Grist for the Mill: Local History

Springwater Mill Historic Photo

Springwater Mill Historic Photo: L to R: Eugene Stortz, Billy & Rob (Horse team), Charles Stortz, Theodore Stortz, Lars Iverson

BY BENJI NICHOLS

Rich agricultural history is abundant in our region – from artifacts of Native cultures to farmsteads settled by first generation immigrants to striking gristmill buildings dotting Driftless riverbanks.

As agriculture took hold in the Midwest, settlers found crops that thrived in our area, like wheat, corn, rye, barley, oats, and more. These essential grains provided food for both settlers and livestock, but not without the necessary steps of proper harvesting and processing, including milling the grain.

The act of taking grains from their plants, then cleaning, grinding, sorting, sifting, and packaging them, has become an integrated part of our culture and of everyday foods. So much so, that we rarely think of where these grain products come from, or the great efforts it takes to produce them. But not so many years ago, many area communities had a small gristmill, and every decent river in the Driftless Region had multiple mills on it to grind the grain of local farmers. They were often family operations, like the long-gone Springwater Mill near Decorah.

In the early days, these localized mills saved farmers time and money – they didn’t have to transport their harvest, with horses and wagons – any farther than necessary. The neighborhood mill could process grains, taking a small amount of grain as payment, which might get put into barrels and shipped out, or sold in sacks to local folks, or fed to the cattle.

Very few of these mills still exist today, and only a couple of them are still intact enough to actually operate their truly antique equipment, like Schech’s Mill near Caledonia, Minnesota.

Motor Mill near Elkader, Iowa

Motor Mill near Elkader, Iowa / Photo by Benji Nichols

Some mills grew bigger, or started bigger with grand ideas of creating outposts in rural areas, like the Motor Mill, near Elkader. At one time Northeast Iowa’s Turkey River had over 10 working mills that served local farmers and residents. Many towns of size generally had at least one larger mill that could act as a hub for the area’s farmers, and often became a social hub as well, as everyone depended upon these structures for flour and grain.

While the days of water powered turbines are perhaps almost gone (or are they?!), a renaissance in small and artisan milling may very well be under way in the Driftless.

Schech’s Mill operates part time, milling small batches of grain for customers like Rock Filter Distillery in Spring Grove, and for weekend tours. Fifth generation mill owner Ed Krugmire can be found caretaking any myriad of tasks on the family mill site – from mowing and exterior work on the property, to mending old drive belts for various parts of the mill. Three underwater turbines still provide all of the grinding power at Schech’s, with almost all of the antiquated mill equipment intact and able to produce, but all also requiring very custom upkeep. The site is truly a fascinating time capsule into a rural mill, with wooden chutes and leather belts running machinery. To hear the slow rumble of the giant French millstones turn as a water turbine is engaged is nothing short of beautiful industrial ghost noises.

But perhaps the most interesting part to the local mill history and culture is that it continues to come full circle (no pun intended) today. As farmers have looked to diversify crops, and grow more specialty small grains for distilling, brewing, and baking, smaller mills have once again found their places in society.

Great River Milling near Cochrane, Wisconsin has been milling organic and specialty grains since 1975, and has become well known for their products across the region and country. Specialties include a variety of small grain flours, whole grain bread flours, and ancient grains.

Lonesome Stone Mill, in Lone Rock, Wisconsin is a uniquely modernized facility, making use of a refurbished cleaning mill and working closely with local growers to produce small batch grains and flours for the region. Owners Gilbert Williams and Gary Zimmer continue to find more demand for their specialty pancake mixes across the Midwest, as well as many other specialty grains and flours for artisan bakers and outlets. As small ag producers and consumers continue to seek more localized products, small milling operations may see a resurgence in our Midwestern landscape. These community outlets not only provide valuable food products, but a place where farmers and community members can cross paths.

What better way to learn about this craft than from history itself?

Here is a partial list of Driftless area mills that you can visit. Please note that almost all of these are located in rural areas, with limited hours and seasons for tours. Fall is a spectacular time to take in the countryside and enjoy these destinations, but please check ahead, and plan your route on paper, as several of these beautiful locations are off the beaten path.

Last remaining stone from Springwater Mill

The last remaining stone from the mill was salvaged from the defunct Springwater Mill site in 2001 and placed at the Springwater Lutheran Church on Locust Road near Decorah / Photo by Benji Nichols

Springwater Mill
Formerly located in rural Decorah 

The Springwater Mill was located just northeast of Decorah on the Canoe Creek from approximately 1851 to the late 1930s. Several families owned the mill at one time or another, including members of the Beard family, as well as both of Benji’s Great, Great, Great Grandfathers! This type of mill was often used to grind livestock feed, but could also provide a variety of ground corn and wheat products for consumption. The last remaining stone from the mill was salvaged from the defunct mill site in 2001 and placed at the Springwater Lutheran Church on Locust Road near Decorah (see photo above).

Mill stone at Motor Mill near Elkader, Iowa

Mill stone at Motor Mill near Elkader, Iowa / Photo by Benji Nichols

Motor Mill, Elkader
23002 Grain Rd, Elkader, Iowa 52043 • motormill.org

The Motor Mill is an excellent example of true craftsmanship – the dream of multiple business partners who saw not just a mill, but an entire development of a town, called Motor, near Elkader, Iowa. The town never became a reality, due to the lack of rail construction that was thwarted not once, but twice by severe floods. But the gorgeous four-story limestone mill still stands on the banks of the Turkey River. Parts of the original equipment still exist, and the Clayton County Conservation Board continues to work to restore not only the Mill, but the surrounding property as well. Several events are held each year at the Mill, and tours are offered on the weekends except during winter months.

 

Schech's Mill

Schech’s Mill / Photo by Benji Nichols

Schech’s Mill – Ed Krugmire
12559 Mill Rd, Calendonia, Minnesota
507-896-3481 or 651-245-5566 • schechsmill.com

Schech’s Mill is possibly the best ‘living’ example, and one of the only remaining water-powered mills still operating in Minnesota. Construction started on the mill in 1876, but wasn’t finished until close to 1880, after the Schech family took over the site. The “Caledonia Roller Mills,” as it was previously named, operated for many decades, and passed through multiple family hands. In 1965 the family realized it had a unique structure and began offering tours – which continue to this day. Leather belts dance through wooden elevator shafts, and almost silent water turbines turn to power the 48-inch, 1,000-pound French quartz millstones. Schech’s is truly a unique view into the past, which Ed Krugmire continues to care-take as the last of the Schech lineage. Tours are available Friday-Sunday and by appointment.

Sifting machines at Schech’s Mill

Sifting machines at Schech’s Mill / Photo by Benji Nichols

 

Pickwick Mill
24813 County Rd 7, Winona, Minnesota
507-457-0499 • www.pickwickmill.org

The Pickwick Mill, just outside of Winona, Minnesota is another incredibly picturesque building and setting. On the banks of the Big Trout Creek, this mill was complete in 1858, first as a sawmill, and then a gristmill. It was the first commercial flour mill west of the Mississippi, and supplied over 100 barrels of flour a day to the Union Army during the Civil War. The limestone and timber frame mill features a 20-foot water wheel, and restored milling equipment. Tours are available generally May through October, Tuesday through Sunday, with the annual Pickwick Mill Day, second Saturday each September (September 14, 2019).

Lidtke Mill
14969 Mill Rd, Lime Springs, Iowa
563-566-2828 or 563-566-2310

The Lidtke Mill was completed in 1857, and was used in one form or another for almost a century. Sited on the Upper Iowa River, northwest of Cresco, Iowa, near the Minnesota border, the Mill is now part of a 10-acre park complex in Lime Springs. Much of the original equipment is left just as it was when operation ceased in 1960 at the mill. An interesting feature of this mill is that the dam site was also used to create electricity in the 1920s, and the “Dynamo Room” can still be viewed. The Lidtke family home is located on the site as well and is included as part of the tour with many original furnishings. The mill is open on weekends through Labor Day 1-4 pm.

Wapsipinicon Mill Museum
110 1st St. West, Independence, Iowa
319-334-4616

In Independence, Iowa – alongside the Wapsipinicon River, sits one of the largest Gristmills left in the state of Iowa. Home to the Buchanan County Historical Society, the 1867 structure is now a milling museum with unique displays about early agriculture in the region as well as pioneer artifacts, and more. The five-story building was a project of businessman Samuel Sherwood, who also patented a design for the turbines that would power the mill. It’s open through mid-September from 12-4 pm daily (closed Mondays).


Interested in trying products from modern day small stone ground mills?

You’ll find these unique products to be a bit different (and often better!) than commodity store-bought versions. Stone milling retains much of the germ and bran from grains, giving them more nutritional value, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals. Check out these regional sources for amazing, locally grown and milled products!

Lonesome Stone Mill
304 S. Oak St, Lone Rock, Wisconsin
608-583-2100 • www.lonesomestonemilling.com

In 2009 Gilbert Williams and Gary Zimmer purchased a cleaning mill in Lone Rock, Wisconsin to help sort local cover crops. It soon became known that the Clipper 29D seed cleaner was running again, and a variety of small grains began showing up. Enter another young, local farmer – Jeremy Lynch, who shared his home-milled mix of rye and wheat pancake mix, and it didn’t take long before things really ramped up! Lonesome Stone now produces several types of grain flours on their modern Meadows Mill 30-inch stone mill, as well as their custom pancake mixes, which can be found at their storefront and across Central Wisconsin and beyond.

Great River Organic Milling
Cochrane, Wisconsin
www.greatrivermilling.com

Great River Organic Milling has been providing stone milled products since 1975, all from the “Western Coast” of Wisconsin, near Cochrane. The company offers several organic flour blends and specialty products, including a line of ancient grains, and gluten free flours. Products can be found online as well as through retailers across the Upper Midwest, including many co-ops and natural food outlets, as well as larger grocers and warehouse clubs.


Benji Nichols has been captivated by stone mills and small grains since a sidetrack to California in his early 20s. While spending a year working for Grindstone Bakery, he learned much about ancient grains, small batch milling, and baking naturally leavened breads. 20 years later, the interest is as vivid as ever as more diverse small grains become common across the Midwestern regenerative landscape. A recent book, Grain by Grain by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle, has fully re-sparked his interest in what the future of small grains and localized mill processing could look like.

Grain by Grain, Bob Quinn & Liz Carlisle

CHECK IT OUT:

Grain by Grain, Bob Quinn & Liz Carlisle.

A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food.
islandpress.org/books/grain-grain

Sum of Your Business: Al Peake – Peake Orchards

apples at Peake Orchards

There are few things that feel more “fall” than heading to an apple orchard to get a bite of a fresh, ripe apple, right where its grown.

Sum of Your Business logo

It was a visit to an apple orchard that convinced Al Peake to start an orchard of his own, and it was 40 years ago that he planted his first set of apple trees on his farm in rural Waukon, Iowa. Since then, Peake Orchards has seen banner seasons and bummer seasons, but it’s the love of the orchard, working in the fields, and the connection to family that keeps Al excited and inspired to tend the sweet crop year after year.

These days, Peake Orchards has 13 different apple varieties planted, and – once harvested – folks can find them in Decorah at Oneota Community Food Co-op, Fareway, and the Decorah Farmers Market. Or throw on a cozy sweater for a fall outing – you can head out to Peake Orchards to grab some yourself! They open to the public weekends starting September 21, from 9 am to 5 pm on Saturdays and 12 to 5 pm on Sundays. Catch a hayride on Sundays, from 2 to 4 pm, and mark your calendars for their annual “Fall Festival Sundays” October 6 and October 13 – there’s lots of family fun on the docket.

Read on to learn more about Al’s four decades of apple picking in this issue’s Sum of Your Business Q&A.


Name: Al Peake, Peake Orchards
Age: 62
Years in Business: Planted first trees 1979
Orchard address: 323 Northline Dr. Waukon, Iowa
Visit Peake Orchards on Facebook

1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

I visited a pick your own orchard in the late 70s up in Minnesota and really thought having an orchard could be something I could really enjoy! So I started planting trees on our family farm. The first planting was 50 trees and then a couple years later 375 trees. That was the point where we were really committed to getting serious about growing apples. Since then we have expanded to well over 1,000 trees.

2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

The best thing about being my own boss is the flexibility to try growing methods and varieties that appeal to us and our mission. I also really enjoy working out in the orchard most of the time.

3. How about the worst?

The worst thing about being my own boss is that apple season is a short intense time of year. When early September comes it is, go like crazy, try to get things harvested, washed and sorted and try to keep up with sales. Before you know it the snow is falling and you wonder where the fall went.

The Peake family crew

The Peake family crew, from left: Molly (front), Jeremy, Jodi & Baby Byron, Jo Ann, Cathy, Lea (in front) and Al / All photos courtesy of Peake Orchards

4. Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

The biggest hurdle for me was losing my original apple partner (my wife Sandy) to a brain tumor in 2010. I still had other family to help but Sandy and I had started planning the orchard from the beginning and it was devastating for me to lose her. But, God is good and since then, I met and married my current wife, Cathy, who has been a wonderful partner in the orchard and a wonderful partner as my wife!

5. Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

I would say my biggest mentors have been other apple growers I have met. I have attended many a field day and have learned a ton of things from visiting other growers’ orchards. There have been many great speakers and specialists from universities throughout the country who have presented at these field days and I always leave with some new knowledge and things to try in our orchard. I am also grateful that my parents supported us and helped with the orchard from the very start.

6. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

The only thing I can say is that there is always so much more to learn than you think, when growing apples and marketing of the crop. I planted the first tree 40 years ago (I can’t even believe it’s been that long) and if I said I pretend to know it all, I would not be telling the truth. I think that the day you say you know it all and have done it all, you are setting yourself up for a serious fall. Continuing to learn has kept me young.

Locations where you can find Peake Orchards apples

You can find Peake Orchards apples at the Orchard near Waukon, or in Decorah at Oneota Co-op, Fareway, and the Decorah Farmers Market.

7. How do you manage your life/work balance?

It is very difficult to balance work in the orchard and the rest of my life and many times I have done it very poorly. I always say there is enough work in the orchard to keep me busy 24-7. I am still learning to try to prioritize what’s most important in my life and walk away from the orchard and say that is all I can do for now. With wanting to spend time with family and friends and working at Friest and Assoc. Realtors, as well as the orchard, the balance is difficult.

8. What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

I think the thing that keeps an old guy like me inspired is exciting new apple varieties like Honeycrisp (and some other new ones we are growing that nobody has heard about yet), strolling through the orchard and seeing a great crop hanging on the trees, and working together with family and friends (special thanks to Mark and Barbara for all their sorting help) to make the harvest happen. I also look forward to passing on the orchard to my son Jeremy and his wife, Jodi (they could run it on their own at this point, if I wasn’t around). I feel blessed to be able to spend many hours on beautiful fall days, picking a great crop of apples that God has provided!

There are lots of amazing apple orchards in the Driftless – check out some in our neck of the woods here!

Driftless Region Apple Orchards

VISIT AN ORCHARD THIS FALL!

In the mood to explore more of the region’s apple orchards? We put together a list of orchards in the tri-state area (there were a lot more than we realized, but so sorry if we left any out!). Head on out for some sweet, fall fun – but remember: Apple orchards are often open seasonally, or for limited hours. You-pick apple-picking time is mainly August/September through October or so, but there are also some orchards that are open for a longer season, or that have offerings beyond apples. So when planning your trip, please check websites and/or call beforehand to make sure of current hours.

Iowa

Apples on the Avenue
3035 Addison Blvd, Nashua, IA
641-210-5506 • www.applesontheavenue.com

Countryside Orchard
1803 Whitetail Dr, Lansing, IA
563-538-4546

Czipar’s Apple Orchard
8610 US-52, Dubuque, IA
563-582-7476 • cziparsorchards.com

East View Orchard
2355 Union Ave, Fredericksburg, IA
563-238-3871

Peake Orchards
323 N Line Dr, Waukon, IA
Peake Orchards on Facebook

Wisconsin

Cardinal Ridge Orchard
S10958 Hazelnut Road, Spring Green, WI
608-546-2225 • cardinalridgeorchard.weebly.com

Ecker’s Apple Farm
W27062 WI-54, Trempealeau, WI 54661
608-539-2652 • eckersapplefarm.com

Ferguson’s Orchards
N17543 Grover Ln, Galesville, WI
608-539-4239 • www.fergusonsorchard.com

James Flemming Jr Orchard
46054 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
608-735-4625 • www.flemingorchards.com

Kickapoo Orchard
46490 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
608-735-4637 • Kickapoo Orchard on Facebook

Maple Ridge Orchard
6675 Maple Ave, Cashton, WI
608-654-5151 • www.mapleridgeorchard.com

Munchkey Apples
175 Drammen Valley Rd, Mt Horeb, WI
608-523-1163 • munchkeyapples.com

Oakwood Fruit Farm
31128 Apple Ridge Rd, Richland Center, WI
608-585-2701 • www.oakwoodfruitfarm.com

Sacia Orchards Apple Market & Bakery
W19461 US-53 #54/93, Galesville, WI
608-582-2119 • www.saciaorchards.com

Shefelbine Orchards & Pumpkin
W4918 County Rd S, Holmen, WI
608-526-3495 • Shefelbine Orchard on Facebook

Shihata Orchard
61549 Limery Rd, Prairie du Chien, WI
608-326-2785 • www.shihataorchard.com

Sunrise Orchards, Inc.
48340 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
608-735-4645 • www.sunriseapples.com

Sutter’s Ridge Farm
2074 Sutter Dr, Mt Horeb, WI
608-832-6445 • www.suttersridge.com

Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard
50350 Turkey Ridge Rd, Gays Mills, WI
608-735-4660

West Ridge Orchard
52132 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
608-735-4299 • gaysmillsorchardridge.com

Minnesota

Blossom Hill Orchard & Farm
645 Highway 52 East, Preston, MN
507-765-4486 • www.blossomhillapples.com

Fruit Acres, Inc.
33309 County Hwy 1, La Crescent, MN
507-895-4750

Hoch Orchard & Garden
32553 Forster Rd, La Crescent, MN
507-643-6329 • www.hochorchard.com

Leidel’s Orchard
33114 County Highway 1, La Crescent, MN
507-895-8221

Northwoods Orchard
8018 75th Ave NW, Oronoco, MN
507-280-0591

Pepin Heights Orchard Inc.
70519 243rd Ave, Wabasha, MN
651-565-0267 • pepinheights.com

Pine Tree Apple Orchard
1201 St. Paul Street, Preston, MN
651-429-7202 • www.pinetreeappleorchard.com

Sekapp Orchard
3415 Collegeview Rd E, Rochester, MN
507-282-4544 • sekapporchard.com

Southwind Orchards
45440 Co Rd 12, Dakota, MN
507-643-6255 • southwindorchards.com

Stremcha Orchards
28095 Kerns Rd, Dakota, MN
507-643-6301

Tweite’s Family Farm
1821 Frontier Road SW, Byron, MN
507-365-8035 • tweitesfamilyfarm.com

Van Lin Orchards
4002 T-258, La Crescent, MN
507-895-4492 • Van Lin Orchards on Facebook

Wescott Orchard & Agri Products
28085 County Rd 25, Elgin, MN
507-876-2891 • Wescott Orchard on Facebook