submitted by George Vardas on 21.05.2006
THE VILLAGE OF WATERMILLS
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
When you leave the town square of Milopotamos, a handwritten sign “to the mills” beckons on a track leading just off the main road. Before long you find yourself walking along a well-beaten path gradually descending into a world of long-abandoned stone buildings, in varying stages of decay and ruin, located in almost inaccessible ravines and covered in vegetation. You might even think that you can hear the voices of a distant past in the ghostly silence of the scene that unfolds before you: the watermills of Milopotamos.
Milopotamos is a town in the western part of Kythera which finds itself literally at a cultural and geographic crossroad in the island’s history. This village of watermills is dominated by a centuries old Venetian fortress, Byzantine churches decorated with iconic wall engravings, an old British-built school in Gothic style and traditional white and blue houses. Its natural landscape features picturesque waterfalls, stone walls and bridges, meandering pathways and tree-lined gorges. But it is the watermills, from which Milopotamos derives it name, which stand out in this verdant part of the island.
Watermills were the main tool for milling wheat and other grains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in many parts of pre-industrial Greece, harnessing the power of running water from the local streams. The first watermills in Kythera can be traced back to the sixteenth century. By 1819 there were 27 recorded watermills on the island and steadily grew to over eighty watermills with the increase in the local population and the greater demand for grain and flour. The early watermills were controlled by the Kytherian nobility in the southern part of the island. According to the historian George Leontsinis, the nobles had a two-thirds share in the ownership of each mill and the miller’s family owned the remaining share. The miller’s trade, as with many other trades on the island, was traditionally handed down from father to son although where was no direct line of succession then other members of family or friends would step in to learn the miller’s craft.
As you follow the path to the mills, the second watermill encountered is known as the Egglezianiko (or English) mill which belonged to the families of Fotinou-Stratigou and others and derived its name from its original English owner. It is reputed that the legendary Greek revolutionary hero, Theodoros Kolokotronis, often hid in the mill during his brief stay on the island and even kneaded and baked his own bread. For many years the mill, as with other watermills, lay idle. However, during World War II, a number of watermills on the island, including Milopotamos, resumed operation out of necessity as their owners, having fled from German-occupied Athens, were forced to grind flour in order to survive. From 1940 to 1944, it was run by Theodoros Poteris (o Spaniolos) whose mother was one of the original “Glezopoules”.
Theodoros Poteris had returned to Kythera in 1939. His youngest daughter, Maria Vardas (nee Poteris), remembers as a young girl walking along the winding road to the mill, taking food prepared by her mother. Each mill had its own loyal customers. The Egglezianiko mill drew valued customers with grain-laden donkeys from nearby towns, including Karvounades and Livadi. Maria remembers her late mother serving biscuits and food to the customers as they waited for their flour at the mill. The watermills acted to convert much of the local harvest of grain into meal for the bread comprising the islanders’ chief food. During those harsh wartime years, Maria maintains that the mill “saved our lives”.
Other watermills in the village were also known by the names of the families which either owned the mills or first worked them, or by local nicknames. These included the Zervomilos (the collection of flour after the grinding process occurred on the “wrong” side of the mill and hence the name); the Pastrikou mill (where the miller loved cleanliness or pastra); Famozainas (so called because the woman who worked the mill was once famous); Barbapetrou and reputedly the oldest watermill, and last in line, the Houhli mill.
The watermills in Kythera were of the traditional eastern or Greek type of mill with a relatively small waterwheel (fteroti) with radial paddles operating on a horizontal plane in the zourio on the lower level of the mill. Set into the sides of hills, the horizontal waterwheel mill took advantage of the rapid water flow to generate power. It was also known as a gristmill because of its characteristic horizontal waterwheel which could be raised or lowered as desired in order to alter the distance between the millstones and in that way adjust the grind and fineness of the meal. They were ideally suited to the mountainous and hilly terrain of Milopotamos where water channels known as mill leets (neravlakia) were constructed to run through the gorge and feed water to all the mills. A feature of the Milopotamos watermills was that they shared the same water channel and each mill used in succession the same source of water. The watermills typically employed one set of millstones and were regarded as monopthalmoi (or one-eyed mills).
The water passed into the mills from the channel from above and into the voutzi or chimney which acted as a kind of funnel. The water then passed through a spout (vrohoni) with the head of water striking the waterwheel causing the wheel to revolve in the opposite direction. The grinding mechanism consisted of the runner millstone (panarea) which was the upper, moving millstone and the lower stationary millstone known as the bedstone (katarea). The grain was lifted in large sacks and emptied into a bin with the grain falling through a hopper (kofinida) to the millstones with the grinding carried out by the turning motion of the upper runner millstone.
In 1942, at the tender age of 14 years and following the death of his father, Stelios Stais became the master miller (neromylonas) for the Kalohereti watermill which is found about half way down the Milopotamos gorge. His late grandfather, Nicholas Karedis, known as o Kaloheretis (he was also known as o Reres) had founded the Kalohereti mills. These two mills were unique in that one was situated above the other, by the side of a stream running through the gorge, and located near a wonderful one arch stone bridge.
Stelios recalls that by the time the war broke out there were only about twelve operational watermills in the village. Stelios was taught the techniques of milling by Georgios Stratigos (o Alexandris) and has fond memories of sleeping at the mill with his grandmother and being woken up by her when the millstones had finished grinding. As miller, Stelios was responsible for maintaining the mill and the millstones and to ensure that the stones did not wear out quickly. A dull pair of millstones would not properly grind.
The Kalohereti mill attracted customers from outlying villages including Dourianakia, Perligianika and Logothetianika who would bring their grain by donkey. Some delivered the grain bags to the Stais household in Milopotamos and others actually travelled down the steep path to the mill. One complication was the ongoing tussle between the mills and the local townsfolk who wanted the water for their gardens. A compromise saw Mondays as the day when the water could only be used by the gardeners.
Another little known obstacle to the smooth operation of the watermill was the propensity of frogs from the nearby creeks to become trapped in the vrohoni, requiring Stelios to pull them out by their legs in order to remove the blockage and allow the water to run. The spout was usually made of wood but in the Kalohereti mill a special bronze spout had been brought from Smyrna in Asia Minor and installed years earlier.
Stelios remembers one night he had gone up to the little mountainside chapel of Aghia Ekaterini which overlooks the mills to light a candle when he saw the silhouettes of two men above the church. It turned out that one of the men was a famous Greek guerilla (andarte), Captain Behon, who proceeded to requisition 20 kilos of flour from the Kalohereti mill as a kind of levy to help the resistance. The villagers from Milopotamos later implored the andartes to leave the Stais family alone because of the recent death of their father and their difficult circumstances. The flour was returned.
The miller was invariably paid in kind, retaining a toll or percentage of the ground flour for himself (known as exagium or xai). This was usually set at 10 percent. Millers were not always held in high regard amidst suspicions by some locals that the miller kept more of the product by way of a toll than he was entitled to. In some parts of Greece milling was synonymous with thievery.
The Kytherian writer Yiannis Kasimatis notes that the watermills also served an important social function. Customers traditionally arrived in the morning and left in the evening with their ground flour. In between they would wait at the mill or nearby. As a result the mills became a meeting place where the locals talked about almost everything. The local kotsobolio was often generated by locals and neighbouring villagers coming together at the watermills. A common saying was “I heard it at the mill”. Things that occurred in the nearby villages were also often judged at the mills.
The watermills of Milopotamos, sitting silently in the valley and ravines below the village that bears their name, and set against the wild beauty of a rugged terrain and flowing streams and waterfalls, have enriched the island’s cultural and natural landscape. They are from a still recent past when they constituted a vital part of Kythera’s rural economy and were the lifeblood for many during the difficult times. The less travelled path to these mills has made all the difference.
This article is an edited version of the article published in the Kytherian Association’s 2006 Debutante Ball program. The author is indebted to Mrs Maria Vardas (his mother) and to Mr Stelios Stais for providing him with first hand information on the operation of the watermills of Milopotamos. Thanks also go to George and Irene Cassim for their photos of the Kalohereti mill (as it was and as it is now) which have been posted on the landscape photography section of the website. The history and operation of the mills is well documented by Stelios Mouzakis in his informative article “Watermills of the Greek Islands of Kythera and Antikythera” International Molinology (No. 69 Dec. 2004) pp.1-10. The Greek (and more detailed) version of that paper was presented at the First International Conference of Kytherian Studies in September 2000 and published in volume 3 of that conference’s Journal of Proceedings at pp 301-342. The other leading work on the subject is the recent and very readable book (in Greek) by Yiannis Kasimatis, The Watermills of Kythera which documents every known watermill on the island.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
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