Rebirth of historic flour mill in Freeport
In the late afternoon of Dec. 27, 2011, Walter “Pinky” and Lou Thelen were on the countdown to supper in their Freeport home when they noticed some unusual fog or smoke in the sky. Walter uttered the fateful words, “I hope it isn’t the mill.” Then the phone rang, and their son, Gary, gave them the awful news: Swany White Flour Mill, the last remaining small flour mill in the state, was in flames.
They rushed to the scene to watch the three-story building and its contents completely destroyed except for a small hammermill and a stubborn brick smokestack. Firefighters from neighboring towns joined the Freeport Fire Department in the effort, but all they could do was haul in water and keep the fire from spreading.
“You always think maybe it can be saved,” Walter said. But firefighters were hampered by the fact that the third-story windows had been boarded up, preventing the hoses from reaching the source of the fire. “It was almost impossible to fight,” Walter said. Its cause was never determined. Many locals bemoaned the fact that they had never seen the inside of the mill until it was too late.
Along with equipment, products, and records went memorabilia from the mill’s past, including original flour bags depicting a little girl in a green dress feeding a pair of swans. Most local people assumed that a 113-year-old tradition had gone up in smoke permanently. But the Thelen family had too much invested in the mill, not only in monetary value but in sentiment and a sense of family history. In 2012, the mill rose again.
Freeport in 1876 was not yet incorporated when Anton Hoeschen and his family arrived from Germany. A wealthy, experienced politician, he soon became an important figure in the town. Freeport’s first sidewalks came in 1894 and the village hall a year later. Water works, electric lights, a railroad station, banks, creameries, blacksmith shops, a school, and the imposing Sacred Heart Catholic Church eventually helped to make a thriving prairie community. (The artist who decorated the church took time from his work to design the original Swany White flour sack.)
In 1897 the city council decided Freeport needed a mill, even though unlike some of its neighboring towns, it had no source of water power. Hoeschen took up the council’s offer of $500 and built a steam-powered flour mill which opened in 1898. He called it Freeport Roller Mills.
Hoeschen never operated the mill himself, hiring others to do so, including one L. Scheunert. On Sept. 1, 1903, Hoeschen sold it to Peter and Hubert Thelen, two farm boys from St. Martin who had never run a mill in their lives. They went on to own the Freeport State Bank as well. A newspaper article of 1913 presented a history of the operation and praised the Thelen brothers and Mr. Scheunert “who gave them first-hand instruction in the art and sense of milling, until he knew that their able arms were sufficiently strong to lead the ship safely through cliff and waves of competition, and then and only then did Mr. Scheunert bid them goodbye. Under such conditions being able to run and earn big wages of the miller and engineer, success was anchored.”
Although it sounds like the metaphors went through one of the milling machines, success was indeed anchored. Hubert, dressed traditionally in white, became the miller, while Peter, clad in black, was the boiler operator and engineer. In 1913 the Thelens razed Hoeschen’s original structure and put in its place the three-story building that stood until 2011. It was supported by enormous beams, making the interior reminiscent of both a cathedral and a ship, and it cost $15,000, an impressive sum. They hired a crew of 10 to 15 men, who worked continually until it was completed, and they equipped it with the best and most modern machinery, including a new steam engine, some of which was used right up until the end. It was converted to electric power in 1965.
The early success of the mill was largely due to the people of Freeport, who provided the wheat and bought the flour. The average Freeport family of the time used 1,000 pounds of flour just in the winter months, and the mill enabled them to buy it at a reasonable cost. In the mid 1910s, the Thelens instituted the “grain bank,” whereby famers could put wheat into the mill in exchange for flour. Every three bushels plus 15 pounds of Number One wheat earned the farmer 100 pounds of flour. A cord of wood would also do for barter, as the mill burned that much wood per day.
In the 1920s, as farmers relied more on mixed ground feed, the mill started providing it. Around this time, wheat farming declined in the area, and the mill began to depend on grain from other states, as it still does today. Paper bags replaced cotton bags, some in colorful prints, which replaced barrels.
The mill made use of all three of its floors. On the ground floor, five grinding machines crushed the wheat, and wooden spouts carried it to sifters on the third floor. Some of these spouts were original equipment which young Walter, who started as a sweeper and general clean-up boy at age 10 or so, had watched his Uncle Hubert hand carve. Up on the top floor, sifters, equipped with 27 different silk sieves, graded the wheat and sent it on its way. Most of it went back to the ground floor to go through a second grinding process, while some stopped at the second floor to be purified and shaken. Felt rollers in the ceiling caught and recycled most of the dust so it didn’t pollute the air. The grain then went through further rollers and sifters, some as much as eight times. Finally it was bagged up and sent to the loading dock.
Most of the wheat kernel became flour. The outside became bran, and the remainder turned into farina, wheat germ, or middlings, fit only for animal feed. As interest in health food grew, more customers wanted wheat germ, whole wheat flour, cracked wheat, unbleached white flour, bran, and organically grown flour, and the mill obliged them. Customers came to the door or waited for shipments to arrive in their homes on the East Coast or Midwest. Trucks replaced rail cars as the means of transport, especially after the railroad declined to stop just to drop off one car full of wheat.
The mill didn’t go unnoticed, locally or nationally. Sept. 16, 1953, was “Freeport Roller Mills Appreciation Day,” marking the brothers’ 50th year of operation. A parade, banquet and street dance marked the day. In 1982 the mill and the miller’s house where Hubert had lived and which still stands, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After Peter and Hubert died, Peter’s son Walter and cousin Jack Thelen carried on the tradition. Eventually ownership went to Walter alone. He changed the name to Swany White Flour Mills, Inc., the brand of flour it made. Today it’s in Gary’s hands, operating on a smaller scale but with the same attention to quality, in a steel-clad building on the site. The front office is decorated with antiques including a cook stove, radio, coffee grinder, assorted kitchen ware, and a big photograph of the fire or, as Walter calls it, “the red rooster.” A plaque reading, “Family forever for always no matter what,” includes a picture of the old mill.
The mill no longer makes white flour which is produced now in Harvey, N.D., but it grinds whole wheat and rye flours in a stone mill, and it still rides the tide of the organic craze.
“I’m of the opinion that we still use too many weed killers and fertilizers,” Walter said. They make bread, waffle and pancake mixes, and they package and sell other goods, such as oatmeal, cornmeal and flax seed.
Gary says, “My wife and I sat down and decided to rebuild. It wasn’t an easy decision. I’m too young to retire. I’m glad we did it.”
The people of Freeport agree.