As small, independent flour and feed mills grind to a halt across the nation, Elliston’s Big Spring Mill mixes old and new into flour power.
ELLISTON—The roads and rivers of Montgomery County were once lined with flour and feed mills. Their ghosts are left in the place-names that surround us: Bennett’s Mill, McDonald’s Mill, Mill Run, Chrisman’s Mill Road.
Once so important, mills lined rivers and stood at most crossroads. Towns sprang up around them within walking distance of kitchens and farms in a foot- and horse-powered time. But big producers that increasingly dominate American agriculture require enormous infrastructure. Small, independent farms, dairies, stores, and mills have been gobbled up or clobbered by the drive toward conglomerates and giant food companies. Today, Big Springs Mill in Elliston is a rarity, one of 5 small, independent mills left in Virginia, and one of the last hundred or so scattered across the nation.
Big Spring Road is a sudden jut off Rt. 11. You have to mean to go there. On a sunny afternoon in early autumn, the road cuts through the once-handsome brick and clapboard town until it crumbles to gravel and curves down into the yellow trees, along the river, and under the timbers of a Norfolk Southern railroad trestle. Come around the bend and Big Spring Mill and its silos stand in light and shadow looking like a ship under the karst lump of Pedlar Hills rising straight up in the field behind it.
The train still stops at the siding just above the mill’s gravel parking lot delivering loads of soft white winter wheat and sweet corn.
In a cloud of sunny dust, Bob Long, the fourth-generation mill co-owner, climbs down out of a feed truck to talk about the history of the mill and its future.
We pass through the mill’s office. The phone is ringing beside a large adding machine. A paper wall calendar, a Holstein cow clock, and the framed portraits of mill founders in horn-rimmed glasses and narrow-tie suits all gaze down quietly on these quietly busy people. Someone answers the old phone and says, “Big Spring Mill,” then, “Hey. How’re you?”
“My great-grandfather bought a share of this mill in 1935, my grandfather purchased the other half. There were a lot of other mills then. They’re all gone now,” Long said climbing the stairs past the “No Smoking! Dust is Like Explosives!” signs to tour the mill.
Being in an old mill is like being in a clever, clattering clock. Its workings pour grain down thickets of Rube Goldbergian pipes and tubes. A bare light-bulb connected by a string to something upstairs flashes to tell the miller downstairs all is well. Scoops on a big bicycle chain loop rise and disappear through the roof. You can watch the grain through a small, clean window slide through the pipe like a gullet. Bob Long, trained as an industrial engineer shouts, “It’s a little factory!”
Everything is remarkably clean. Everyone is crowded into the gaps between the chutes and beautiful caramel brown wood boxes and cases – more like Scandinavian furniture than industrial equipment. Workers are milling about weighing grain on balance scales, measuring moisture and the whole room is full of the “sh-sh-sh-ing” of pouring grain, and the thump of sifters, and the rumble of stones grinding.
The wheat moves steadily, ground finer, along the row of hoppers ornamented with beautiful brasses and filigreed hinges cannibalized from another, not-as-lucky mill.
Asked, ‘Why do you think Big Spring Mill is still here after all these years?’, Long runs a big, blunt hand through grey hair and makes the whooshing kind of laugh you make when something is too big to explain.
”Well, that’s a good question. Probably attribute that to my ancestors. Just willing to change with the times, I guess,” he says.
He talks about the phenomena of envisioning change in an industry. “Now, if you look at that truck over there with the auger? There was a time when all feed for farms was delivered in cotton bags.” Cattle feed, chicken feed, everything came in 50-pound cotton sacks. Frugal wives made pillowcases, dresses, and dishcloths from cotton flour sacks.
“My grandfather said that was always going to be the way. But my Dad and my uncle, got one of those trucks and started delivering the feed by the truckload to farms.”
They saw that, on other end of the supply chain, farms have their own little silos. Big Springs feed trucks could pull in and fill up the farmer’s silo. No cotton bags would mean a lot less labor – no one needed to lug the sacks. Long’s Dad saw change coming – one of thousands of changes big and small creeping through all of 20th century American agriculture – labor being moved off the farm by mechanization.
Oddly, ‘changing with the times,’ can also mean keeping things the same. The local food movement is embracing Big Spring Mill, charmed by its magnificently retro graphic rising sun emblem on its paper sacks of Self-Rising Flour. Like Virginia’s microbreweries, Big Spring Mill flour, its small batches, its locally sourced grains, and its good-looking labels, has become hip.
“We’ve had that rising sun picture, because it’s self-rising flour, see, as long as I can remember.”
Standing in a cool and gloomy warehouse quieter than the mill, Long puts a hand on a plump and pretty two-pound sack of burh-ground corn meal stacked like bricks up to his hip. The paper sacks are decorated with green and red emblems and a fat ear of corn, like ribbons at a county fair, each sack tied with tidy white twine.
“The other thing is offering a good product,” Long continues, “Not necessarily the cheapest one. But a good product.”
The mill is also fostering smart, innovative relationships, selling wheat and corn seed to local farmers, who grow, and harvest it. The mill then buys that grain and mills it for sale to specialists like 5-Mile Distillery in Franklin County who require grain difficult to get in Virginia, and they want it locally grown.
But it appears that you have to move with the times, even if you’re selling nostalgia.
“Corporations like Rural King follow a “high customer touch” “diversification of product” model,” Bob Long’s cousin-in-law and mill co-owner, Mark Ebel, said. “They’re doing what we’ve been doing for 100 years, just on a huge scale.”
With an MBA and a career in military high-tech, Ebel, at his desk ringed by an iPad, an iPhone, a hotspot, and a blinking power strip, said, “It all starts with a beep – that computer scanner at the checkout of a large grocery store.” It’s a computerized gatekeeper that only allows some in.
“Kroger will say, ‘I need you to have a bar code on your bag.’” Not every small business can do that.
Old businesses that support agriculture face their own, infrastructural challenges. Sketchy or non-existent internet connection to rural America, working with carbon-copy order forms and push-button phones hobbles a small business’ ability to participate in large markets and commerce that communicates with email, touch-tone, and electronic tracking.
And that’s how small, independent businesses die. They’re victims of a perfect storm, leaned on by pressures, “Lots of little ones,” Ebel says, and a failure to envision and enact change, until finally, there’s a tipping point, a brink.
“It might be as simple as your main customer goes out of business or off-spring are far away. Or a key owner passes away.”
And this winter, that’s what happened to Big Spring Mill.
Bob’s uncle, Mark’s father-in-law, Dave, the patriarch of Big Spring Mill, died suddenly – a tragedy for family, business, and community. “He died on Saturday. On Monday, the workers were standing in the parking lot asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘I’ve got house payments.’ And ‘I’ve got kids.’”
But we weren’t on the brink, says Mark. “We were at a crossroads. We said, ‘Let’s just get through today.’
Selling yourself as small is good for public relations, but it’s hard being boutique, and handcrafted. You have to look at the books every day, he said. “It’s been ‘duct-tape and chicken wire’ since then, but we’re moving forward.”
Standing at a metaphorical crossroads, Big Spring Mill may represent all of American agriculture as it transitions and sometimes struggles to retool. Once Big Spring Mill had the power to drive change, now that change threatens to grind the mill, its employees, the farms, bakers, restaurants, and home cooks it supports to dust.
Blended into this transition, is the aging of the American farmer and the desperate national push to train and encourage non-traditional populations – women, veterans, students, and retirees – to step into the muddy boots and take up the laptops and retool, reimagine at least parts of the new American agriculture. Big Spring Mill is the small reflecting the large, and how they imagine and reimagine themselves will affect us all.