Generally, the first person you will meet when you walk in is hostess Nora Robinson. If you don’t know Nora, you should, and it’s no more difficult to get to her than it is to smile and say hi. From the moment you meet Nora, you get the feeling she has never met a stranger. Her outgoing personality and her obvious love for the mill and the community she lives in is apparent in everything she does. Nora has a grand knowledge of the workings of the mill and its history. To all you history buffs, she is quite formidable in her Tennessee history also. If you engage her in a discussion on Tennessee history, you just might learn more than you teach. The entire staff is local to the mill, including four waitresses who are sisters: Leslie, Mary Michael, Laura and Abby Jept.
It stands to note here that the mill is staffed by those that live in the surrounding community. This is historically more important than a convenient drive to work. In years past, community was far more important than it is in present day. Not to say that is better or worse, just more important to those who lived in those days. If you consider that livelihood and oftentimes survival depended on crops harvested every year, a mill and a supportive community become of utmost importance. Mills would keep a surplus of product on account for all who brought their corn and wheat to be ground, and this would be a food staple that guaranteed survival during the winter. A family that lost a harvest or just fell on hard times would often be at the mercy of Mother Nature. These communities of yesteryear would help those in need, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because next year, it might be them who needed help. With the advances of modern society, community is not as vital as it used to be, but at the Readyville Mill, you can still get that neighborly feeling.
The owner of the mill, Tomm Brady, bought the mill and took several years to restore it. This was no small feat; the mill is huge and four stories tall. The mill was abandoned for many years, and it was not in good shape. But all the old machinery was still there and in some cases, still functional.
“I remember, after I bought the mill, I went up the store on New Woodbury Highway one day and there were some farmers sitting around talking about me. They didn’t know who I was at the time, and one of them said to the other one, ‘The guy that bought that mill has more money than sense.’ So I had to go up and introduce myself to them,” Tomm said with a laugh.
It’s obvious Tomm has a good head on his shoulders because he has brought back to life a very unique piece of Tennessee history. The mill hosts weddings, reunions, luncheons for social and business groups and even the occasional baptism in the river behind the mill. According to Tomm and Nora, they stay busy. The Saturday morning of my visit was one of the few days they didn’t have a wedding or other event planned. Since she had the free time, Nora gave a guided tour of the mill. Not only do you get a unique and tasty breakfast, but you can tour one of the few working grist mills left in Tennessee, or anywhere for that matter. As Nora explained, they use electric motors to grind the flour now. The dam that supplied the water to the mill was breached years ago, and only during heavy rains does the water fill the hand dug channel that used to house the wheel. Nonetheless, she explains how all the old machinery worked and can give insight to the lives of those who used the mill 200 years ago. As an example, a term that we still use today came from grist mills of this type. During busy seasons, lines would form to have their corn or wheat ground between two huge horizontal stone wheels that “turned” against each other. People in line had to wait for their “turn.”
Readyville Mill is a pleasant trip back to a time that most of us can’t remember. A trip back to an age before big manufacturing, cross country shipping and processed foods. It’s a testament to small-town America. It was a time of communities that worked, played and prayed together. It’s not my intention to say that those times where better or worse, just that they should never be forgotten. Go there and visit, and you will see that Tomm, Nora, Margaret, the sisters and the rest of the staff have not forgotten.
The Readyville Mill History
1812 Charles Ready builds a water-powered grist mill on the east fork of Stones River supplying Tennessee’s earliest settlers with flour, corn meal and livestock feed. The remnants of the dam from the first mill can be seen on the river bottom in back of the mill.
1842 In order to better control the water flow, Mr. Ready constructs a dam and a mill race upstream from the mill. At the time, a new mill was built over the raceway where the mill sits today.
1859 Charles Ready dies, and his daughter Jane and her husband, Peter Tally take over the mill operations.
1861 American Civil War breaks out. Readyville was held at different times by both Confederate and Union forces.
1863 When Abraham Lincoln gives the Gettysburg address, the mill is already 50 years old.
1864 Readyville Mill burns. Wartime arson or accident, the cause remains unknown.
1865-70 The Civil War is over, and Robert Carter rebuilds the mill complex that you can visit today.
1889 Carter sells the mill to W.B. Hayes and Arthur “Rat” McFerrin.
1896 Henry Ford builds his first gasoline-powered automobile. Readyville Mill is 77 years old.
1900 Rat McFerrin builds a water-powered generator to power an ice-making process. Now generating electricity, he is inspired to wire all the homes in the town of Readyville with electric lights, making Readyville the first in Middle Tennessee to have them.
1929 The Great Depression cripples the country. The mill is 117 years old.
1962 George and Leslie Justice were operating the mill in its 150th year.
1980 The mill closes and remains closed for the next 30 years.
2010 Readyville Mill is restored by Tomm Brady and reopened for business, once again producing stone-ground corn meal, grits and whole wheat flour.
2012 Readyville Mill is now 200 years old and still operating.
NAME: The Readyville Mill
LOCATION: 5418 Murfreesboro Road,
PHONE: (615) 563-MILL
HOURS: Saturday 8 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
PRICES: Whole wheat buttermilk
hotcakes or stone-ground corncakes,
bacon or sausage, grits and maple syrup,
banana syrup or blueberry sauce: $11.95