June 23, 2018
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Skowhegan grist mill: ‘The best thing since sliced bread’

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

Their anticipation was palpable. Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz puttered around the old Somerset County Jail in downtown Skowhegan Tuesday afternoon just waiting. She cleaned up debris around the site; he painted a door casing. Any large truck captivated their attention, but they returned to their tasks when it rumbled away.

Two years ago Lambke and Scholz jumped into a seemingly unlikely venture: converting the old jailhouse into a gristmill. “It’s a grim building,” Scholz said, but last year they bought it anyway. Eight months ago, they ordered the gristmill — a contraption that can crush kernels and grains to the consistency of dust — from a company in Austria. On Tuesday, they were given a four-hour window for its arrival. Neither had ever seen one like it, other than in pictures.

At about 4 p.m., a tractor-trailer truck parked near the jail.

“Is that our truck?” said Lambke before it had even stopped.

“I think that’s our truck,” said Scholz.

They squinted into the trailer as the truck driver rolled open the door, hoping for a glimpse of their long-awaited mill, but it was anticlimactic. All they saw were two large plywood boxes. Forklifts owned by neighboring businesses extracted the boxes and maneuvered into the jail’s former cafeteria. The box with the 5,800-pound mill in it barely fit out the door and when the smaller of the two forklifts took hold, its rear wheels were inches off the floor.

Whether it was excitement, relief or the sudden absence of anticipation, Lambke and Scholz were all smiles. “It’s finally here,” she said to him as they crossed paths, triggering the exchange of knowing, glowing glances.

“It’s been very difficult in all kinds of ways to get this here,” said Scholz.

Though some of the challenge is now behind them, much remains. For starters, they have to convert the former jail, with its reinforced concrete walls, steel security doors and barred windows, into a commercial gristmill and the site of three or four retail spaces.

The mill and associated equipment will span four stories through what today is a grid of jail cells. All told, Lambke and Scholz estimate the project will cost $1 million. Through a mix of private investors and grants, they’ve already raised about half that sum. If the rest of the fundraising goes well, they hope to open the Somerset Grist Mill and start producing their trademark “Maine Grains” flour in the spring.

“This is a very slow, steady and gradual kind of project,” said Lambke.

Along with the construction and fundraising efforts, Lambke and Scholz are also tackling a more fundamental need which presents perhaps the greatest challenge of all: Maine-grown wheat. They figure they need about 600 acres of wheat fields to keep their mill turning year-round.

There are lots of farms in Maine growing wheat, said Scholz, who among other things is an accomplished baker of artisan breads. But most of that wheat is intended for animal feed and not of high enough quality for the varieties of fine flours planned for Somerset Grist Mill. Scholz and Lambke are already working with a half dozen local farms and transportation companies to build the infrastructure to produce the wheat.

That won’t be easy, according to Matt Williams, owner of Aurora Mills & Farm in the Aroostook County town of Linneus. In his seven years of milling and 13 years of growing organic grains, Williams said maintaining a supply of high-quality wheat has always been the greatest challenge.

“We basically always run out of product,” said Williams, who has more than 60,000 acres of grain fields supporting his operation. “If the mill in Skowhegan stimulates more growing and more production of wheat in Maine, I see that as a very good thing.”

In addition to the considerable challenge of transporting and storing wheat after it’s harvested and before it’s milled, Williams says wheat farmers need to rotate their wheat crop with other vegetables on a year-to-year basis to maintain the soil.

“In the end, the wheat has to work for the baker,” he said. “That’s our job as millers, to try to make the best possible product. Sometimes you have a good supply of wheat, and sometimes you have a poor supply.”

Lambke and Scholz said they’re working in various ways to ensure a steady stream of grains, including partnerships with organizations such as the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“We do have farmers in the region who have grown successful grains,” said Lambke. “We have about a half dozen trying to grow grains right now.”

Even though the grist mill might be 6 months or more from operation, it is already garnering considerable attention, said Skowhegan Town Manager John Doucette. The project already has been mentioned in the New York Times, and a separate venture by Lambke, an annual bread-kneading conference at the Skowhegan Fair Grounds, is gathering momentum. In addition, the Skowhegan Farmers Market operates out of the former jail’s parking lot and will eventually have year-round space inside.

“This has already benefited Skowhegan,” said Doucette. “When the jail closed, we thought it was a white elephant. Now it’s back on the tax rolls.”

Doucette said the town, working with the Main Street Skowhegan organization, is about to begin a process of “branding itself” for efforts ranging from marketing to tourists to designing a municipal logo. In addition to white-water rafting, Doucette said he expects agriculture — and now milling — to become a valued part of Skowhegan’s identity.

“The manufacturing aspect just isn’t here anymore,” he said.

Melissa Gaspar, who sits on the Skowhegan Heritage Committee, said the project will be a “wonderful and unique” addition to the area.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “This is the best thing for Skowhegan since sliced bread.”

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