“When all my friends were out drinking in high school, I was hanging with 90-year-old farmers learning how to mill,” says Geechie Boy Mill owner Greg Johnsman. Little did he know, those years of tinkering would pay off.
The Truck Stops Here
Today Johnsman and his wife, Betsy, make some of the most raved about grits and cornmeal in South Carolina (just ask Peninsula Grill chef Graham Dailey), all on a 1945 grist mill at their farm on Edisto Island. “There were 600 of these wood grit separators, five total in the state, and I have three of them. I’m kind of a hoarder,” says Johnsman, whose love of grinding corn is almost as strong as his obsession with purchasing, restoring, and preserving vintage farm equipment. Case in point: for their honeymoon, he surprised Betsy with a trip to John Deere’s headquarters.
So overwhelming is the Upstater-turned-Lowcountry-boy’s love for retro stone mills, corn cleaners, and motors, he recently overhauled a 1946 Chevrolet truck that he intends to use as a mobile milling unit for one of his treasures. “We’ll put a 12-inch mill—rarest of the rare, from Tennessee—on the back of the truck,” he says. “Then pull up in front of, say, Husk restaurant, and mill on site.” While the truck only leaves the farm for the couple’s weekly trip to church right now, he says you can expect to see his grit-maker-on-wheels rolling to a restaurant or farmers market near you this summer.
But there are other projects, too. Inside his climate-controlled warehouse, Johnsman has recently fixed up a 1902 miller corn cleaner. “We’re going to clean about six tons of Hoppin’ John with it for a few chef buddies of mine,” he says nonchalantly, as if harvesting and cleaning peas on a turn-of-the-century machine were as normal as ordering a pizza for dinner. In addition, Johnsman’s fine-tuning his own 1934 flour mill. “We’ll start with an heirloom abruzzi rye,” he says. The ultimate goal is to produce a high-quality flour for EVO Bakery to use in their own signature loaf. And while some may wonder how the tedium of using ancient, fragile machinery to produce small batches of product could be worth it, Johnsman says the answer is simple: “The antique equipment is the most important piece of the equation because modern equipment turns 10 times faster, and the heat generated cooks out the flavor.” So by spinning his Geechie Boy Mill, Johnsman is essentially taking the eater back in time to the original taste. “Even though I can never generate enough to keep everyone happy, I can always make a better product,” he says. And with orders coming in from across the nation, it’s obvious there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this old-school operation. —Kinsey Gidick