Home » EC250 – Ellicott City, Maryland at 250 Years » I worked for chaff, and earning Wheat

I worked for chaff, and earning Wheat

Emily Dickinson knew the difference between wheat and chaff. One was a grain that could be milled into flour. And one was the leftover bits of wheat hull and stalk.

Wheat, freshly cut from the fields, needs to be winnowed and threshed to separate the grain from the fluffy bits of chaff.

Using the metaphor of wheat and chaff, Dickinson writes about discerning what is of value, and how value changes over time. The Bible, which Dickinson knew well, also uses this metaphor to distinguish between sinners and the saved: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12).
Bible aside, chaff was something that needed to be eliminated before the wheat became useful. The Ellicott brothers were pioneers, not just in creating a town out of a wilderness, but in the processing of flour.

The brothers’ first mills were 100 feet long, with chutes through which farmers pulled their horse-drawn wagons to deliver the grain, which was hoisted up to the top of the mills for cleaning and processing. A fellow Quaker invented machines that the Ellicotts used to mechanize flour processing, including an elevator that scooped the grain from bins on the lower levels of the mill and dumped it where it was needed, as well as a device called a hopper boy. Replacing a person, the piece of machinery spread the milled grain out to cool, then swept it down a chute.

With the technological advances, the Ellicotts could power all machines in their mills by the main water wheel on the Patapsco River mill race.

The five five-foot-wide millstones the Ellicott brothers set to grinding soon were churning out thousands of bags of flour. Their product was shipped around the world.

Perhaps Dickinson used their flour in her famous gingerbread.

I worked for chaff and earning Wheat
by Emily Dickinson

I worked for chaff and earning
Wheat Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had Fields to arbitrate
In Matters ratified?

I tasted Wheat—and hated Chaff
And thanked the ample friend—
Wisdom is more becoming viewed
At distance than at hand.

“I worked for chaff and earning Wheat” was written approximately 1871, and first published in Poems, by Emily Dickinson, 1896. This poem is in the public domain.

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