IMAGINE Tysons Corner as a rural crossroads settlement. Where Bloomingdales now stands there's a blacksmith shop, and Garfinckel's share of the corner is planted in wheat. Colvin Run Mill, five miles up a dusty, rutted Leesburg Pike, is where the "action" is, as farmers and backwoods wagoneers trade tales over a cup of tea (or a flask of whiskey) while they wait to have their wheat milled into flour.

It's the 18th century, and Colvin Run Mill is one of scores of mills built along Northern Virginia's creeks and rivers to take advantage of the wheat-boom economy that reaches from the rich fields of the Shenandoah Valley to hungry markets in Europe and the West Indies.

Now jump back to the 20th century: Most of the wheat fields have long since become shopping malls and suburban backyards, and retired grist mills have relaxed into piles of rubble. But the era lives on at Colvin Run Mill and four other restored grist mills that are working, open to the public and no more than 11/2 hours from the Beltway. There's Washington's Grist Mill near Mount Vernon; the Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood, Virginia; Union Mill in Westminster, Maryland; and Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park.

When you visit a mill, the millers will point out variations in design and technique. But on the social aspects of milling there's little variation from one mill to another.

First of all, remember that, like a ship, a mill is a "she," and it was "she" who powered the country from Colonial times through much of the 19th century. Besides grinding grain into flour, millpower cut lumber into boards and shingles, carded cotton, crushed ore, pounded tobacco into snuff and often filled the blacksmith's bellows. So important was the local mill to rural life that advertisements for sale or lease of farm property in the 18th and 19th centuries stressed, "convenient to church and mills."

Grist for gossip was usually as plentiful as grist for the millstones, and "refreshment" often flowed as freely as the millstream. According to local folklore, the grog or "tipplers" shop across the road from the Burwell-Morgan Mill (now fitted out as a blacksmith's shop) was once closed down by the ladies of the community as a corrupting influence on their husbands. George Washington said that establishment of a distillery near his mill at Mount Vernon would give "idlers and thieves pretext to congregate." "Tipplers" prevailed, however, and a distillery was built nearby.

During the Civil War, wheat fields were trampled and burned, and most Southern mills were destroyed by Union troops intent on cutting food supplies to the South. Surviving mills no longer milled flour for exotic foreign markets but for neighboring farmers, often as late as the 1930s and '40s: "It was children's work in those days to take corn to the mill," recalled Downing Banks, who grew up near the Burwell-Morgan Mill. "On milling day my Daddy used to load up the horse with a sack of corn and then put me up there with it." Banks died last year at 83.

Milling is a craft of heft and endurance, part of the brute force school of getting a job done. When you visit a mill, be prepared to be amazed by some remarkable 18th- century technology. Two-ton waterwheels, massive wooden gears and 6,000-pound sets of millstones make using electric power seem like sissy kid-stuff. These same gears, wheels and millstones also make one think uncomfortably of pinched fingers. A working mill is an awesome sight and guarantees a good scare or at least a respectable thrill. Most mill-watchers keep their hands safely in their pockets, while they let their imaginations run free with the turning, splashing wheel and the miller's tales of milling days past.


COLVIN RUN MILL -- This 1820 mill with its elegant little miller's house and '20s country store forms a small pocket of tranquility just off the Leesburg Pike. Ducks swim in the millpond, while birds busy themselves building nests in niches in the mill's brick walls.

Colvin Run's cavernous interior once accommodated three sets of millstones, filling the air with flour dust and a maelstrom of activity and noise up to 24 hours a day. Today it's the stillness within the mill's thick walls and the beauty of its massive handhewn beams that will hold your attention, although when the miller starts up the one remaining operable set of millstones, you get a hint of the din and commotion of the past.

Colvin Run docents and miller Jeff Rainey give visitors a tour that involves all the senses: You'll run your fingers through the freshly ground cornmeal, get a whiff of the "danger" smell of rubbing millstones and enjoy the overlaid sounds of rattling sifters, grinding grain and creaking gears -- all the sounds, smells and feels that tellthe miller if all is going well with his work.

The general store is replete with old-fashioned country things to buy; the farm shop has a display of early farm implements; and the miller's house an exhibit on milling history. On Saturdays a blacksmith demonstrates his craft "when the weather is good," and throughout the year Colvin Run sponsors special events and farmcraft demonstrations.

It's open daily, except Tuesdays, 11 to 5 from mid-March through December. Colvin Run is five miles north of Tysons Corner on the Leesburg Turnpike. Adults $2; children and seniors, $1. 759-2771.

WASHINGTON'S GRIST MILL -- Even in warm weather there's usually a wisp of smoke curling out of the chimney because inside the mill's thick stone walls it's the temperature of a grey, October morning, no matter what the season. A rocking chair and bag of knitting sit beside the corner fireplace to occupy guide Ruth Curtis' spare moments, though most of the time she's busy tending the mill and her guests. "Why heaven knows I'd protect this mill with my life!" she'll exclaim, grey curls bounding at the edges of her mobcap.

Washington's Grist Mill is the smallest of these five mills, and also the oldest. George Washington operated a mill on this site from 1790 until his death in 1801, and his undertaking was constantly plagued by unreliable weather, a capricious millstream and the "abominable drunkenness and quarrelsome frolics" of the otherwise competent miller, William Roberts. Ships docked alongside Washington's mill, then known as Dogue's Creek Mill, where they were loaded with barrels of flour stamped "GW."

Since this mill is small, visitors are in close quarters with the mill's wooden cogs and wheels and a tour is rather like wandering through the works of a giant clock. The tour doesn't include seeing the gears move or the millstones turn, but the mill's indoor wheel does turn, putting on a magnificent show of splashing water.

The mill's excellent exhibits and recorded talks give a fine explanation of mills and milling, as well as a history of milling in America.

Open 10 to 6 daily, Memorial Day until Labor Day. Washington's Grist Mill is three miles west of the Mount Vernon Estate on Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. Adults $1, children six to 12, 75 cents. 780-3383.

PEIRCE MILL -- Rock Creek in the early 19th century provided excellent sites for mills to serve family farms in what is now the District of Columbia and its Maryland suburbs. Six mills were built, but only one -- Peirce Mill -- is still with us today.

Unlike the other four mills on this tour, Peirce did not serve the export trade but milled for local farmers' home use. The miller received in payment a portion of the grain, or perhaps a turkey, ham or some other agreed-upon commodity.

Farmers gathered around the mill's iron stove where a fire still burns on chilly mornings, to drink tea, talk crops and weather, or play a game of checkers on the checkerboards carved in the mill's benches. One of these benches stands by the doorway today.

Peirce Mill has a good collection of early corn shellers (to remove the kernels from the cob) and sifters (to take out the sticks and bugs), both of which used to attract the chickens from the yard to peck at stray kernels and flour.

Running through the four stories of the mill are an impressive array of storage bins, noisy sifters and wooden shoots, conveyor belts with little tin buckets and wooden cogs and wheels, all connected by a network of leather belts. The whole remarkable enterprise springs into action with barely a touch of the miller's hand releasing the waterwheel.

Visitors to the mill are greeted at the door by millwright Ted Hazen or his assistant who are busy at work 8 a.m. to 4:30 Wednesday through Sunday. And on Saturdays and Sundays between 1 and 2, Hazen actually grinds grain and corn, for sale at the mill.

Peirce Mill is in Rock Creek Park near the intersection of Beach Drive and Park Road. It's open 8 to 4:30 Wednesday through Sunday. No admission charge; plenty of parking. 426- 6908.

BURWELL-MORGAN MIll -- The tannery, blacksmith's shop, grog shop and distillery have all closed down in Millwood, but its general store and most of its white clapboard houses all date from the days when Millwood was a thriving mill town. The village still has a slow, yesteryear pace.

A Saturday afternoon visit includes watching miller John Kiley milling the week's supply of cornmeal, which sells for 50 cents a pound. Other days Kiley gives a tour of the mill, pointing out the cupboard set in the mill's limestone walls where the townspeople used to store their valuables. Millers were generally considered among the most trustworthy of a community's residents. Kiley will also point out the mark millwright Sledgehammer Mongrul left as his signature in the dressing of one of the original, handhewn joists. When Kiley opens the sluice, the rusing water slapping against the buckets of the mill's massive indoor wheel echoes against the mill's limestone walls.

There are tree-shaded picnic tables on the mill's grounds next to the stream, where trout are known to bite -- on a good day.

The Burwell-Morgan Mill is in Millwood, Virginia, at the intersection of Routes 723 and 255, a mile north of U.S. 50. It's an hour's drive from the Beltway. Hours: 9:30 to 4:30 Wednesday through Monday, May through October. Adults $1; children 50 cents. 703/837-1799.

UNION MILLS GRIST MILL -- Like the Burwell-Morgan Mill, Union Mills Grist Mill was still in operation well into the 1940s, providing the Andrew and David Shriver families, who built it in 1797, a living for more than 140 years, and prosperity enough to add 19 rooms to their original four-room cottage, Union Mills Homestead. The homestead, which is open to the public, contains the furnishings and household items of several generations of the Shriver family.

Built at the same time as the Shriver home, the grist mill has been restored by Derek Ogdon, an Englishman living in Virginia who is this country's only full-time millwright. Its design is based on the innovations of Oliver Evans, the Delaware industrial genius who revolutionized mill technology at the end of the 18th century. George Washington was also a client of Evans; he brought him to his mill in 1790 to modernize its operation. At Union Mills Grist Mill, Ogdon has embellished the millstone casings and other mill fittings with 18th-century decorative detail, creating a beautiful as well as accurate restoration.

A specialty here is cornmeal roasted Pennsylvania Dutch- style on a woodstove. Miller Christofer Erickson mills corn for visitors, and even lets them help with the work as part of his 45-minute tour. Union Mills Grist Mill still has a clientele of local farmers who bring their corn in for milling.

Union Mills is on Route 97, seven miles north of Westminster, Maryland, about 15 minutes south of Gettysburg, and about 11/2 hours from the Beltway. Take 1-270 north to a right on Route 118 toward Damascus and then right on Route 27 to Westminster. Or go straight out Georgia Avenue, which becomes Route 97. This route is more scenic but takes longer. June through August, Union Mill is open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 12 to 5 on Sundays. In May, September and October, it's open weekends only. Tours of house and mill are $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for children. 301/848-2288.