Introduced to Brazil by its European colonizers, water powered stone mills became a common feature throughout the country’s Central-South region. According to the earliest available records, the fist mills were built in São Paulo between 1614 and 1616. The largest of these mills were used to grind wheat, while other, smaller ones (found throughout neighboring states after the 18th century) specialized in grinding corn for human consumption and to feed livestock. With the advent of electricity and the industrialization of food production, the mills became less useful. Most disappeared, while others—like one on a farm in Santana do Parnaíba in greater São Paulo—are today nothing but ruins. Although dozens of mills are still in operation on farms and ranches, most play either a marginal role or serve as tourist attractions.
“The stone mill today is practically a technological dinosaur,” says historian Franscisco Andrade of the University of Campinas (Unicamp). “They represent a link to a technological tradition in Europe that dates back two millennia,” he adds. Andrade found three working watermills in the municipalities of São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras and Ouro Branco, both in the state of Minas Gerais. In Boa Esperança he met Gilson José Guimarães, a craftsman who fashions millstones—the mill’s most important piece of machinery—from blocks of granite. Guimarães was also able to explain the importance of the stones’ surface patterning in the process of grinding corn.
Although Andrade found standing mills on old coffee plantations in the Paraíba Valley and Itu region of the state of São Paulo, most were abandoned. In the town of Silveiras he met Josias Mendes Florêncio, born in Minas Gerais in 1931 and one of a rare breed of mill operators, or millers. Former herdsman and basket-weaver,
Florêncio’s account of the old mill’s operations often coincided with that found in a treaty written between 1564 and 1575 by Spanish engineer Pedro Juan de Lastanosa. Built in 1916, the Silveiras mill remained non-operational for decades until, in the 1980s, Florêncio got it running to grind cornmeal for himself and his neighbors.
In the states of Goiás, Minas, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo and São Paulo, most of the watermills were of the horizontal-wheel variety and measured no more than four meters in height. River water strikes the blades of a horizontal wheel made of wood, rotating a vertical axle attached directly to one of the millstones. The millstone rotates atop another, stationary one, allowing the grain in between to be ground. In Southern Brazil, vertical water wheels (azenhas) were more commonly used for milling corn. In an article published in the journal Anais do Museu Paulista (Annals of the Paulista Museum), Andrade observed that Brazilian mills, although more numerous owing to the abundant rivers with waterfalls, were smaller in size and more primitive than those built in Portugal and Spain.
“Watermills link colonial Brazil to some of civilization’s most deeply-established traditions and, in view their importance, were regarded as investments, always looked after by the Crown and its colonial rulers,” explains Andrade’s academic advisor, architect and Unicamp professor Marcos Tognon. Regarding the millstones’ current state of neglect, “the millstones, usually of pink or grey granite, are found in conditions of general disregard, serving as props for vases, tabletops, and even benches for carefree seating under the canopies of luxuriant trees,” Tognon laments, reminding us that “those who sit or lean on these relics are not aware of their role in Brazil’s interior expansion during its colonial period.”Republish