By the middle of the nineteenth century, rice milling was well established in Charleston. Cannonborough Mills began operation in 1825 under the direction of Thomas Bennett. The mill included twenty-two pestles driven by steam and fourteen driven by the tides of the Ashley River.
Booming rice production created a problem for colonial-era planters: how to efficiently process the large quantities of rice they were producing. Although attempts at mechanization dated back to the 1690s, planters remained largely dependent on slave labor and West African technology for this physically exhausting task.
One of the chief difficulties facing would-be innovators was the fact that rice required delicate handling. On the one hand, the hull had to be removed in order for rice to be digestible; on the other hand, rice could not simply be pounded indiscriminately since whole rice commanded much higher prices than broken rice did. These demands were met by a three-step milling process done by hand until the end of the eighteenth century. This method used West African mortar-and-pestle technology and the particular expertise of female slaves. First, grains were separated from stalks in the threshing process. The last two steps occurred in tandem. The second step, winnowing, separated the empty husks from the grain when the rice was shaken in a flat basket. The final step, pounding, involved using a mortar and pestle to remove hulls from rice and polish it. Milling by hand required substantial skill to prevent the grain from breaking. The milling process was also extremely labor-intensive. As late as 1794 the rice planter Peter Manigault told his overseer that “[i]f the Rice made at Goose-Creek is not yet beat out, I wd. wish to have it sold in the rough, to save Labour to the Negroes.” Yet slaves were not spared labor after mechanization was introduced into the rice industry.
Early eighteenth-century patents for rice-milling machinery focused on powering the pestle, or multiple pestles. A 1744 design featured a treadmill operated by slaves; other designs incorporated horse power. By the time of the Revolutionary War, millers were beginning to fully exploit waterpower to drive the mills. Planters focused on tidal estuaries, using irrigation systems already in place in order to control water flow as necessary. Jonathan Lucas and Jonathan Lucas, Jr., established one of the first toll rice mills in South Carolina in 1801. Other planters followed suit in order to recoup their investments in machinery.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, rice milling was well established in Charleston. Cannonborough Mills began operation in 1825 under the direction of Thomas Bennett. The mill included twenty-two pestles driven by steam and fourteen driven by the tides of the Ashley River. Jonathan Lucas III built an even larger mill, the West Point Mills, in 1839. The mill featured forty pestles and employed eighty-nine slaves in 1860. These Charleston mills as well as several mills in Georgetown helped establish South Carolina as the premier state for rice milling prior to the Civil War.
As war approached, however, the industry went into decline. One of the Cannonsborough Mills and the West Point Mills both burned in 1860. Chisholm’s Rice Mills in Charleston also burned in 1859. Although the proprietors rebuilt a larger operation that would have employed 150 laborers, the rice industry in South Carolina was not well-positioned to recover after the combined effects of the Civil War and an international shift in the supply sources of rice.
Carney, Judith. “Rice Milling, Gender, and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina.” Past and Present 153 (November 1996): 108–34.
Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Lander, Ernest M., Jr. “Charleston: Manufacturing Center of the Old South.” Journal of Southern History 26 (August 1960): 330–51.