Search Santee Cooper
Power Source
Summer 2016

................

South Carolina Notable State

................

All Stories From The CEO Business Briefly News Source Download PDF Past Issues
Jim Suber makes a slight adjustment to change water pressure when going from grinding grits to corn meal.
Jim Suber makes a slight adjustment to change water pressure when going from grinding grits to corn meal.

G.R.I.T.S: Ground Right In The South

It is said true Southerners know their grits, but how many actually know how their grits make it to the table or where they come from? South Carolinians can feel a little satisfaction in knowing that the grits they are enjoying are likely ground somewhere between the foothills of the Carolinas and one of our seaside towns.

Only a true Southern delicacy could make the masses happy both in the local drive-through and while sitting down to a luxurious dinner. That is just one of the reasons we love our grits.

No, not oatmeal, not porridge… grits.

While it is fair to give the nod to Native Americans for the original know-how of turning corn into such a delicious delicacy, let’s look at more modern times, and get up close and personal with two families in South Carolina. They have been honing their skills, turning their mills and using their stone grinders or grist mills to turn corn into grits for centuries.

Our journey begins in Greer with Subers Mill, nestled in the foothills of the Carolinas. The Suber family has been using a water-powered wheel to turn corn into grits and cornmeal since 1908. The operation is so simple and pristine it seems to have a calming effect on those who take a few extra moments to observe the process.

grits production grits production
Even though she is teased about her banking hours, Linda Suber (left) shows up everyday with a smile. John Suber (right) deconstructs beaver dams every morning to insure adequate water pressure for the wheel.

Four generations of Subers have owned and operated the mill, unique throughout the state in that it uses water for its power, and they continue to run it today. The Suber Mill uses a process where water turns a wheel, which operates a set of pulleys and gears that turns a stone. That stone grinds corn into either grits or meal. Although the corn used at Suber Mill comes from the bluegrass state of Kentucky, the process and people overseeing the grinding are all South Carolina grown.

John, Jim and Linda Suber are all residents of Greer, and each one has a responsibility at the mill. Jim’s great grandfather, James Asford Suber, started the process at the mill, and now Jim and Linda, his bride of 48 years, work together to keep bags of grits and meal ready for customers. Linda will even bag it for you while you wait, measuring your bag to the perfect ounce and then handing it to Jim to tie off before she delivers it to you with a smile.

grits production grits production
An intricate system of pullies and wheels help this water powered system grind a delicious product (left). One of the older grinding stones remains on the Subers' farm to commemorate and educate (right).

John, Jim’s cousin, has been up making rounds by the time Linda makes it to the mill. She often gets teased about her banker’s hours. John is up early because every day he walks over 200 yards up the hill to inspect the gates that allow water to travel to the wheel. Each and every evening, beavers dam up those gates so come morning, John has to clear away their hard work from the night before. “I usually end up wet every morning,” said John.

John and Jim do the heavy lifting and make sure the corn stays at a working level in the grain feeder. Jim also monitors the amount of water pressure turning the wheel.

“The wheel needs less water pressure when grinding corn into grits and more when making the finer grained corn meal,” said Jim, who can easily change the pressure with the adjustment of a lever located just beside the wheel.

Later in the day, the three will sit and chat about current news. They spring into action when gears on the wheel need to be adjusted or a customer stops in.

The Suber family story is not complete until we meet Mama Suber. Willette Suber, who is 93 years young and Jim’s mother, keeps a sharp eye on mill operations from her home, right across the street. She still cooks with products from the mill and feeds the family workers lunch every day. The three “kids” say there is not a day that goes by that she does not have freshly made corn bread on the table. “They still show up every day to eat,” said Willette Suber proudly.

Geechie Boy Market and Mill
The entire crew at Geechie Boy Market and Mill is proud to sell Certified South Carolina grown products to the entire USA.

Now let’s take a trip south to Johns, Wadmalaw and Edisto islands. Here we find Greg and Betsy Johnsman who, with a love for both farming and milling, have moved the operation of grinding grits into the future, while delicately preserving the tools and intricacies of the manufacturing process in a way that will keep it viable if either of their two young sons decide to take up the family business.

While the Johnsmans have only been grinding grits since 2007, something they did to supplement their farm income, their Geechie Boy Grits brand now finds a home in restaurants from Maine to California. Of course, they are also found in some of the finest restaurants in South Carolina.

Betsy Johnsman (left) pauses for brief moment before the phone rings and she sprints to the next job task. On this family farm Greg and Betsy Johnsman grow corn, tomatoes and even boys (right)!

On their farms, one of which is powered by Berkeley Electric Cooperative, Greg and Betsy use as many as nine mills to grind different types of corn into bags of grits. Greg is a self-proclaimed “picky miller” and takes great pride in the quality and flavor of his product. He believes not rushing the process and not producing too much heat during the milling is just part of what makes the grits high quality and full of flavor.

“I listen to the sounds and smells of the mill,” he said. “That will tell me if I need to add corn or make some other adjustment.” He says the old “keep your nose to the grindstone” saying comes from the old- fashioned milling process that had millers relying on their sense of smell to know if the grinding stone was getting too hot.

While the family farms do not produce all of the corn they use for grits, there are a couple of rare types of corn the Johnsmans grow and use for specialty grits. Jimmy Red and Sea Island Blue grits come from specific types of corn that Johnsman grows on his Lowcountry farms.

“Both the Jimmy Red and Sea Island Blue grits have a slightly nuttier taste than our white or yellow grits,” Greg explained.

grits production
grits production
grits production
Clockwise from left. One of the many working mills at Geechie Boy Mills. Katie Stachelek does the heavy lifting - from milling, to ready to ship. The Market and Mill offers many specialty sauces, dressings and jams.

Word of mouth with chefs far and wide is making the founders of Geechie Boy Grits put farming on the back burner while they turn their attention to milling. Over 160 restaurants currently serve up the Johnsman’s product, as close as historic Charleston and as far away as The French Laundry in California.

It is easy to see that South Carolina grits are more than just an average breakfast staple. While they are great with just butter, you can dress them to the nines with cheese, shrimp, peppers, onions, bacon, tomatoes or anything that pleases your palate. Many venues have even gone to offering grits stations when they hold special events, making it even easier to have your grits and garnish them just the way you like.

South Carolina is home to other mills that produce grits and cornmeal by traditional methods. For more information on other locations in South Carolina that make grits, visit http://www.sciway.net/shop/sc-grits.html.