It’s easy to miss the Bale Grist Mill.
Its nondescript sign off Highway 29 blends in among the dozens of wineries and vineyards that fill the Napa Valley.
"This was here for a very long time, and it sort of became part of the wallpaper,” said Steve Harle. “It's something that people are aware of and used to driving straight past it, but are maybe not used to stopping in."
Harle is the head miller at the Bale Grist Mill located in the picturesque upper valley between Calistoga and St. Helena.
The mill was founded in the mid-1840s by Dr. Edward Bale, an English surgeon who came to Mexican California on a whaling ship. In 1849, Bale died, leaving his 27-year-old widow Maria Soberanes Bale to care for the mill, their six young children and a sizable debt.
Archival photos courtesy of the Napa Valley State Parks Association
Maria responded by building one of the largest waterwheels in North America. At 36 feet tall, it was the same height as a modern telephone pole. She needed the big wheel to power the new Evans custom mill she installed, an automated mill that is considered one of the first continuous production systems in the world.
“I never realized a wheel could be so big,” said Pat Cuthbertson, who was visiting from London where she’s toured several other mills. “The wheel is huge compared to what I’ve seen before.”
The souped-up mill’s increased productivity -- combined with the thousands of people flowing into California looking for gold in the late 1840s and early 1850s -- took Maria from indebtedness in 1848 to being the third richest person in the Napa Valley by 1853.
Maria later gave the mill to one of her daughters, who sold it in 1860. It operated under various owners until the early 1900s when it stopped production completely, falling into disrepair over the years.
"I first came here when I was about seven years old in the early '60s, and back in those days you couldn't get in,” said Mario Scalise, a third-generation miller and the Bale Grist Mill historian. “It was a wreck. It was a complete derelict mess.”
The California State Parks took over the mill in the 1970s and started a decades-long restoration process. In 2000, the mill reopened for active milling and for public tours.
Harle gives a tour standing in the shadow of Maria Soberanes Bale’s 36-foot waterwheel, a redwood ferris wheel slowly turning with clock-like gears. The wheel connects to the mill building itself, the sidecar to the massive wheel’s motorcycle.
Harle -- dressed like Indiana Jones in a white collared shirt, brown vest and fedora -- leads the group inside the mill for a demonstration. He walks them through the pre-milling process: Grain is dropped into a basin, carried by elevators to a cleaner and dropped into another basin where it awaits milling.
Harle gets down on his hands and knees to adjust the two French Buhr millstones between which the grain will actually be milled. Once the millstones are set, he turns a metal crank, opening up the waterwheel and starting the process.
The quiet room begins to hum with the turning of the millstones, and soon it’s overtaken by the “song of the damsel,” an incessant banging of a vertical rod called a damsel, which looks like a metal tuning fork, against the wooden basin.
Unlike Scalise, Harle doesn’t have a history in milling.
He moved to the Napa Valley a year ago with his family, after living in Australia for about 15 years where he worked in information technology. Harle learned about the mill from his in-laws, who live in the area, and brought his wife and two little kids for a visit.
“I just thought, ‘This is awesome,’” he said.
Then he saw an ad in the local paper for the head miller position at the Bale Grist Mill and found himself with a decision to make.
“Do I want to commute two hours a day down to the Bay Area and two hours back, or do I want to maybe take a cut in pay and see my kids a bit more and go and do something like this, which is pretty unique? So I chose the unique option,” Harle said.
Now he’s trying to get more people to visit his unique workplace. He said the mill gets a few thousand visitors per year, but could handle a lot more. He’s working on creating more awareness of the landmark through social media and regular community events at the mill.
“You might not think you are into this stuff, but it is really impressive that they managed to put something like this together with what they had at hand over 100, 150 years ago,” he said.
The couple of dozen visitors out on a recent spring day were certainly impressed.
“It's just really interesting to see how everything works the way they used to do it,” said Amber Bamberg, who was visiting from Santa Rosa with her husband. “I could smell the flour when he was milling it.”
Amber’s husband Donny Bamberg works with machines all day and spends a lot of time researching how they used to work. He said it was amazing to see the same type of machine he’s read about in books actually being used to produce flour.
“We've probably driven past here a hundred times and never really put thought into ‘Hey, what's that?’” said Donny.
“It's something you have to look for,” added Amber. “I'm going to go look for other things like this because this was so much fun.”